My son, Joseph, and I have a small cowherd – 30 mama cows in all. I stay involved for two reasons. First, it keeps me tied to the land and to my past. Secondly, it contributes to my mental health. Joseph partners with me because he thinks he’s making money. Of course, raising cattle is not without its challenges.
A few weeks back, I received a mid-afternoon call from my youngest son.
“We’ve got trouble,” is how he began the conversation. “The black heifer has calved early, and I think there is something wrong with the calf.”
I knew the farm from which he was calling, and I knew the heifer to which he was referring. She was not due for another month.
“Give me a few minutes, and I will be on my way,” I replied, as my mind raced from possibility to possibility.
When I arrived on the scene, I found the young mother standing over the calf right out in the middle of the field. She showed no signs of nurturing her newborn. As a matter of fact, she looked bewildered. The calf, a black heifer, was tiny. And she was lying as flat on the ground as she could possibly lie. I waited for a few minutes in hopes the mother would make an attempt to lick her off. It was not to be. Then, I noticed the young cow’s udder – no sign of milk.
The temperature that afternoon was mild, but the ground had been frozen for two nights in a row.
“What do you think?” I finally asked my partner, knowing what was coming.
“If we leave her here tonight, it’s a death sentence,” he said dryly.
As I loaded the newborn into the cab of my pickup truck, I noticed the sod around the birthing area was chewed up as if a garden tiller had been run over it. This little calf had gone through a long and difficult delivery. I figured she was exhausted. I figured correctly.
On the way to my office, I called the local co-op and ordered a bag of colostrum. The only thing I could tell the little gal had going for her was the fact she had not chilled. Actually, she had two things going for her. She had me. I was determined to give her a fighting chance. That night, too weak to hold her head up, she took 1 ounce of colostrum from a baby bottle.
Before I left her that evening, I worked to pull her head around and position her as a normal calf would lie. Her chances of surviving looked slim.
The next morning, with no small amount of effort on my part, she took 6 ounces of colostrum. I saw the first glimmer of hope that she might make it. In the next 24 hours, she took ¾ of the recommended colostrum.
By day two, granddaughter, Jane, and owner of the calf’s mother, got involved.
“What are her chances, Daddy Jack?” she asked, with deep concern in her 9-year-old voice.
“I would say about 50-50,” I answered. I was not so sure.
After consulting with a local baby calf-raising expert, I took a leap of faith and moved her up to a goat nipple on a regular calf bottle. The calf, newly named “Emrald” by Jane, took to it like a champ. I am not sure how she came up with that name or why she spelled it that way, but it matters not. I raised Emrald’s chances of survival to 60-40. A week went by. I decided to weigh her – 36 pounds.
With the passing of week two, she was taking a full bottle twice a day and running and bucking and kicking her way up and down the hallway of the feed barn.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that Joseph built a baby calf condominium within the confines of his barn office for her to get a good start in life. It was a cozy 3-feet-by-5-feet enclosure complete with an insulated roof and warmed with a glowing heat lamp. She has since moved on to wider spaces, and she moved into our hearts along the way.
Emrald has become a member of our family. She came into our world at a time when so many things in the greater world seemed up in the air. Somehow, working to see that she survived has helped the world make more sense to me.
I guess you might say she has helped me keep my feet on the ground.
Jack McCall is a motivational humorist, Southern storyteller and author. A native Middle Tennessean, he is recognized on the national stage as a certified speaking professional.