The other day I spent a lot of time looking for and not finding a calf.
The calf was born last Tuesday, a healthy, colorful heifer. I tagged and vaccinated her and she was up and nursing and doing perfectly fine. The last time I saw her was around noon on Wednesday, still doing perfectly fine.
On Thursday morning the heifer’s mom was allowing a different calf to nurse. That’s a bit unusual, but not completely unheard of. Nevertheless it prompted me to want to lay my eyes on the cow’s real baby.
I looked and looked and couldn’t find her. I hiked the tree line where she’d been born, and tramped across much of the surrounding pasture, searching. I racked up more than five miles of hiking, which was good, but didn’t find the calf, which was worrying.
Not being able to find a calf isn’t unusual. Calves -- young calves especially -- are really good at laying up and holding still. It’s a survival trait of herding prey animals. Every year I have a hard time finding one or two or several calves. And most of the time -- nearly always in fact -- they show up when they decide to show up, none the worse for wear.
Being unable to find the calf is in some ways a good sign, because a sick or injured calf is usually pretty easy to find. They’re not trying hide when they’re sick or injured, or at least they’re not so good at it.
So being unable to find a calf always causes a bit of worry, but not a lot. They almost always show up within 24 hours, and almost always in perfect shape.
One thing I did notice while hiking was the presence of several coyotes. There seemed to be three big ones running more or less together, making a continuous loop around the cow herd. Not a close loop, I never saw any of them nearer than about a mile, but it’s unusual to see three of them together during the day.
So my worry increased, and my fear was that the calf had been predated. As a working hypothesis it was worth thinking about, but it didn’t really pass the smell test. If she’d been predated she wouldn’t have disappeared entirely; I’d have found the carcass.
But that didn’t prevent me from worrying, and by the end of the day I’d pretty much convinced myself that the calf had been killed.
So it was nice to find her with her mom the next morning, trying out her legs in the dancing fashion of young calves, skipping around whole and healthy in the frosty air and bright March sunshine.
Worry is, as far as we can tell, an entirely human characteristic. It’s part of our sapience package, a feature rather than a bug. Worry can help us navigate life in the real world, help us plan, encourage us to formulate
But worry is all in the mind. It’s about what might or might not happen, not about what has happened or will happen. Worry has absolutely zero impact on reality. Worry does not cause bad things to happen or not happen.
A few days later we had a nice red white-face bull calf born. Good, solid little guy, up and nursing almost immediately. It was a nice day for it too, with warm sunshine and temps in the 60’s. Very little wind. One of those really nice March days, the promise of which make the nasty March
The calf’s mom, also a red white-face, did a very good job at having the calf, having it quickly, and making sure it was behaving correctly and doing all the right newborn calf stuff. Which is good.
But she was aggressively protective of the calf, and gave me good reason to believe that she would mash me if I touched her baby. Which is bad. Aggressively protective against predators is good, against the rancher is bad.
I decided to put off working the calf until the following morning. That way everyone involved would have a chance to settle down.
I did worry a bit though. In general, a cow will usually allow you to do what you must to her calf. She might snort and blow and shake her head, might even mock charge, but usually she will avoid actual physical contact. That being the general case, I often find myself in the position of holding and working on a calf with an agitated cow in close attendance, all the while not knowing whether the cow will physically intervene or not.
To minimize risk in these tense situations I’ve learned to work quickly and with confidence, to be deft and sure with my technique, and to avoid making sounds and motions that might be interpreted as predacious behavior.
It almost always works out well. When it doesn’t, it’s not the cow’s fault. It’s something I’ve done, some mistake I’ve made.
There’s always some level of worry though, some uncertainty about how things will shake out.
When I found the cow the next morning she was with the rest of the herd, clustered along a fence line and peering at the horizon. The horizon from which the feeding truck appears, every other day like clockwork. The calf wasn’t with the cow, so I went looking.
Ten minutes later I found the calf, laid up in some tall grass, snoozing in the early morning sunshine while his gut was busy digesting a belly full of rich milk.
It took me less than 30 seconds to tag, vaccinate, and band the calf, and he didn’t seem to mind at all.