A couple of days later, our yearling steers and heifers, except for those we kept as replacement heifers, were hauled to a livestock sale in St. Joseph, MO. Bill drove up to watch the sale. Mid-morning, our landlord at one of the rented pastures called and reported one of our cows appeared to be struggling to deliver her calf. The landlord reported the cow would lie down for a while, then get up and move around. This restlessness is normal labor activity as long as it doesn’t extend beyond a couple of hours. When the landlord, a seasoned veteran of a cow/calf operation—she once pulled a calf by herself!—viewed the cow through binoculars, she saw two hooves sticking out of the vaginal opening.
I grabbed my binoculars, jumped in the mini-truck and headed over to check out the cow. She had not gone off by herself to birth the calf, apparently preferring the company of a support group. I drove within about 25 yards, got out and walked a little closer, then focused the binoculars. I saw the hooves sticking out but something didn’t look right. Then I realized the hooves were upside down, meaning the unborn calf was backward.
I raced home and called the vet. The receptionist said he was not in the office. I explained my situation and she said she would call him. She called back in a few minutes and advised he would stop by the office to pick up his calf-pulling gear and meet me at the pasture.
When he arrived, I opened the gate, pointed to where the cow was, closed the gate and followed in the mini-truck. We parked a few yards away, he grabbed his lariat and I grabbed a small bucket of range cubes. This cow, named Sweet Pea for her gentle nature, will usually follow us anywhere for range cubes. We approached her and I rattled the bucket. Sweet Pea let out a distressed bellow and started to walk away. The vet threw the lariat loop toward her. She saw it coming and ducked her head. I cautiously approached and gently rattled the bucket again. She tossed her head and pawed the ground.
The vet tried again to rope her and, once again, she evaded the loop. Then, her friends decided they’d had enough and headed off toward a pond. She followed at a trot, bawling out her pain and anger. We followed and the vet relooped his rope. We caught up with her at the pond and the vet tossed the loop at her. Another miss. The vet is a roper so he knows what he’s doing and is good at it. But he was no match for this confused and distressed mother-to-be.
The support group headed north of the pond and Sweet Pea followed. There was a fence ahead. If we could keep them contained and moving along the fence, turn them at the corner and continue herding along the east fence, they would eventually arrive at the catch pen where Bill loads out cattle when he moves them. The pen was the best place to secure Sweet Pea and attempt to pull her calf.
It was now mid-day and the temperature was about 95 degrees. I’m not particularly heat tolerant, but despite being drenched with sweat, I was more concerned about Sweet Pea’s welfare and how the excessive heat and activity would affect her. We assumed by now the calf was dead but we didn't want to lose the cow which would likely happen if we just left her alone. So far, she didn't appear to be suffering from the heat. We hoped to get her to the catch pen before that became an issue.
The vet sent me to the pen to make sure the gate was open while he continued to herd the cows along the fence. They all turned the corner and headed toward me. Then, the other cows veered off and started back across the pasture. The vet blocked Sweet Pea from following and herded her close to the fence. He tossed the lariat again and, finally, it looped around her head and slid to her neck.
Then, she went ballistic, bucking like a bull trying to throw off a rider! The vet dug in his heels but was no match for her 1,400 pound rage. He struggled frantically to wind his end of the rope around a tree before she could jerk it away from him. Just when I thought Sweet Pea and his rope were gone, he made one circle around the tree, then another. He worked with her bucking and tugging motion to cinch up the slack in the rope so she was immobilized against the tree.
I jogged back across the pasture to get his pickup truck, a big diesel with a standard shift. I drove standard shift cars for many years, but I killed the sucker three times before figuring out this behemoth needed a much larger drink of diesel to move than I was giving it. To further complicate the situation, I was perched precariously on the edge of the seat because I didn't want to mess up his seat position. There was nothing to brace my back against to maintain balance while one foot was releasing the clutch and the other was pressing on the accelerator.
I horsed the truck to the east fence, the vet unloaded his calf pulling equipment and had the calf on the ground in less than 10 minutes. Sweet Pea bellowed through most of the process, a mixture of rage and pain. As we expected, the calf was dead.
The vet tossed his equipment aside and started the process of releasing Sweet Pea. He loosened the rope wound around the tree to give her enough slack to loosen the loop around her neck. She bucked and lurched, pulling the loop even tighter. The vet finally took out his knife and cut his rope close to her neck. She bolted away from the tree and the loop fell off. She trotted to her dead calf and started licking it, not understanding it was dead.
The vet gathered up his equipment and took me back across the pasture to the mini-truck. I thanked him profusely and, when we arrived at my truck, gave him a bottle of water out of a cooler I had earlier thought to grab as I left the house. He seemed unflustered by the whole ordeal. Of course, it’s part of his job. I, on the other hand, was barely able to contain my post traumatic trembling.
We drove our separate vehicles to the gate and I opened it for him to drive through. As I was getting into my truck, my cell phone rang. I assumed it was Bill as I had called his cell three times and left update messages. I gave him the sad news. I must have sounded as distraught as I felt, because he assured me there was no choice but to call the vet. These things just happen. We were lucky to have a conscientious landlord and neighbor who recognized the problem and called us. Otherwise, we might have lost Sweet Pea also. Bill was leaving the sale barn and would be home in about an hour and a half.
I was hot, sweaty and heart-sick. I felt like a hideous monster for putting our gentle Sweet Pea through the horrific ordeal, particularly on such a miserably hot day. I replayed what Bill said: If I had done nothing, she wouldn’t have been able to deliver the calf and likely would have suffered a painful, slow death. Before I drove through the gate I looked back at Sweet Pea, still mothering her dead calf. The emotions of the past couple of hours—helplessness, loss, guilt—smothered me. I cried.