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Cattle, like people, are more likely to be led than driven

Rebecca Bearden rebecca-bearden-open-gate-ranch-a.jpg
Our 'barn people' did include a bottle calf in need of a mama. I guess when God closes a door, He opens a 'gate.'

It was one of those late January mornings when you wish you’d grabbed the gloves without holes in them. Regardless of the cold, I was grateful the sun was a lot higher than it should have been when I finally ambled out of the ranch house to feed the barn cats and check on the “barn people” before leaving for work.

As noted in previous ramblings, these misfits include but are not limited to bovines in need of special surveillance (first-calf heifers) or attention (bottle calves) or those in transition (homegrown herd-bulls-to-be that are just too cute to be placed in the regular bachelor pad because they are essentially pets).

This particular morning’s drama involved a first-calf heifer that was on the short list. She was doing her best to get off that list when I found her in a recumbent position at the bottom of the hill next to the barn. I fed the bottle calf, nervously tossed a little grain into troughs for the rest of the barn people, and then assessed the best perch from which to monitor her progress without making her feel like I was watching her. Who am I kidding? They always know.

I saw that the front feet had emerged. She was pushing with reasonable force. Still, something looked off. Maybe my brain just assumed the worst-case scenario at this point after experiencing the uterine prolapse incident earlier this season. I called Rachel and she began the process of loading up toddlers for what could be a long morning.

I walked uphill and started initial setup for the laboring cow’s potential relocation to the working pens. After wrestling what is a sad excuse for a gate free from the corner barn post (it’s basically a wad of net wire and rusty iron rods tied with a frayed bridle rein), I dragged a trough under the barn and sprinkled in a few soy hull pellets. Possibly the most important lesson I have learned on this ranch is that cattle, like people, are more likely to be led than driven. Plus the process will cost less time and money in the long run, guaranteed. Food is a universal motivator in all cultures, especially agriculture. Always have a bucket ready.

The next decision to be made was whether to pen the laborer’s pasture mates out of the way or leave them as is to provide a “Judas.” A “Judas” for those who may not be familiar with the term is a cow (or other being) that assists with the penning process by doing exactly what you want them to do, as in they follow the feed bucket/tractor/truck/ATV/horse to the location you intend without a hitch.

As I debated, the pasture mates in question (new bull, old mama cow and calf, new mama cow and calf, and bottle calf) made a mad rush for the recently opened “gate” and straight for the trough, consuming what little grain I had deposited and also making deposits of their own.

With that question answered, my plan was then to get more feed, lead the hungry herd all downhill to the laboring cow, gather everyone in unison, and then rattle enough feed to get the whole bunch back up the hill, through the open gate, to the barn, and into the pen.

It might have worked. We’ll never know. I decided to conduct one final check on the laboring mom only to discover a stillborn calf lying on the ground next to her. My disappointment was audible. As such, I gave her a consoling head pat, said a few words, and trekked back up the hill to reset. Convincing the messy barn crew to exit was easier (again with a little feed) than wrestling the “gate” back into commission. But I managed to drag everything into roughly its original position, securing the setup with the tattered bridle rein.

Upon arrival, Rachel informed me she did not have the highest expectations for this little heifer given that she had been unable to put on weight all year. Still, our barn people did include a bottle calf in need of a mama. I guess when God closes a door, He opens a “gate.”

Bearden is a biologist with the Geological Survey of Alabama. She writes for Farm Press about the exploits on her family's ranch in Alabama.
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