The Magic Barn: The Too-Big Calf

Painting "The Calf"
Painting “The Calf”

The sideways blizzard stung my face when I went out to do the chores that February morning. Sideways blizzards are what I called snowstorms with tiny hard flakes that blew sideways.

Ollie the milk cow was snug in her well-insulated cow barn and the beef cows had gathered under the shed, waiting for their alfalfa. I watered the horses and gave them grain. On the way to the hay barn I happened to glance out the dusty, cobwebbed window and was surprised to see Pop trying to move one of the beef cows. “What are you doing?” I yelled out the barn door. “She’s having her calf. Come help me.” Big, strong Pop never asked me to help him, he could carry one hundred pounds under each arm without breaking a sweat, but he lost all confidence when it came to birthing.

I pushed and he pulled and we got the half-wild cow into a horse stall out of the blizzard. Pop looked worried. “Give her some bedding,” he said, shaking his head, and then he left. I scattered piles of hay in the stall and checked the cow. She was too young to have a calf, but she had jumped the fence to join a dairy bull and now here she was: too young,  having a calf that was too big, in the middle of a sideways blizzard.

Maybe I could help. After all, I wasn’t a little kid anymore. I was ten years-old. I had been studying an old veterinary book and had memorized the black and white drawings of all the ways a calf could come out: butt-first, one front leg with the head turned back, hind legs first-or the right way: two front feet with the nose between the knees. I had seen many animals born; it was almost always a simple and happy event.

Who knows how long she had been trying to have this calf? The water bag had been visible for hours. Now little white hooves could be seen. The calf should be born soon. But it was not. I left her and came back two hours later and nothing had changed. Not good. She was lying down and I eased quietly into the stall and tried to grab the tiny hooves, but they were too slippery, so I got a burlap bag to grip them. The next time she pushed, I pulled. We both worked like this for about an hour. The calf had barely moved.

Then the cow stretched her head out into the hay and quit. She was tired. I waited. Nothing. “No, no, it’s not going to end like this!” I told her. I gave a mighty tug on the little hooves and she woke up and pushed. After half an hour we had made a little progress. Finally I saw the calf’s nose. “Yes! C’mon girl, you can do this!” My arms were shaking from the cold and from the pulling. Just a few more pushes and the shoulders were out and one good pull and the whole calf slipped out onto the hay.

It was so cold and the calf so wet, steam was rising from her body. I grabbed more burlap bags and rubbed her roughly to get her going. She was looking around with that, “Wait. What? Where am I?” look that all newborn calves have. Mama paid no attention. Not good. I helped the calf to stand on its wobbly legs and moved her toward her mama.

“Look, it’s your baby,” I told the cow. Mama looked confused for a few moments, then heaved to her feet and started to own her baby by licking it all over with her sandpaper tongue. Just one more thing was needed and that was to make sure the baby got some milk. I pushed the calf in the right direction and sure enough, she grabbed a teat and drank greedily. Success!

The next morning I woke up to a white world of six-foot snow drifts. My biceps were screaming in pain from all the pulling the day before, but inside the barn all was well. The calf was bouncing around playfully under the watchful gaze of its mama.

While I leaned on the stall railing, smiling at the silly calf, the barn door suddenly opened and Pop blew in, stomping the snow off his boots. He looked into the stall and broke out in a big grin. “Big calf,” he said. “Yup,” I said. “Heifer.” “Yup.” I said. “Give the mother a few scoops of grain,” he said. “O.K.” I said. That was Pop’s way of saying, “Congratulations on your new arrival,” to the cow. He stood for a few minutes grinning, then, afraid he might look too sentimental, he went into the hay barn and threw down the hay I needed that day for the animals.

And that was Pop’s way of saying “congratulations” to me.

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