Not exactly a happy ending

Jan 6, 2013 By Randy Tucker

But the story of our Christmas calf could have been worse.

A professor in one of my English literature classes offered an explanation of the difference between a Shakespearean comedy and a Shakespearean tragedy.

"In a comedy, only half the characters die. In a tragedy all the characters die," he said.

It was a simple observation that served me well in his and in subsequent courses.

Raising livestock can produce both sentiments in the people willing to risk their income on such an unstable, unpredictable enterprise.

Last summer my son Brian decided to gamble with a dairy bull and three of his open cows. Brian's hope was to get a couple of Jersey heifers out of his Angus cows and a very belligerent Jersey bull.

Sure enough, about a month ago I discovered a healthy little heifer near the feedlot. The very next morning her sister was born from another cow. The two are now inseparable and, as is the way of young calves, they spend their time dive bombing the older cows in the herd or trying to wander off and make their mothers nervous.

Christmas was different at our house this year. An especially obnoxious strain of illness swept through the family. My dad and I were the only ones who didn't succumb to at least a touch of this illness, so our traditional Christmas Eve at my parents' was a short-term affair with many missing faces.

My daughter Staci and her husband Adam arrived from Pittsburgh just in time to get sick with everyone else. As a registered nurse, Staci keeps up with the latest vaccines. Her broad-band flu shot paid off, as she felt just a few of the symptoms that knocked everyone else down.

Throwing hay Wednesday night, I noticed our white-faced 3-year old shying off from the rest of the herd. That's often a sign that we could expect a calf in a few days.

On an 11-below-zero Thursday morning, I went out to feed again and saw her standing alone in the corral. I quickly went over to discover not one, but two very cold calves lying on the ground in front of her.

The twin bull calves were in a bad way. In spite of a covering shelter just a few feet away she had the calves in the open. By my estimate they entered the world at about 5 a.m. It was 6:30 when I discovered them.

I ran to the house and asked my wife Sue and Staci to get me some towels. I carried each calf into my heated shop. Staci came out quickly, and we dried them off.

One calf responded well, but the other did not. After a few strained breaths coming after rubbing the calf with a towel in front of a space heater he didn't move anymore.

We'd lost him.

The other calf showed hopeful signs.

A few years ago Brian milked a gallon of colostrum from one of our cows. We kept it frozen in a gallon jug in one of the freezers for just such an occasion. When the colostrum thawed and warmed to about 95 degrees, Staci poured it in one of our calf bottles and took it outside.

Staci is definitely not a farm girl by any stretch of the imagination. She is violently allergic to horses and only slightly less so to cattle, but the nurse in her took over as she managed the little calf's recovery.

I had to drive to Ethete to cover the opening-round games of the Fremont County Shootout, but upon my return the calf was bright-eyed and warm, and his coat was fuzzy. "Good vitals, and he's alert and responsive," Staci said as if she were working in the familiar surroundings of a surgical recovery room.

After a few hours Brian carried the calf to its nervous mom. We waited. The calf was still unstable on his feet, and we didn't see him nurse so at about 7 p.m. Brian gave him the rest of the colostrum.

Ranchers know all too well the insomnia that accompanies calving season. I checked the calf at 9 p.m. 10:30 p.m., 12:30 a.m., 3:45 a.m. and 6:15 a.m. At 6:15 he was nursing.

Later, Brian he told me it was nursing at 4 a.m. He had driven over from his house to check on the calf as well.

If life were a Disney film the story would end here, but the world isn't always kind.

On Sunday I went out to feed again at 5:30 p.m. and heard the calf bawling away. I jumped over the corral to the heated area we'd made for cow and calf, and discovered the cow had died just a few minutes before. She was still warm and pliable in spite of the 10-below weather.

I mixed a bottle of powdered milk replacer and waited for Brian to arrive. He fed the hungry little calf ,and we discussed our options.

It would be best if we could find someone who could raise the calf. As a Shoshoni coach, Brian knows the kids in the ag community very well. After a call to one of his athletes we had a name to contact. By 7 p.m. we met Jay and his family near Midvale.

His daughter had a docile cow that accepted any calf grafted to her. We knew the calf would be well cared for, and Brian gave her the calf free of charge because it was such a perfect fit for the little orphan.

In yet another example of how Wyoming is just one town with really long streets, Jay had gone to school in Lusk with Sue's brother and older sister. Jay's mom had been a card-playing partner with my mother-in-law.

We left the calf in good hands. Not exactly a Shakespearean epic, but a good ending to what could have been a complete bovine tragedy.

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