Monday, November 06, 2006

Cow Nests

Leaping Lamb Farm Summer 06 - cows and calves

We never did find our calves on our own. Then again, I never knew I was supposed to be looking for a cow nest in the woods. I thought the coyotes had hauled off both the baby and the mom the first time. What kind of a bad farmer was I to have allowed this to happen?! We had hiked out at 3 AM to the far field near the forest to find out what kind of trouble our cows were in. There had been bellowing going on for an hour. We figured it was something bad. What we saw in the light of our failing flashlight was a dark figure on the ground at the feet of one of our heifers. Did it move or was it just a cow pattie in the moonlight?

We weren't supposed to have calves for another three weeks. I had looked at my chart and figured the end of July. Hank, our borrowed bull, had been in with the cows from November to January. His owner corrected me. The calves were due in August. Yet here we were; it was the end of July and we had a black and white calf up off the ground and swaying on its feet. As we were a fair distance from the barn, it was the middle of the night, and I had my nightgown tucked into my jeans, we decided to wait for the light of day to herd the cows back to the barn field for better security and to control their movement around our 40 acre farm. We were still expecting another calf.

We woke our youngest daughter and visiting nephew to the news of the new calf, but when we went out to find it there was no sign of the mother and baby. I mean, absolutely nothing to prove there had been a new life dropped in the middle of the field other than a slight trace of blood-stained grass. Could coyotes take down a full-grown cow and calf in one go?

Instead of my daily exercise hike up the logging roads behind the farm, I enlisted the kids and Karen, the neighbor who had thought she was just in for a gravel road and a bit of a climb, to tramp through the wet woods and sticky, prickly undergrowth looking for our missing half ton brown and whites. It really was quite amazing that in three hours of searching we couldn't find anything other than hoof prints to nowhere. It was hot; there were flies buzzing around; I was desperate to know how I could have failed so badly at my cow husbandry.

For two more mornings, I scoured the back woods and every sheep hiding place I could think of. It was only on the third day I admitted to Hank's owners my horrible faux-pas. Marian laughed out loud. Didn't I know that cows hid their calves like deer and you could almost be on top of them and never know? She also mentioned, if a predator ever dragged off a calf, unlikely at best, the mother would have carried on bellowing and crashing around and there wouldn't have been any question where she was hiding. Relieved to know the calf was most likely safe somewhere right under our nose, we stopped looking.

The fifth day out, a couple loggers came on the property to scout some trees. I mentioned the "lost" cows in the woods. It took George and Chris maybe 5 minutes to find them! We hiked off a trail I had ignored for its steepness; bushwacked down into a ravine; and there in a nest of leaves under a fallen tree lay a beautiful, little black and white heifer curled in a ball. The mom stood over her, then tried to lead us away. She was nervous and started to snort.

Not having learned my lesson the first time about grabbing babies when you see them, I ran back to the house to get the kids for their first viewing, finally. Of course, on return, the cows had vanished. My nephew was beginning to think we were imagining things and, as he was leaving in two days, time was running out.

This story has a happy ending. The cow came out of hiding the day Woody was leaving for home, as if nothing had happened. She was hungry and we slammed the gates to the barn field shut so both she, her baby, and the still pregnant heifer could be contained under our watchful eyes. Any thoughts of catching the wee-one to administer a vaccine went immediately out the window. She was fast and she had no intention of coming near us. Then, again, the mom always stood between us and I remembered the warning the loggers had made, "Don't get between a cow and her calf if you don't want to get bowled over and stomped in the dirt." So noted.

I continued to watch our second heifer for signs she was ready to deliver. I could tell she was close. So close she knocked the gate off its hinges and disappeared into the undergrowth for five days. This time we didn't search. She was too mean and it was too hot. We found a few nests, some with matted grass, others with fallen leaves and moss. Never that far off the path. Never obvious. Her calf was quiet as a fawn. The large heifer reappeared with a tall bull calf about a week later. It was healthy but stupid. Apparently most male calves fall into this category. Something about taking at least six month to get a brain. They must just survive on their brawn until then.

All was good on the farm. And the summer continued, bees droning down near the slow creek, corn stalks growing by inches a day, azure blue skies with never a cloud, and the gentle grunting of the hiefers as their babies suckled milk and fell asleep in the sun.

(Luckily the cows decided to return to their pasture, which didn't mean we could catch any of them any easier, but at least we knew where they were!)

All rights reserved. Copyright Scottie Jones 2006

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