Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Stuck Calf

A maple tree in spring bud at the west corner of the holding pen.   
When Cowboy V delivered the new cattle in January, I was perplexed to see calves follow their mammas' swaying udders into the holding pen. In prior years, he brought out only stockers - weaned steers and heifers which double their size in the winter-spring grazing season before they move on to other ranches with more summer water. Why would he bring small calves to the Dipper Ranch where predators have sometimes taken down steers weighing over 500 pounds?

Cowboy V explained he was trying something different this year. Mother cows are vigilant and maybe they would intimidate the coyotes and mountain lions so that the whole herd would be protected. I had only seen a calf on the ranch one other time (When is a Heifer Not a Heifer?). That calf was born here by accident, but it survived and maybe these would too.

The 2015 herd consisted of cows with calves of all sizes, older barren cows, steers and heifers, but no bulls.
They were mostly an Angus mix with the cow-calf pairs sticking together in their own clique.   
When the cattle first arrive on the ranch, the herd spends a few days in the holding pen to acclimate and give the rancher a chance to look them over for health and constitution. The smallest calf in this year's bunch was all black. Its mama was black and on the small side herself, but she seemed very protective and gave me the evil eye on my daily walk past the holding pen to check the water tank. Unfortunately, her calf was a wanderer. On the first evening, the herd was settling into the holding pen as the fog rolled in with the dusk, but the little black calf was nosing around on a hill a short distance away. It must have slipped under the bottom strand of the holding pen's wire fence.

"Hey," I called after it, "didn't your mama warn you about mountain lions? You better get back in that pen with the rest of the herd. Once I saw two mountain lions on the other side of the water tank right over there." The calf ignored me. Would it survive the night?

Nearly dark, the smallest black calf returns to its mother and the rest of the herd
on their first night in the holding pen.   
Despite its tendency to wander away from its mama, the calf survived its first two weeks at the Dipper Ranch without incident. I saw the calf often because the nursing cows frequently returned to the holding pen to drink from the water trough at its eastern side, one of the few sources of water on the ranch in this dry year. Sometimes I would see the black calf in my yard at the west side of the holding pen and we would chat but if I got too close, it would shoot back under the fence and return to its drinking mama's side.

Day 2 - the black mama cow gives me a stare-down when I walk anywhere near her calf.   
In early February as I opened the garage to drive to work, I noticed a few dozen cattle clustered around the western corner of the holding pen. They weren't at the water trough or loitering in the shade of the nearby maple tree, and there was a lot of cow talk going down. What were they up to? As I approached the fence line, all the lowing mother cows backed off except for a black one. Between me and the mama cow standing her ground was her little black calf. Except this time the black calf was not wandering - it was pinched tight in a narrow space between two adjacent fence lines.

The small black calf wedged between two fences and unable to move. I couldn't tell how long it had been there. The holding pen is in the foreground. the old pigpen is in the background.
When the holding pen was built about 10 years ago, they didn't bother to take down an adjacent old fence that surrounded the abandoned pigpen. The holding pen fence has metal posts and four strands of barbwire with a fifth unbarbed strand on the bottom to allow wildlife (and small calves) to slip under it easily. This well-built fence is tightly strung with strict 90-degree corners. The old pigpen fence is made from salvaged utility poles and long redwood stringers. The cutup utility poles have hollowed out with age and that fence runs at a leaning angle away from the corner. As a result, the gap between the two fences is about 3 feet at one corner but narrows to just a few inches at the opposite corner. The odd arrangement has always bothered me - every spring I walk a brush cutter between the two fence lines to control the thistles there, but it's a sketchy task to operate the whirling blades where the fence lines come together.

The new fences on the ranch are wildlife friendly with the bottom wire strand unbarbed which allows the flexible deer to easily get under, but the upper barbed strands keep the cattle in the right pastures and off the road.   
The black calf must have walked into the gap between the old and new fences on the wide end and gotten wedged into the narrow part like a chute. The calf couldn't turn around in the tight space and it seemed too confused or frightened to back up. The metal fence posts had little smears of blood and I could see that the distraught calf was cutting itself on the barbwire.

Approaching slowly, I tried to coax the calf in a low calming voice to back up or scramble under the bottom unbarbed strand of the wire fence like I had seen it do so many times before. But pinned against the upper strand barbs, the miserable calf didn't want to move. The old wooden fence had an 18-inch gap under its bottom stringer, but the calf didn't seem to recognize it as an escape route. I reached through my side of the wooden fence for the calf's forehead and shoulders to pull it away from the barbwire and back or down towards the fence gaps. But the mama cow was having none of that. She thrust her head threateningly at me between the barbwire on her side.

What does a biologist do when faced with a cowgirl challenge? I called the Roper on my cell phone.  "Don't go in that pen," he warned. "That mama cow will go after you if you get too close to her calf. See if you can cut open the fence from the outside. And call me back."

I rummaged the garage for tools to cut either the wire or wooden fences. By the time I got back, all the cows had joined the worried mama cow at the fence edge and were watching my every move. When I reached over the calf with a fencing tool to cut the barbwire, the black cow lowered her head towards my hands. I was afraid that if I cut the tensioned barbwire, it might pop her in the eyes. And I was afraid she was going to bite me. She looked that mad.

I could cut the redwood stringers, but they were old-time 2 x 4's from back when boards were actually milled two inches thick. It would take me forever to cut the dense heartwood with a handsaw and I wasn't about to run a noisy chainsaw so close to the panicked calf. What would a real cowgirl do? I sat down in the pigpen to think things over.

Looking closer, I realized some of the nails attaching the redwood stringers to the wooden posts were sticking out. I returned to the garage and dragged out the biggest crow bar. In a few seconds, I had one end of the middle redwood stringer leaning on the ground with a big gap that the calf could step over.  But the calf kept pushing up against the other side of the fence towards its mom, unfortunately, the barbwire side. Finally, I climbed on top of the wooden fence and shoved the calf with my boots through the new gap. Then I had to open and close two sets of gates and chase the dazed calf into the holding pen without letting the concerned cows stampede out. As soon as the calf was reunited with its mom, she started licking its cuts and the rest of the herd went back to grazing.

Balancing on the wobbly wooden post, I pushed the calf over the loose stringer while trying to keep my hands and rump away from the agitated cow.   
When I called the Roper back, my maternal heart was swelling with pride. "I saved the calf!" I shouted into the cell phone. As a fifth generation rancher, the Roper was underwhelmed, but he did ask me to look for signs of predators around the holding pen. I found a few fresh canine tracks on the nearby dirt road. Possibly coyote. But no signs of running or a struggle where the calf had been stuck. Had the mama cows scared the coyote away or were the tracks unrelated and the calf just wandered into trouble by itself?

Canine tracks near the holding pen - probably coyote.  
I'm happy to report that this year all of the calves grew and survived the rest of the grazing season. Maybe Cowboy V's idea about mean mama cows is a winner.

Later in the summer, we pull downed the rest of the redwood stringers around the old pigpen with a crew of volunteers. That way, no other animal will get stuck and it is easier for me to control thistles. The old redwood boards are sturdy and 16-feet long, something we don't see anymore so we've saved them for some future project. The volunteers found an artifact while pulling the old fence down - it was a hand-carved bung - a wooden plug that sealed one of the five bathtubs that used to line the pigpen.

I took the photo at the top of this post in a late February rain storm. The brief shower took me by surprise while I was searching a hillside for an old waterhole. When I felt raindrops, I looked up and for a moment as the clouds bent the sunlight, the spring buds of the maple tree were glowing in the holding pen beneath me. If you look closely in the photo, you can see a stringer of the wooden fence is still leaning on the ground where I freed the calf a few weeks earlier.

A male bluebird on the holding pen fence in the same February rain storm.   
When I shared the maple tree photo that night, several friends commented about how beautiful it is. But their praise felt odd. That spot is so much more than just a pretty photo. It is where I saved the stuck calf. That maple tree is where Cat King Cole ran when I chased away the coyote that attacked him many years ago (The Trickster - a Halloween Coyote Attack). This is the spot where I learned about the ecology of weed piles - if you cover a pile of pulled thistles with a tarp, the mice move in to eat the thistle seeds and make nests of the thistle down. Then rattlesnakes move in to eat the mice so you have to be careful pulling back the tarp to add more thistles.

Somewhere in my head is an unspoken name for this corner of the holding pen that includes all these rich experiences. The longer I live at the Dipper Ranch, the more adventures pile up but it's impossible to say Stuck-Calf-Halloween-Coyote-Attack-Rattlers-Living-Under-Plastic-Tarp-Corner-of-the-Holding-Pen. When I'm talking to Cowboy V or the Roper, I just say "over there".  Being real cowboys, I can't imagine what long vernacular place names they have rolling around in their heads.

With so little rain this year, the bluebird and I enjoyed getting wet for once.    


  1. Very interesting article! I'm glad you were able to steer the calf to safety. It is a very mooving story.

  2. This is simply fascinating. Great photos, too.

  3. Beautiful and moving. And California! Can't ask for more than that. Thanks for this great post.


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