The Long and Winding and Beautiful and Tragic Story of 3M ~ Part III

☆ May 29, 2018

Part I is here.

Part II is here.

The day after 6 calved, Star Baby calved. Star Baby is one of my Angus cows. She is Star’s daughter, who was my first Angus cow, given to me by Mike. (Star’s birth story is crazy, too, and can be read here.) Star loves attention and loves to be brushed, but Star Baby has never really been a people cow. She’s not fearful of people, not at all; she just has never wanted much to do with us as long as we bring her food. I get the feeling she thinks we are beneath her. If I try to pet her, she tosses her head like, “get your filthy hands off me,” and walks away.

When I saw Star Baby was calving, I crept out to the hill to watch. I had binoculars and I didn’t get too close; I was only there to make sure everything was OK. Star Baby saw me and glared at me, got up, walked a short ways away, and lay down again – this time behind a sagebrush with her face facing me and her backside arranged so I couldn’t see hooves or delivery or anything. So I got up, walked down the hill she was lying atop, circled around, and hiked up the other side so I could see what was going on. I wasn’t as sneaky as I’d hoped, but Star Baby tolerated my presence and her delivery went smoothly, even though she continued to glare at me and was obviously irritated that I was intruding. Once her calf shook its head and Star Baby stood up to lick it off, I went back to the house and left them together.

By late afternoon, Star Baby’s calf still hadn’t had her first meal. I watched from the house with binoculars, saw her calf nuzzle around Star Baby’s udder and try to suck, but she never actually got a teat in her mouth, even though Star Baby stood perfectly still for her calf. The calf could not figure out Star Baby’s udder. Star Baby’s udder is unique. She has a round, nearly spherical, bag and her teats don’t dangle down, they point forward. They are perfectly positioned to slide right into a calf’s mouth, as long as the calf is coming at the teat from the perfect position, head on. But if the calf tries to nurse from the side, it can be challenging, especially when the teats are engorged and rigid as they are right after birth, especially for a newborn who is unsteadily trying to figure out how it all works. Star Baby’s baby couldn’t figure it out. We had to intervene.

With many cows, I can go up to them in the pasture and help maneuver their babies onto teats for the first time if need be – the cows will stand still, more focused on their calf than on me. But Star Baby’s disdain for people thwarted such simplicity. When I approached Star Baby and her calf, she hustled away, mooing for her baby to follow her. Down the hill she went, and the more I followed, the farther she traveled. Since she wouldn’t stand for me, or even let me get close, I needed to get Star Baby and her calf into the little corral in front of the barn with 6 and 6’s calf and I needed Mike’s help to get them in.

Star Baby wanted no part of this plan. She trotted in sweeping figure eights, her udder swinging, her calf prancing after her. A gusty windstorm blew in and red dirt coated our skin and filled our ears and blinded us as we chased after Star Baby, but we couldn’t stop and wait out the storm, because who knew how long it would last and it was going to get dark and we had to just ‘git ‘er done’ and it was miserable. We finally got them in the little corral and as I was tying the panels shut, Star Baby, furious about being contained, reached through the slats in the panels and tried to bite me! I’ve never had a cow try to bite me before. I told her all we wanted to do was help her and her calf. I always tell the animals my intentions, the “why” behind what I’m doing with them, if they seem stressed.

We have a head catch set outside the barn, along the west wall in the alley between the barn and the chicken house. A head catch is a contraption of two metal panels that open and close with a big lever, and these panels gently close around a cow’s neck without actually touching the cow. A cow’s neck is so much narrower than her head and her shoulders that when the panels are in place, she can’t move forward or backwards. Since the panels aren’t squeezing her neck or even touching it, she can move her head up and down and eat while standing in the head catch. Head catches aren’t inherently traumatizing to a cow, as long as the person running the levers doesn’t let the panels slam against the cow or otherwise abuse her.

Once, I was helping another rancher work his cows, and if a cow balked for even a moment before entering the chute and head catch, he hit her with a hot shot (aka electric cattle prod, which gives a huge shock) to make her jump forward. I was like, ‘no wonder your cows don’t want to go into the chute – they associate it with pain because you shock them to get them in!’ It was awful to watch. If a cow can take a moment to sniff it out and isn’t traumatized by the people around her, she will have no problem standing in a head catch. It’s kind of like riding the subway at rush hour. You might be a little tentative about stepping into a packed train, and once you do, you can’t really move, but overall, it’s not a big deal, as long as no awful men molest you while you’re trapped.

I lured Star Baby into the head catch with some hay, and as she stood and ate, she began to relax, and her breathing got calm and deep. While she ate, I helped her calf stand in the right spot to get one of Star Baby’s torpedo teats in her mouth and nurse for the first time.

When Star Baby was getting close to calving and her udder was growing, it puzzled me. Her left front quarter was not filling like the rest. I couldn’t figure out if she was letting another calf suck that quarter (extremely unlikely with an older cow) or if it was going to fill up last (abnormal, as all quarters fill at the same rate) or what. Now that I had a chance to study her udder up close, I understood. Star Baby must have had undiagnosed mastitis in that quarter last year, and now that quarter was dead – not producing milk at all.

Last year, I was so focused on the book, I wasn’t out with the cows as much as usual. And Mike is not one to stare at udders the way I’m inclined to do as a milkmaid – plus, Angus cows generally aren’t at risk for mastitis under normal circumstances because they don’t produce surplus milk and their calf will keep their udder drained and healthy. But Star Baby’s udder this year was enormous for an Angus cow, and it must have been big enough last year that her calf never needed to drink from all four quarters to stay satisfied. I’m guessing her calf ignored one quarter consistently, and after a while it got mastitis, and we didn’t notice or treat it. Now, that quarter will never produce milk.

Luckily for Star Baby and all calves present and future, her remaining three quarters were producing a ridiculous amount of milk. So much milk, her calf was not going to be able to drink it all until she grew bigger and more voracious. Star Baby’s calf drank and drank and drank until she got full and still didn’t even drain one quarter. Star Baby was going to need help getting all that milk out every day or risk mastitis again.

I had put 6‘s calf with Roxy twice that day but I knew she could eat more. She was getting adequate milk from Roxy but not enough to properly stuff herself. And so when Star Baby’s calf had finished her first meal, I brought 6’s calf alongside Star Baby and 6’s calf went to town. She grabbed a teat with her tongue and sucked till she was in gluttonous milk ecstasy. When she was full enough to burst, she waddled back to 6, who licked her and loved her though she could not feed her.

Even after both calves had their fill, Star Baby’s udder was still full of milk – colostrum, actually. It was getting late and it was still windy and I knew Star Baby’s calf would nurse a few more times during the night, but I didn’t want to neglect Star Baby’s udder, especially considering her history, so I sat beside the head catch and milked her. Star Baby was the most perfectly polite cow I’d ever milked, more so than Daisy, even more so than Roxy. She was calm and patient. Or perhaps she was just pleased that I was kneeling in the dirt at her feet.

We’re not even halfway through this saga!
Part IV is here.


13 Responses to “The Long and Winding and Beautiful and Tragic Story of 3M ~ Part III”

    May 29th, 2018 @ 7:49 am


  2. Sheri Nugent
    May 29th, 2018 @ 7:57 am

    So exciting! And you sort of won Star Baby over by being so helpful!

  3. Alyxx
    May 29th, 2018 @ 8:23 am

    This story has me entranced. These cows are amazing, and lucky to have you and Mike.

  4. Marg
    May 29th, 2018 @ 8:50 am

    This reminds me of elementary school when the teacher would read a chapter of a book once or twice a week. I’m sure that spurred my love of books. We are enjoying the journey of your story Shreve, as always.

  5. Joyce Edder
    May 29th, 2018 @ 9:22 am

    I am loving the cows!! Never knew they were so interesting and complex. This is quite educational as well as entertaining.

  6. Nova Lockhart
    May 29th, 2018 @ 10:04 am

    Can hardly wait for the next installment!!

    May 29th, 2018 @ 10:17 am

    I am loving this story!
    Next book “Farm tales”

  8. Heidi
    May 29th, 2018 @ 10:23 am

    Star Baby got ‘tude!

  9. Theresa Szpila
    May 29th, 2018 @ 11:51 am

    Oh, I am in cow heaven! Can’t wait for the next installment….

  10. JuJudy
    May 29th, 2018 @ 5:28 pm

    This could have been a mini-novel! Just loving hearing all this, but terrified that there may be an unhappy ending.

  11. Deborah
    May 29th, 2018 @ 5:30 pm

    This thread and multiple posts remind me of how the details matter. So happy you’re paying attention and keeping calves alive. I’m amazed by what you do, aside from the Farmily. See you in August.

  12. Pamela Ryan
    May 30th, 2018 @ 5:56 pm

    the “tragic” part in your title worries me…..

  13. Ginny F.
    June 20th, 2018 @ 5:06 am

    Best line EVER (for shaky readers holding collective breath!!) is about her being pleased that you were kneeling in the dirt at her feet! HA!!

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