Heart Broken


Back in May, I weaned Mara and stopped milking Daisy because Daisy was looking rough and not gaining weight. I also decided I was going to retire Daisy – prevent her from having another pregnancy – because this cycle was so hard on her. Weaning went smoothly (and Mara is doing great), but by mid-June, Daisy was still dripping milk and the veins across her abdomen were distended and rigid. The veins freaked me out, but I assumed they would go down when she dried off (they are offshoots of what’s called the “milk vein”), but by the beginning of July, she was still dripping milk (totally weird) and her veins were still abnormally prominent and so I made an appointment with the vet to make sure nothing was wrong. He was baffled by the milk dripping but said her distended veins were a marker of heart failure. He said we have six months together if we’re lucky.

There’s not a lot of data on bovine heart disease because it’s often not caught until very late stages (because cows are often out on open range and/or not observed as obsessively as I observe Daisy). At that point, most people give the cow a diuretic and sell her ASAP. So there’s little to no follow up in those cases, and relatively few case studies where the disease is caught early and tracked. Signs and symptoms, as the condition progresses, don’t always present in every animal, so while there are things I can be on the look out for, there’s not much to monitor or measure in any definitive way. It’s all incredibly frustrating. My vet said this was the absolute earliest it could have been detected and we started treatment right away. I’m giving Daisy weekly shots that will increase to twice-weekly and then daily as things get worse.

Daisy’s not showing any other signs of illness – she has her usual enormous appetite, she happily wanders the property as she wishes and does not seem winded or struggling. Her eyes are bright and she’s super social and still very much Queen of Everything. My current theory about the dripping milk is that there’s enough extra fluid in her tissues from the heart disease that she’s been unable to re-absorb the milk in her udder as quickly as usual and it’s dripping because of gravity. I’m taking her vitals two or three times a day so I can keep track of any changes, and listening to her lung sounds with my stethoscope. I desperately wanted to have an ultrasound done but it’s just not possible – the waves can only travel so far to give a clear picture and the distance from skin to heart and lungs in a cow is many times greater than that distance in a person or smaller animal.

I also talked to my other vet, the philosopher vet who lives in a different town (and who hasn’t seen Daisy yet) and told him how I’ve been tracking her vitals and how badly I wanted an ultrasound in order to see what stage we are actually at and asked him what else can I do and what I can measure and what are the percentages of likelihood of this and that and he basically said (in a more poetic and non-confrontational way) that perhaps this is a time to practice not being such a control freak because even with all the data in the world, I will never be able to control death. Which is excruciatingly true and excruciatingly hard for me.

I’m absolutely beside myself. I really can’t even write about this, hence the dry, fact-y blog. I’m closing my online shop tomorrow, indefinitely (except for digital delivery items which will still be available). I’m still planning the 2019 Charlie calendar and I will have more of Fred’s beautiful jewelry, but right now I don’t want my time more divided than it has to be. I also had a pile of emails I was planning to respond to but I archived them all and sent off telepathic replies. I know you care about me and care about Daisy and understand these choices. I promise to keep you posted. In the meantime, please send Daisy love and good vibes.

Leaf Thief

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

Previous Installments: Part I
 / Part II / Part III / Part IV / Intermission
 / Part V / Part VI

A week went by. A week of mornings and evenings that had lost their sparkle, that felt somber and empty. Star Baby no longer had adult cow companionship in the little corral. 3M, now orphaned, was often curled up by herself. Star Baby’s baby figured out how to get out of the corral and left whenever she wanted, to explore and play with the other calves, returning only for meals. She was also getting big enough to empty Star Baby’s udder by herself and there was less and less milk for 3M each passing day. I found where Star Baby’s baby was escaping and purposefully locked her out of the corral, blocking her return until Star Baby’s udder refilled and 3M had gotten first dibs. But when her calf showed up to eat and couldn’t get in the corral, Star Baby stood right next to the panels so her calf could nurse through the railings. As patient and generous as Star Baby had been for the past month – going into the head catch twice a day on cue, standing calmly while 3M nursed, never once kicking (unless 3M tried to nurse when Star Baby was out of the head catch) – her loyalty was to her calf and it always would be. From the start, I knew Star Baby would be a temporary wet nurse, that eventually, her own calf would get big enough and greedy enough to take all the milk she produced. This arrangement was reaching its expiration date.

Meanwhile, Fiona still hadn’t calved. She was the only cow left to calve. A few days after 6 died, I was brushing Fiona and felt her calf moving inside her. A protruding lump rose in a gentle yet startling wave under my hand and disappeared. It was thrilling. But the only other time I’d felt a calf move in utero was with Roxy, and so even though my control group was exactly one, I was suddenly paranoid that Fiona’s calf would also be breech. Later that week, when Fiona was standing off by herself and I knew she would calve that day, I lured her into the front yard so I could watch her easily. Fiona went into labor a few hours later and when her water broke, I collected as much of her jelly-like amniotic fluid as I could and put it in the fridge. I had plans for it. I was overjoyed when her calf’s hooves emerged because they showed the calf was not breech. Everything about the delivery went smoothly and Fiona delivered her baby right in my lap – the second time she’s done this.

Fiona and her calf spent the rest of the day and that night together in the yard. I wanted to be sure they bonded completely. The next day, I put a tiny calf halter on 3M and threw open the gates of the little corral so Star Baby could rejoin the herd and her wandering calf. Before she sauntered off, Star Baby approached me and licked my elbow. It was the most affection she’s ever shown a human. Then off she went, and I walked 3M to the yard to join Fiona and her newborn. Though 3M was a month older than Fiona’s calf, they were exactly the same size because 3M had been so small when she was born. I got the amniotic fluid from the fridge and poured it all over 3M and rubbed it into her coat in hopes of tricking Fiona. Cows know their calves by sight and sound but a key identifier is scent, and if 3M smelled like Fiona, perhaps Fiona would adopt her right away! I stood at Fiona’s flank and stroked the side of her udder. 3M galloped over and reached out with a tentative tongue. Fiona was not into it. She was not fooled by the amniotic goo bath I’d given 3M and she was not going to let 3M nurse, so I had to pull out the ol’ Maia trick and blindfold her.

Mike and I stumbled onto this trick years ago out of sheer frustration with Maia (who is still a giant pain) and though we don’t use it often, it’s a brilliant, low-impact intervention. It’s easy, it’s temporary, it requires no equipment other than a jacket or flannel shirt, and it’s not traumatizing to the cow, as evidenced by their willingness to be blindfolded over and over and the fact that they chew their cud while blindfolded. Chewing cud is kind of like yawning – animals simply won’t do it if they’re in acute stress.

I took off my coat and placed it over Fiona’s face and tied the arms loosely under her chin. Her nose remained exposed, and I stood between her head and 3M’s body so Fiona would smell mostly me while 3M went to town on Fiona’s decadent udder, feasting till she was about to burst. As Daisy’s daughter, Fiona makes a lot of milk. She has produced incrementally more milk with each passing year, which is a little weird, but perhaps has something to do with her being a dairy-angus cross. Last year, the volume of milk had been manageable for her calf, but barely. It had been almost too much for a single calf. This year, I knew she’d have enough milk for two calves.

But I wasn’t sure if Fiona would ever fully adopt 3M the way Daisy has adopted second and third calves in years past. I had high hopes, especially since we were introducing 3M immediately after Fiona had calved. Still, I wanted 3M to learn how to get her own meals from Fiona without my help, in case Fiona never fully accepted her. Bovines have excellent memories and are brilliant at understanding patterns. I just had to show 3M the new routine a time or two for her to catch on – and not only catch on, but to start manipulating the situation in her favor.

I set up a playpen of sorts using two panels and the natural curve of the wooden fence. I put Fiona’s calf in the playpen at night so he wouldn’t nurse early in the morning before I got up. In the morning, I put the blindfold on Fiona and let her calf out of the playpen. He ran to Fiona, and as soon as he latched on, I coaxed 3M to Fiona’s other side, and stood between her body and Fiona’s head. Fiona sniffed her calf and sniffed me and that satisfied her, and she stood calmly as both calves nursed. I repeated this in the evening – putting Fiona’s calf in the playpen for a few hours in the afternoon, and coordinating a mutual mealtime with 3M.

3M is scrappy and resourceful and strategic and determined and clever. She already knew that when I showed up, I was going to help her get a meal. Over the following days, as soon as I let Fiona’s calf out of the playpen, both calves ran to Fiona and latched on – one on each side. 3M soon figured out that if she snuck onto a teat when Fiona’s calf nursed in the middle of the day, she didn’t need me around at all. If Fiona balked, 3M moved to the same side as Fiona’s calf, with Fiona’s calf positioned between herself and Fiona’s head so Fiona couldn’t really tell she was there.

One morning, I took Fiona’s blindfold off before the calves had finished their breakfast. Fiona arced her head to one side and sniffed her calf, and arced her head to the other side and sniffed 3M, then straightened her head to the front and began chewing her cud – the universal cow sign that all is well and there’s nothing to stress about. The next morning, I put the blindfold on, the calves ran to Fiona and latched on, and I removed the blindfold a mere thirty seconds later. Fiona looked left, looked right, looked front, and chewed her cud. After that, I stopped putting Fiona’s calf in the playpen at all. And when I went outside, I’d often find all three together, both calves nursing, Fiona standing peacefully. One day, I went outside and found Fiona licking 3M, just as she does with her own calf, just like 6 used to do.

When I saw Fiona licking 3M, I knew they were a family. 3M and Fiona’s calf are still exactly the same size, and they race around the yard together and buck and play. If you didn’t know the whole story, you’d think Fiona had twins. But you know the whole story: the long and winding and beautiful and tragic and truly magical story of 3M.


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

Previous Installments: Part I
 / Part II / Part III / Part IV / Intermission
 / Part V

After she grazed my garden, after the corral dried out, we moved 6 back to the corral because we were afraid she might lie down between the raised beds and get stuck. We wanted her to be comfortable and we wanted her to be safe and we wanted her to be with 3M. Sitting in the mud and the rain with 6, I had begged her to “don’t die yet.” Yet. Yet. I knew it was coming. We all knew it was coming.

She created her perfect baby calf and she delivered her calf safely into the world and then she started declining. The day after she calved, it was as if she took a deep breath, thought to herself, “I did it,” and let go. She got visibly thinner daily, and she was already so thin. She got visibly weaker daily, and she was already so weak. By the end of April, when she started having trouble getting up (even when rainstorms and mud were not part of the equation), there was no denying it was just a matter of time, a daily countdown, a waiting game. Except it wasn’t a game.

When she couldn’t get up at all, we carried water to her in a five gallon bucket. We brought her hay. We gave her everything we could – water, food, assistance, peace, space, gratitude. 3M slept beside her, or stood at her head while 6 licked her from where she lay. 3M still scampered back to 6 after getting her meals from Star Baby, and 6 licked her slowly and methodically from chin to hock as she’d done since their first hour together. These two together… 3M, content and carefree. 6, stoic and doting.

She died in the night. A warm, calm night with moonlight. Mike took her body away at dawn, so when I went out to do my morning chores with the corral crew, 6 was gone. I put Star Baby in the head catch and fed her treats while 3M nursed, and 6 wasn’t there and she wouldn’t be there ever again. The corral seemed so much emptier without her presence. 3M finished her morning meal and 6 wasn’t there to lick her as she always had. I grabbed a curry comb and brushed 3M’s little body – her forehead, her cheeks, her neck, her chest, her back, her sides, her flanks, her belly. She stood with her eyes half closed and leaned against me as I brushed her. From that morning on, I brushed 3M after every meal.

This was a hard one for me. They’re all hard – every death on the ranch is hard. This one was intense and lingering. Sadness stuck to me. I was sad for 6, I was sad for 3M, I was sad for the abrupt ending to our beautiful routine (which was never going to last forever, even if 6 had lived), I was sad because Death changes everything with its dark alchemy. My frustration and confusion resurfaced as it does with every death – frustration that death is part of the deal at all, confusion over why it was designed that way.

6 had the best life of any cow – she was granted care and independence and safety and respect from the first day of her life to the last. And hers was the best death any of us could hope for – peacefully at home, surrounded by kin, knowing her baby was going to be cared for after she was gone. How many cows get to die of old age? I can tell you it’s way, way less than 1%. I joke with Mike that we work so hard every day for so little money, but our cows are the 1% of cows.

Everything is temporary. I knew this. 6 was dying from the day she gave birth. I knew this. 3M was born on April 13th; 6 died on May 3. Twenty days. Those magic mornings and evenings lasted for twenty days. The motley cow crew in the little corral were together for twenty days. 3M was twenty days old when she lost her mother. It was only twenty days. I was in awe of the time we had together, that little pocket of time and togetherness and cooperation and appreciation and being. The grace of that time. The grace of 6.

Up next: The Finale. Miracles and synchronicity have been part of The Long and Winding and Beautiful and Tragic Story of 3M since the very beginning, and one more is coming up. I’m reluctant to call it a happy ending because that seems a little dismissive of and disrespectful to 6, plus I don’t think life is about happy endings. I think it’s about happy, wondrous moments in between devastating moments in between tedious moments in between scary moments in between thrilling moments and, if we’re lucky, a whole lot of love swirled into all of it. In such a spiral, where is the ending?

Part VII is here.

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

Previous Installments: Part I
  /  Part II  /  Part III  /  Part IV 
 / Intermission

Rain. Our single, four letter word for ‘water falling from the sky’ is grossly inadequate. There should be more words. Seattle rain and Wyoming rain are as related and dissimilar as chihuahua and wolf. Wyoming rain is the wolf. It can appear, seemingly from out of nowhere, and surprise you dangerously. It can be terrifyingly violent. Despite this, people tend to react to it with uncontrollable reverence. For without rain, there is no grass.

When it rains in Wyoming, it’s like a giant barrel being dumped out from the heavens. It’s like a blizzard with water in its liquid state. Wyoming rain comes down hard and fast, each raindrop as long and thick as your finger. The clay-laden earth can’t handle such deluge, and so the water stands in enormous puddles, runs rapids down the driveway, and the top six inches of ground becomes sticky, slicky gumbo – clay mud that can eat shoes and is nearly as treacherous as ice. The first time I lost control of my Bronco was not on ice, but in Wyoming mud.

Still, these torrential downpours don’t fill water troughs for the cows – that was my job. And calves are hungry no matter the weather, and 3M needed my help with Star Baby. Mike had left, and when I finished my coffee, I put on my ankle-length snow skirt which I hadn’t touched since deep winter and a rain slicker with a hood and my Muck boots (every day, my muck boots) and slopped out to 6 and 3M and Star Baby and her calf. My trudging turned to sprinting when I saw 6 was down and thrashing. She was lying on her side in the mud, legs splayed and kicking the air. When I reached her, I was horrified to see she had gotten her head stuck under the bottom rail of one of the corral panels. She was writhing and flailing and frothing at the mouth. She’d been trying to rescue herself for a while – who knows how long. I splashed to the barn and grabbed a lariat (aka a stiff lasso rope, which neither Mike nor I know how use in the way it’s intended), got the loop around her neck, and pushed it as far down as I could, down to the thick base of her neck where it meets her chest and shoulders. I heaved and pulled with all my might and managed to slide 6 away from the panel and free her head. The slipperiness of the mud is the only reason I was able to do this – even old and frail, she still weighed in at close to a thousand pounds.

She immediately began struggling to stand, but she couldn’t. When a cow gets up, she rocks a little to launch herself up and onto her feet. Imagine getting yourself out of an oversized plush chair – you’d rock back a little, then push yourself forward and out with the extra momentum. Cows do exactly this when they stand up. And cows can kill themselves trying to get up when they’re stuck – if they’re mired in mud, if they’re up against a wall without enough room to rock back and forth onto their feet. They will try over and over and over until they die of exhaustion.

Before we moved the head catch up to the new barn, I had it in the corner of Daisy’s little milking barn where Frisco spent the last weeks of his life. The head catch was set two feet from the back wall, bolted to posts six inches in diameter that were set two feet in the ground. On one of my countless trips to the barn when I was caring for Frisco, I found him on the ground, kicking and rocking next to the head catch. He had laid down so close to the head catch that he couldn’t get up – there wasn’t enough room for him to get enough momentum to stand up. When I found him, he was drenched in sweat from trying. Mike was two hours away, so I found a crowbar and a giant wrench and dismantled the iron panels of the head catch as quickly as I could and (thanks to adrenaline) moved them out of the way. Frisco was then able to stand up and take a long drink of water.

6 must have laid down under the small awning of the barn where the dirt gently slopes away from the wall – as dry a place as possible, but on such a day, with sideways rain, not dry at all. The degree of the decline is an unremarkable grade, not something I ever really noticed, not something that would adversely affect any other cow, perhaps not even 6 on any other day. But this day, the slope had been perilous. Either because of the direction she chose to lay down, or because she slid a little when she first tried to get up, 6 was positioned so that her body and head were downhill from her legs and hooves. She not only had to rock, she had to rock uphill. 6 was already weak because she was so old – for the past few days, she had been having some trouble rocking up to standing even when it was dry and perfectly flat. To fight against gravity, too? And the mud, too? She couldn’t do it. And as she struggled, she slid closer to the corral panel, and when she tired, she lay her head on the ground, and this is how she ended up with her head under the railing.

After I swiveled her around and freed her head, I tried to help 6 sit up with her head up, but she was too weak and exhausted to hold it up. She just kept thrashing around on the ground. There was already a raw patch of skin on her bottom shoulder where she had worn all the hair off in her struggles. So I did the only thing I could: I sat beside her with my hands on her head and face. As long as I was touching her, she lay still. I didn’t dare run back to the house to get my phone to call Mike – when I moved away from her, 6 started convulsing in attempts to get up and I didn’t know how much longer she could fight before expiring. I wasn’t willing to risk it. So I stayed with her in the mud in the pouring rain, waiting for Mike to return. I sobbed hysterically and talked to her through the downpour. “Don’t die. Not now. Not today. Not in the rain. Don’t die yet, don’t do it, please….” Her eye, the one I could see, was wild. It bulged out and then sank into her skull and I was sure she was going to perish in the storm as I pet her cheek.

When Mike got home, he found us in the mud and quickly rearranged a few of the panels between the corral and my garden. My garden stretches out from the chicken house and is right next to the panel corral we made for 3M & Co in front of the barn. It, too, is surrounded by panels because I haven’t had time to build a proper wooden fence around it. Once Mike opened up a passageway between the two, he grabbed one of 6’s hind legs and I pushed her shoulders and together, we slid 6 out of the corral and into my garden. We got her to a level grassy patch and we got her sitting up – lying down but with her head up. She seemed relieved. The only question was whether 6 could get up at all. Would she ever get up again?

After taking care of 3M and Star Baby, who had been huddled in the rain but were perfectly fine, Mike and I returned to the house. I escaped to a hot shower. The rain traveled past us and the sun came out. I nervously peeked out the door at 6 in my garden and she was up! She was standing! She was peacefully grazing the luscious, rogue grass that was already six inches tall between my raised beds. She moved delicately enough that I wasn’t worried about her destroying my garden the way another cow would – she could stay in my garden as long as she liked! She nipped down all the grass and didn’t even touch my raspberries.

Part VI is here.

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