Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Thin Line

Spring is almost finished and most of our babies for the year have arrived. Lambing is over and the flock is happy enjoying their pasture shared with our Guernsey Girls. Soon, they'll move to fresh pasture at Eden where they'll spend the summer. Our big pasture is full of cows with their calves. We were surprised this year with several sets of twins. And of course, we always get our batch of 100 chicks every month. There is never a shortage of babies!

But spring always brings the reminder that there is a thin line between life and death. As Ross says, "We're just a heartbeat away from death." On a ranch with lots of livestock, there are bound to be animals that get sick or injured and no matter what we do, some will die. There is bad weather, cold weather, wolves, coyotes, eagles, common diseases like scours, uncommon diseases like white muscle, and the list of antagonists goes on. Some babies are born premature, with congenital defects, or have problems that are never diagnosed. For me, the hardest part of being a cowgirl is death.

Remains of calf that died unexpectedly while on pasture
We always have our triumphs when we face off with Death and actually win. The most notable example this year was Snow. Her mom had twin calves in a snowstorm. When Ross found them, her brother was already dead and she was near death herself from hypothermia. Her mother had spent her time trying to take care of the dead calf, so little Snow didn't get licked and dried at birth. Ross loaded her limp body on the tractor and brought her to the house where he carried her into the furnace room in the basement. We've learned from experience that the best way to save a hypothermic animal is to put them in the very warm furnace room where they breath hot air. They can only be effectively warmed from the inside. When Snow arrived in the furnace room, she was unresponsive and her mouth and tongue were cold. Even her breath was cold. We immediately tubed her with warm milk and colostrum from our milk cows. Then I spent a long time rubbing her with towels to get her dry and stimulate her circulation. The first good sign was shivering.

Unresponsive Snow

Cows are tough animals. And even calves fight hard. That was our Snow. With every breath, she got a little bit warmer. By the time she could stand, we knew she would be just fine.
As soon as Snow was out of danger, Ross and I saddled our horses and rode into the storm to find Snow's mother. We had to bring her back to the barn so we could reunite them and she could take care of her own baby. On a ranch, emergencies never seem to happen during good weather or at the right time. That's why we have plenty of all-weather clothes and we don't wear watches.

Sure enough, as soon as Snow was plenty warm and able to stand on her own, we returned her to her mom who was very glad to see her.

Snow and Mom
I probably make it harder on myself because I have the practice of naming any baby who comes into the nursery for care. All the healthy babies born on pasture that are successfully raised by their moms remain nameless. It must be those nurturing genes in all females. So every baby that I care for and doesn't make it, had a name. I love them, stay up long hours with them, feed them by hand using bottles, syringes, or tubes, snuggle with them, pet them, encourage them, and generally do whatever it takes to give them a chance. Even if the chance is very small.

Gumby was a very small chance. We live in a selenium deficient part of the country. Sheep, horses and other livestock require selenium in order to be healthy. This is why we provide a mineral salt for all our animals. Gumby was just fine at birth, and his mom did a great job taking care of him. But one day we noticed the little lamb couldn't stand up. Over several days, he got stiffer and stiffer. We brought him in to the nursery and consulted with the Merck Veterinary Manual as well as a local vet. Sure enough, all the symptoms pointed to white muscle disease or "stiff lamb disease". The suggested treatment: injections of a selenium/vitamin E combination. But selenium is also toxic, so it can only be given in small, restricted doses. The vet said that he might recover and he might not. So, we did our best. I propped Gumby up on straw and gave him a bottle several times a day. Over weeks, he started eating alfalfa too. When it was clear that he'd be in the nursery for a long time and he still wasn't able to stand on his own, I made a special sling out of a feed bag and hung him up. He regained flexibility and mobility in his head and neck and expressed quite a personality. I couldn't help but smile everytime I gave him his bottle. His favorite game was pulling off the nipple and making a mess all over both of us. Every day for about 6 weeks, I was his mom. And one day his heart stopped. Evidently, it had been irreversibly damaged.


Despite the heartache and sadness that comes with every tragedy, I'll keep right on keeping on. I lost Monster and Gumby, but I have all the lambs on pasture with their moms as well as my three naughty bummer lambs: Princess, Pea, and Dufus. And every time I look at Princess, Pea, and Dufus, I remember the others. And even though we've lost a few calves, we have about 90 healthy ones running and bouncing around the pasture.

For those who think that ranching and raising meat isn't humane, they should come visit Paradise. They might be surprised at how many tears I shed on the job. Ross and I do what our ancestors have done for thousands of years. We live with our domestic livestock and care for them. They, in turn, care for us by providing our milk, eggs, and meat. We love what we do with all the ups and downs, and we're frequently reminded of our place in the universe.

There is a thin line. We are one heartbeat away.

Ava with a steer ready for butcher. We raised him from birth.

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