Thursday, October 26, 2006

One ball or two

Leaping Lamb Farm 8-06 (calves, flowers) 008
"Banding" male calves and lambs doesn't sound that bad in a sentence. It even elicits a picture of painting a wide swath of bright color on the animals for future identification. But, ask a couple of guys to help you "band the boys" and they start to look uncomfortable and pale. Add to the mix several female friends, with a basic knowledge of animal husbandry from years ago when their kids had goats and pigs for 4-H, and you have a farm recipe for confusion with the castration process. A big word for little balls on our two weeks old calf.

I wasn't exactly ready the morning we all came face to face with the ellastrator (the implement used to hold the band wide as you slip it over the balls). I had my three female hiking buddies and an extra husband headed out past the barn for a walk up the back '40' to the logging trails above. All in sneakers or hiking boots. Allen was the first to notice our male calf had become separated from his mother on the other side of the split rail fence. We had been warned early on not to get between a cow and her calf and had thus been unable, up until now, to get within 10 feet of this calf since he was born. Sort of a problem because he needed a shot and a band. Now, here he was, within easy reach...or so it seemed.

We figured, afterward, a two week old calf probably weights about 100 lbs. Even with five of us, a lariat that no one really knew how to throw, and barking, excited dogs stirring the mix, it was Greg who finally brought the calf down. He tackled it and hung on for dear life, upside down under its legs, before they both tumbled to the ground in the mud. Bull-dogging isn't as easy as it looks at the rodeos and I think Greg was lame for a week. The calf was pretty stunned too, but not so stunned it didn't take two guys to hold it down.

After running to the barn for my needles, my vaccine, and my ellastrator and bands, Greg and Allen pushed the calf over enough for me to look between its legs. The calf's balls were hairier and larger than my 8 lb. lambs and I wondered if the bands would even fit. I mentioned my general concern. The guys turned their heads away; the girls moved in for a discussion.

Now, banding young animals can be a bit tricky because you need to make sure the balls are in the sack or else you will end up with a bull or a ram anyway. I usually get confused at this part since once the animal suspects what you are doing it draws everything up tight. I stretched the band wide and dropped it down. Once you remove the ellastrator the band tightens and, voila, you release your victim. Except this time, Nancy stopped me. She knelt down and started feeling the sack. Then she looked at me. "I don't think you have anything in there," she said. I felt around. The guys looked uncomfortable and tired.

Getting a band off to try again is harder than placing it in the first place. You need to carefully cut through the thick rubber without nicking your patient. Greg's pocket knife was in his back pocket and unreachable as he was lying on the ground with the calf. Allen couldn't let go his grasp of the calves hind legs so I had the dubious pleasure of reaching into my neighbor's back pocket to find his, with his wife looking on. I started sawing carefully through the band, making everyone very nervous.

The second go-round with the ellastrator Nancy was on her knees beside me as we kneaded and dug around in this sorry calf's abdomen. In the end, we could only be sure we had secured one ball, not two. There was some uninformed discussion about the likelihood of the calf only having one ball and then the guys had had enough. Band the damn thing and let it up to join its mother. There had been enough "ball" talk to last until next spring's lambing season...and that I could do on my own.

The calf hopped up as if nothing had happened and soon joined his mother. We forgot about our walk. Once again an unplanned farm event had changed everyone's daily routine. It's not often you lie in the dirt with your neighbors, holding down livestock, feeling for balls. And, in the end, I love my neighbors for coming to our assistance, and I even love the miracle of birthing lambs and calves, but I sure wish sometimes they were all girls. There is no easy way around the balls.

(Photo of our boy calf before his life changed from bull to steer. He and his sister are called White Face, progeny from an Angus and a Hereford. For some reason, I am stuck on calling them Oreos.)

All rights reserved. Copyright Scottie Jones 2006

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