Chapter 4 – Calves of the First Year; by Carole Mercer

Here is another story Carole sent to me for posting…enjoy:

Chapter 4

First Calves of the First Year

My first calf is born on February, Friday the 13. We have so much snow that school is cancelled. Sarah and I do a mama cow walk and find this cold baby on the wrong side of the fence from his mama. I shove the calf under the fence to the mama side of the pasture. The mama does not let the calf nurse. She kicks him every time he tries to nurse. Oh great. First calf and problems already. The baby needs milk….he needs colostrums. I carry the baby to the barn. Mama cow is hot on my tracks. What am I doing with the baby…her baby….that she does not want? I know nothing, but am totally determined that this cow and her baby are going to pair up.

I rope the mama and tie her up in the horse barn. I have no idea how I achieve this rodeo act, but I do. I then get a halter on her head while the mama is trying her best to kill me. I blindfold her and tie up a back leg. I get a bucket and I, who have never milked anything…milk her out. She wants to kick the heck out of me, but I am so quick. I am quick and I milk like I am in a contest. She kicks. I milk. She misses. I milk. I feed the baby with a glove nipple the colostrums milk. I put the calf on the milked out mama cow. With the milking her bag is not so tight and she doesn’t hurt. Besides I still have her tied up and blindfolded. I am covered with cow manure from head to toe. The mama cow has been feeling a little excited. Ranching is powerful stuff. I will not trade my ranch for a warm, safe inside job for anything.

Sarah has a job too. She feeds sixteen head of cows every night. She gets paid a dollar a day and relishes her own spending money. I am glad to have the help seeing that I am feeding a total of thirty head of stock her a day. I am selling off six head of cows. My hay is low and I am getting a good price for these animals. I can always build my herd back up next fall.

Christmas comes with snowflakes and January comes with baby calves, a new Morgan Horse and Monsoon rains. My most important criterion for becoming a rancher is to absolutely love the out-of-doors. I must love being out doors unconditionally and without any reservations. While I ranch, I live with Mother Nature and her whims and whiles. I live at the mercy and mirth of Mother Nature.

Currently I am living with the winter monsoons. Today a new baby bull arrives around two p.m. I manage to give the bull calf his “welcome to the world vaccination” soon after he is born. Best I get him vaccinated and ear tagged before he gathers beyond the strength of a new born. I feed all the cattle, horses, dogs, child and myself and retire to the warmth and comfort of my hearth and home. About eight p.m., the cattle are conversing in a most discomforting manner. The mama cows are not lowing, but hollering.

I climb into my wet weather gear and out into the deluge I go. I find the first problem. My brand new baby is on the other side of the fence from the mother cow. It must be a ritual for these babies to get pushed under the fence. I crawl over the fence and push the baby back under the fence. I have not a dry spot on my body. I fix the too high fence.

I notice that the other mama cow is still calling her baby. She brought him up to the feedlot through the MUD.

Mud! Oregon mud is known as black sticky. Black stick is black, gooey, terrible clay. In the summer the clay is cement hard and cracks open to a foot wide crevice and drops down at least ten feet. You can hide a body in the cracks during the summer. In winter the sticky seals up. The top of the ground is slick as snot and is as deep as or deeper than the tops of what ever boots you wear. When you walk in this goo, you become taller by several inches with each step you take. Either you cannot get the mud off your boots or you cannot get the boots out of the mud.

My road that I built to the feedlot does not hold up to the cows tromping on the rock to the feeders. The cows wade in the black sticky up to their bellies to get to the feeders. I think that next Spring I will build another road to solve the problem. Ha. Ha on me.)

Now come along with me. Here I am, dressed in my yellow slicker, my slicker coveralls, my fisherman’s hat and my cold rubber boots. Dark is everywhere and Mother Nature is busy pouring rain on everything. Dark and Mother Nature are defiantly a team tonight. I must rescue the calf because the calf is stuck in the MUD. At this point I have no wish to become stuck in the mud either, but the calf must become unstuck. I arm myself with a shovel and adrenalin. I dig the calf out. The calf reunites with its mother. My boots stay united with my feet. (Always leave your rubber slicker pants on the outside of your boots. This technique prevents the mud from overflowing into your boot tops and the boots are less likely to fill with liquid mud and cold wet manure. )

I slog through the mud back to the barn. I must return the shovel to its spot in the barn. If I let go of the shovel…I am lost in the sea of mud and the shovel will sink to depths unknown. On my way to the barn, I discover that my Morgan Mare, Suzi has broken out of the barn. I catch her and return her to her stall. The new Morgan gelding, Woody takes all this rainy night activity in with wide eyes. I try to explain to him, as simply as possible I do not usually cavort in my yellow “Big Bird” outfit nightly in the pouring rain.

Trusted shovel in hand and flood in the barn, I dig trenches at nine forty five at night so the barn will not flood due to the monsoon Mother Nature throws at southern Oregon. All I think about is the hundred and ten degree weather I enjoyed last summer. …hot and dry then …, as it is wet and cold now. When I awake in the morning the monsoon changes into six inches of snow and ice. Such is the mind and personality of Mother Nature in Southern Oregon. The climate change here is incredibly different from the eternal spring of California. At least the monsoon to snow does not bring forth the magnitude of population and traffic, as does the eternal spring in California.

So much for the romance of my life as a rancher. The next time I sink my teeth into a MacDonald’s burger I think about the rainy nights, the sunny days for growing hay and the alley rider that pushes the cattle into the packer’s pen at the auction. I see the work it takes to get the beef to market. I am barely learning about the path of start to finish in the livestock industry.

I have a job. The good neighbor lady, Miki Perry, related by being married to my vet’s son, Mike, finds me a job. I am riding the “alley” at the livestock yard every Thursday. Miki finds me the job because she can ride very well and works at the Auction Yard every Thursday. She knows I am desperate here in my first year and helps me out.

“I think you can ride the alley” says she.

I say “OK.” I have no idea what I am getting into.

So I show up at the Rogue Valley Livestock yard to ride the “alley.” I push the cows off the scale and down the alley to the waiting rider who opens the proper pen gate. I carry a pen numbered paper and hand it to the gate person. I trot back to the scale to repeat this process for the next four to eight hours depending on the number of cattle being sold. Riding alley is the best education I get in the cattle world. I see thousands of cattle of every breed, variety, age, wellness, lameness and temperament. I ride the ally off and on for almost seventeen years. My last alley ride is for Jackson County Cattlemen’s sale. I am the only woman in the group working the scales. I no longer have cattle and I still ride the alley on my dressage saddle on my old Morgan Mare Birdie. I have come full circle. The Rogue Valley Sale Yard is torn down soon after this sale to make way for a Dutch Brothers coffee café.

I continue to be startled by my passion of ranching and the cows and the weather and the out-of-door. Ranching is hard work. I love what I am doing. The work is not just work, by an enjoyment and a fulfillment of what I want to do. A calf is alive because I heard the mama cow bawling. I push the calf back to the cow on a dark and stormy night. The horse is in the stall because I put her there. The barn is dry because I dig a trench late at night to keep the water out. The sun will rise tomorrow on a new and different day. Maybe we will have another calf on the Rolling Wheel Ranch.

No new calves this morning. I own three calves. Two bull calves and a heifer. Mama cows are not so different from people mothers. Two cows form a babysitting co-op. The other cow develops a ‘latch key “program. She hides her baby and tells the calf.

“Stay put. Don’t let anyone in. I have to go to work. (A cow sees her job as filling her stomach and gossiping with other cows.)

Some days Sarah and I go skiing. Sarah and I go to Mount Ashland. I only drive one hour before we put on the skis and skim downhill. We have a wonderful time. The snow is good. Sarah is a good little skier. The next couple of times we go. She skies right by me. We leave the ski run at 4:40 pm and are sitting down to a quick dinner. All the ranch chores are done by six thirty that night. I am getting better at driving on snow. The ol’ Blazer that I bought is wonderful with its four-wheel drive.

January trudges on with poor weather. Relentlessly cold, wet, damp weather. Depressing weather. I walk out into the far pasture to check on the heifer calf born last week. Her mama is the latch key cow. I find her dead. I think she died of neglect. My small bull calf is not looking good. So I give him a shot of antibiotic. I keep giving shots for three days. The death of these babies is depressing…like the weather cold, damp depressing.

Neighbor calves die too. They are sympathetic and understanding but not mushy. A reality of life is that you have death. Death is so removed from the saran wrapped meat counters of the every day city and urban living. Death is new to me. In the years to come I learn much about death.

I meet the neighbors. Over the years, some neighbors become good friends. Other neighbors become good enemies. I wave at some neighbors and with others I have a delicate truce. Farm people report cards often state, “Does not play well with others.” We may not play well with each other, but in a pinch, we help one another.

I have nine people over for dinner. I receive a call from a person looking for a horse to buy. I pass the phone from person to person until someone at my table has just the right horse to sell. I am certain that the person who called thought they had dialed a crazy person’s house. We all laugh about passing the phone from person to person until we find the right person –horse combination. I am just beginning to feel like I might belong here. I am just beginning, but the feeling of belonging is starting to take hold. I do have a ranch and I am making friends.

I want to plant my flower garden. I do not feel so badly when flowers die. I do feel badly about the baby calves. They are so full of life one minute and so stiff, cold and dead the next minute. I must have courage to be a rancher. The emotional highs and lows are so pronounced. A dead calf represents a torn up hundred dollar bill plus the inequity of all the work and nine months it takes to make that calf.

By the end of January of my first year, I am into “graft and corruption.” I work at the stockyards on Thursdays. There is a shipment of three day old Jersey /Angus calves coming across the scales. Soooooo…I take the chance and buy one. She is a heifer and with the help of Mother Nature and Father Time and the knowledge of the neighbors who know so much more than I, Sarah and I “graft” this calf onto the childless mama cow. Low and behold…the mama cow lets this orphan calf nurse. I hope the calf lives through the night and grows up. I now have one hundred and twenty dollars tied up in this non-registered Angus/Jersey cross. But better a gamble than a total loss. I go up to the barn twice tonight to see if she is still alive. Let me hope that the morning will shine brightly on me and the baby will be still alive.

Tonight I also must go out and give the bull calf his shot of antibiotics. My technique is simple. I grab them by the tail with my left hand, jab and shoot with the right hand. This baby is stronger. I grab and shoot and the calf jerks. My feet out from under me and down I go in the muddy, grassy, wet field. Cold, wet and yucky but very funny at the same time. I must develop a better technique. I may just rope him the next time. One more day of shots and he should be better. I hope the weather holds for my babies. Cold nights and morning. …20 degrees until about noon and then up to 40 degrees. On the north side of the house, the ice is an inch thick and never melts all day.

Bingo! I own another bull calf. This little guy is born today, the last day of January. I weigh him in at ninety pounds. I don’t want to leave him in the field where the other calf died, so I ask a neighbor and his son to help me move the calf. I drive my truck into the wet field. I pick up the calf with the help of Larry. I cannot bench press ninety pound of calf into the back of the pick up. Mama cow runs behind the pickup truck while I hold her calf and Larry drives. I hope that Mama Cow does not jump in the back of the pickup with me. I slip the calf into a small stall and Mama Cows follows right behind me.

I learn from previous experience and the good advice of neighbors.

“Always keep the calf that you are handling between the mama cow and you. A mama cow rarely hurts her calf to get to the person handling the calf. Never take your eyes off the mama cow.”

I practice this advice when I give the calf his “welcome to the world shots”.

The new calf is strong and good looking. So far I own three live bull calves and one grafted heifer who replace the heifer that died. The mother cow with the grafted baby is a wild woman. She protects her grafted baby with deadly force.

I feed thirty four head of animals every day. I toss twelve bales of hay into the back of the pickup every night and push feed out of the pick up. The water main broke up at the barn. A cow stepped though the mud and broke the water line. I haul water to the cows in the barn. I fill a trash container from the house, and then siphon the water into the cow’s water tank.

Today I clean the cow stalls and have nice bedding down for the babies. I keep one clean stall going all the time. I never know when I will need a clean stall for my mama cows and a new baby. The mud deepens here every day. The grafted pair must stay in the stall for a long time. Mama Cow doe not have much milk. I hope to NOT bottle feed this grafted baby.

February comes with more rain. More rain means more mud. I face the fact that I am not experienced enough to handle the cows, the mud and my dwindling hay supply. I need to fix things up before I raise cows. I know that the registered herd of cows must be sold. So sell I must.
With more rain and mud comes the prospect that the cows will begin to calve again. These cows will not have their babies when Mother Nature mixes sun and warmth into the beginning of February. I do not look forward to dark, cold, wet, rainy nights full of baby calves. I learn what I do not want to learn. Ranching is hard work. Raising cattle is not all fun and games. I put the word out at the sale yard that I am selling my cows.

Three buyers show up on one day. The first buyer flies in on the wings of a vulture. He jumps out of his truck and makes ridicules offer.

“Those cows are ready to calve. Look at all this mud you have. Them calves aren’t going to live “(Like I am not already aware of this problem.)

He makes a ridiculously low offer. “I’ll just take them cows off your hands, Little Missy. I’ll give you a hundred dollars for each cow.”

I look at him and laugh. “You have got to be kidding.” I intensely dislike being called “Little Missy.”

“You had better take my offer because there won’t be any more offers besides mine.”

I smile and hold back the tears. “No…I’ll make it work before I can give this herd away.”

I learn something about this man that hold true to today twenty-two years later. He is a cheat and will take advantage of a person when that person is in trouble. I am glad I learn what holds true to today. I use my knowledge of this cattle buyer carefully in my future experiences with him.

The next buyer never shows up.

The third man comes. He is only interested in buying ten head for his boss. But, Chet Wolf buys the entire herd for White Oak Ranch. I am saved. Chet comes over to pick and buy the entire herd and a new calf is born. Chet is delighted. He comes for thirty cows and takes home thirty one. The calf is born on Valentines Day. I meet the head of a family that becomes my family of the future. The Wolf clan plays a very import part in my life in Southern Oregon.

Relief floods my soul as the last trailer load of my former cows leave the ranch. My wallet is full again and my hay is almost gone. I have less than ten days of hay left to feed cattle and two month of feeding to go. The cost to keep the cattle quickly out paces the money I might make raising the cattle. I do not miss the calves or the responsibility of the calves.

Next time (and there is a next time) I will do my cattle differently. I need to lean more and have fewer cows. I think I will buy feeder steers and turn them out to eat the grass in my pastures. When the grass goes…I will sell the steers. I think I have some people who will put my hay field up on shares. I think I have the future whipped.

I am knocked down only briefly.

3 Responses to Chapter 4 – Calves of the First Year; by Carole Mercer

  1. l_daniel_m says:

    Another great chapter! I cannot wait to have one of your books, cover to cover on my shelf… The part that is so amazing to me is how clear the memories are from 20+ years back.

    Keep em coming Carole~~~


  2. ramonabrave1 says:

    Carole, I also look forward to getting “the rest of the story”.

    How many of us are always going to write our story? Thankfully, you are!


  3. Kristi says:

    Awesome chapter Carole. You bring me right along with you as I read. Waiting with baited breath for the next one. XOk

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