The case of the missing calf
by Brent Gill
October 26, 2005
• Forgot where you put your car keys?
• Be glad you're not a forgetful cow
Momma and Junior pose for the photographer (CVBT photo by Brent Gill)
Baby calves and their mothers have a very solid understanding between them. If Old Momma Cow takes her young offspring somewhere, and instructs the calf to lay down, she intends for that calf to stay there until she returns.
There are several instinctive reason for this, not the least of which is remembering where she put the calf. In my younger days, as I was growing up on a working cow-calf cattle ranch in the foothills of eastern Tulare County, many times I saw calves laying down and refusing to move or even to raise their head. It was apparent that Momma had told Junior, “Now you keep your head down, and you STAY THERE!”
But, apparently there are forgetful cows just as much as there are forgetful humans. Please note I did not put a gender on this statement. Yesterday evening pointed this out to me.
I had seen the calf Saturday morning for the first time, and when walking out to see whether I had a new bull or heifer, had experienced this refusal to get up. Part of it was the age of the calf, nearly a newborn, and part of it was that instinct to stay put, regardless. I had to walk up on the hill to find Momma and baby, but when I walked up on them, on a little flat spot, the calf just hunkered down tight to the ground and let me walk slowly up and actually put my hands on her back. She was a beautiful black and white cross from a Hereford cow and a Beefmaster bull, and her beautiful black coat was just glistening in the sun. I quickly looked her over to determine whether I had a bull or heifer, discovered that my herd had grown by one more heifer, and left her laying where Momma had put her.
Momma cow is very gentle and quiet, and was not distressed by my being there, so let me walk right up and check out her baby. Maybe that should have been a clue.
Tuesday evening, I was looking out onto the hill, and found Old Momma Cow walking and bawling, obviously looking for her calf. Now that in itself is not overly unusual, for I have seen an old cow go through quite a performance before walking straight over to her baby laying behind a rock, or tucked in some tall grass. She had known exactly where her baby was all the time, but because we were riding horses near her, and usually had a couple of cow dogs with us, she was most hesitant to show us exactly where the calf was hidden.
I watched this old cow walk, stop, look, bawl, and walk again. She would look one way, then the other, down the hill, up the hill, over the hill … but never seemed to know exactly where she was going. This began to worry me, for I also have both coyote and bobcats on my hills, and though it would be most unusual, if the calf were sick or weak, or had actually died, it would not be unusual. But, my mind told me, I had not seen any of Nature’s Garbagemen (buzzards) around during the day, and if the calf were dead, it would be most appropriate to have seen one or two around “cleaning up.” However, in observing the cow, I could tell that the calf had nursed within the past three to four hours, as her udder was not overly full, and it was also clean. So … the clues told me that the calf was most healthy, but just not where she was looking.
I kept an eye on the old cow for several minutes, and watched her drop over a hill, down next to a fence, and start up between the fence and the rocks. “Ahhh, I’ll bet that is where she tucked the calf. Right there in those rocks …..” and I grabbed my binoculars and scanned the area closely. There was no little black and white calf to be seen, and though Momma called, and walked, and called, nobody got bounding up and came to get her supper.
When she turned out of the fence and rocks area, and started back across the knoll, it was obvious that something was not quite right. So, I quickly changed into clothes and shoes in which I could walk through the grass, and started over that way.
She had walked along the fence, down toward the gate that allowed me into the field with her, and I began to think that I would probably find her baby hidden in the really tall grass down along the fence, or maybe up behind or inside, the old building right there. She and I both looked, and then she seemed to find her bearings, and walked right up to a little clearing in between a couple of live oak trees and a rock pile. She bawled, not very loud, right into the little clearing. I fully expected that this not-so-loud bawl would bring the baby skittering right up to her Momma. But … nothing moved. She bawled again, this time a bit louder. Still nothing.
Then, almost as if she shook her head and said, “Nope. Not there!” she proceeded around the old watering trough, and started down toward the ditch.
I quickly followed, thinking to myself, “I’ll bet that calf is on the other side of that rock pile, and she’ll go around under them and find the calf tucked up in the corner of the holding corral.”
But, Old Momma Cow had gone straight down to the ditch, over the pipe bridge in the irrigation ditch, and started around below the barn.
“Oh, man! I hope that calf is not in the ditch, sucked into the siphon pipe that crosses over the draw right here.”
That would explain why the buzzards had not been seen, as there was nothing for them to see or find. And, that might really explain why the cow was so confused. I immediately checked the mouth of both the pipe bridge, which is about 10 feet long, and the siphon across the draw, which is a good 50 feet long. But, the grates were up on both of them, and there were only leaves, one piece of aluminum roofing that had gotten blown into the ditch, and a few sticks. There was nothing there that was anything like a calf at all.
So, I hurried along after the cow, who had now gone around the barn, and was bawling out into the other pasture, where I knew her calf had not gone. I can see all that pasture from the house, and had already looked it over pretty carefully. The cow walked into the corral, and looked toward the first opening where there is a cement manger for feeding hay.
“Oh, now maybe she tucked that calf in behind the manger, and she is laying down tightly in there.”
Momma cow and I both looked. But no calf was to be found.
By now, I am beginning to wonder about this old girl. She is at least a five or six year old cow, and has had several calves, so this is not a new experience for her. Why in the world is she not able to find that calf?
So, we walked out of the corral, and now she headed for my driveway bridge, which crosses the same ditch, and crossing it, heads straight for a big Mulberry tree below my house.
“Of course, she hid the calf under the tree … I hope!”
As I walked after her, because of the curve of the hill, I could only see her back as she approached the tree. But I saw what I thought was a great sign that she had indeed found the baby, and that the baby was busily having dinner. Her tail began to switch to one side and the other, not quite like a dog might greet his master home, but just a little switching.
“Oh good, the calf is sucking, and Momma is switching her tail, much like that calf is doing, I’ll bet!”
But, as I topped the rise, and could see under the tree, Old Momma Cow was only greeting the Black White-faced cow that already has her own big calf, and not the baby. She looked under the tree. She looked up toward the house. She looked back toward me. She looked back under the tree. And, she proceeded to walk up toward the fence around the house. There was simply no calf to be found.
By now, I was beginning to wonder if I had been brought on a wild goose chase. The cow walked over toward my cattle guard which is the entry into my home from the pasture, and looked up my driveway in front of the house, and then bawled. Then she turned her head and looked down my driveway, and bawled.
“Old girl, I am getting very suspicious that you simply lost your calf, and cannot remember where you left her. All the clues tell me that the calf is still alive and well, and has nursed from you in the past few hours. So, the chances that there really is any problem are becoming less and less.”
Besides, it was nearly dark by now, and though I could still see the hill plainly, I was getting tired of this little search. My wife was home and had brought me a tostada from our favorite Mexican restaurant, and I was tired of walking.
“OK, old girl. It is up to you. Keep looking, and bawling. You are a silly old cow, and I’ll bet you have just misplaced your calf!”
So, shaking my head, I walked up on my porch, where I am now sitting and writing this story, and began explaining the events of the past few minutes to my wife. As I spoke, I did what my early days on the ranch had taught me. I kept scanning even in the growing dark.
Suddenly … I spotted a flash of white on the hillside. I dashed inside, grabbed the binoculars, and trained them on the spot.
There, laying on the very edge of a flat spot on the hillside, right where Momma had left her several hours ago, lay this little calf. But … with all the bawling, she now had raised her head, and was looking out over the countryside. She was not about to get up, because that was what her Momma had told her. But, she was peeking over the edge to see if she could see what Momma was making all that noise about!
I handed the binoculars to my wife, helped her find the spot, and then we both had a good chuckle, and went to dinner.
“That old girl is just going to have to keep looking. She’ll find her pretty soon. There are not that many places that calf could be, and she knows it.”
In fact, by then Old Momma Cow was clear back down below the barn, starting over toward the hillside and bawling. She would get back to the bottom of the hill and go up to check that out, and run onto the calf, I was quite sure.
I never heard any more bawling, so the lost was found, supper was had, and peace returned to my hilltop. But, it is quite obvious to me that I have a cow who is most capable of forgetting where she left her calf! If humans can forget where they left their car keys or their wallet, I suppose it is permissible for a cow to lose things too.