An expensive lesson in staying in one’s lane

The calf was stillborn, and I learned an obvious less about life. Get proper equipment, educate yourself and seek competent help at the first sign of trouble.

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For the average Chicagoan, a working knowledge of cows probably doesn’t extend much further than the city’s “Cows on Parade” art installation in the summer of 1999.

Syd Stone/Sun-Times

One of the saddest things that happens when you raise cows is the death of newborn calves. Most often, mama cows are better at birthing and caring for their babies than you are, but things can go wrong.

One time around midnight, a frustrated veterinarian told me that if people wanted to keep pet cows, they shouldn’t breed them. She’d been trying for hours to help with a breech birth, but the inexperienced heifer — who had been in labor for about 12 hours — kept sitting down. We were all exhausted, especially the poor cow.

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New to cattle husbandry, I lacked a head gate and squeeze chute to keep her standing. By the time we trucked her to the veterinary clinic in the morning, it was too late. The calf was stillborn, and the mother cow had to be euthanized — a tough way to learn an obvious lesson.

Get proper equipment, educate yourself and seek competent help at the first sign of trouble. It doesn’t have to be a licensed veterinarian, just somebody with the know-how.

One such person would be our dear friend Jennifer, an Arkansas country girl, expert breeder of cattle — she does her own artificial insemination — and passionate advocate of agricultural education. If Jennifer had her way, and the woman can be extremely persuasive, everybody would have to take at least one ag course in high school, if nothing else so that city people would have some idea where their food comes from.

And to learn to show some respect. Ordinary common sense would also be nice, although it’s actually rather extraordinary.

Anyway, Jennifer being Jennifer, she partly blames herself for what recently happened in her pasture. See, she’d left the bull in with the cows too long last year, resulting in one of her mama cows delivering a calf during the first real summer heat, with temperatures in the 90s and extreme humidity.

The mother cow nursed her newborn until it fell asleep — “milk drunk,” as they say — hid him in the shade of some tall grass, and then took refuge in a farm pond with the rest of the girls.

Enter, stage left, a family of opinionated animal-lovers fresh from town. Spotting the calf snoozing in the grass, they leapt to the conclusion that the poor baby — roughly the size of a golden retriever — had been abandoned to die by cruel and uncaring owners.

Which just goes to show you. See, if nothing else, that’s hundreds, potentially thousands of dollars sleeping on the ground — a purebred Hereford bull calf with a famous grandfather called “About Time.”

Jennifer specializes in Herefords — reddish-brown, white-faced animals, for urbanites taking weekend drives in the country. She, husband Bryan and their sons haul them to cattle shows and county fairs all over the region, where they win lots of prize ribbons.

These are some pampered livestock.

Jennifer has become locally famous for her habit of stalking cows with binoculars when she thinks they’re fixing to give birth; Bryan’s famous, too, for loving the determined nut he married.

But you’d better leave her cows alone.

Instead, the animal-loving pilgrims sprang into action. First, they called the police to report an instance of animal cruelty. A Faulkner County deputy came out, sized things up, advised them he saw no problem and to go back home. I’m guessing he talked “country,” because most rural Arkansas deputies do, which may have persuaded them that he couldn’t possibly know what he was talking about.

Failing to raise Bryan and Jennifer on the phone — they were incommunicado watching Razorback baseball on TV — the pilgrims fetched a bucket of water, and, get this, a turkey baster, and climbed into the pasture to save the day. Unnoticed by a mama cow habituated to humans — she’d surely have trampled the idiots if she’d seen what they were up to — the rescue team proceeded to force-feed the calf water until it could hold no more.

Alerted by a neighbor, Bryan and Jennifer’s son arrived to find the pilgrims attempting to lead the calf with a dog leash around its neck. A polite, if formidable, young man, he informed them that they were trespassing and that filling a newborn calf’s belly (if not its lungs) with water could only cause harm.

Indeed, the little bull died 24 hours later, leaving my friends furious and preparing to file charges. She believes the pilgrims meant well, Jennifer says, but remains unable to forgive their presumption. “People need to stop pretending they’re experts about agriculture when THEY KNOW NOTHING,” she writes, “except what they read on some ‘Save the Whale’ website.”

Nothing against whales, understand. Just that ignorance and sentimentality are often a deadly combination.

Or as one of her Facebook friends put it, “I know what I’d like to do with that turkey baster. However, it’s Sunday, so I’ll just leave it at that.”

Gene Lyons is a columnist for the Arkansas Times.

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