Voices of Spencer Creek Valley
Local poet and historian Lois Barton offers a chapter from "Grandma's Stories"
By Lois Barton
Life down on the farm isn't always a bed of roses, especially for the non-professionals. One day in March this became very clear on an old "stump ranch" in the coast range foothills of Oregon.
"Who could be calling me at this ungodly hour?" Mike lifted the receiver from the phone that jangled repeatedly in his ear, waking him from sound sleep. He'd been up till all hours working with the local artists guild. His next one-man show of sculptures was in the works and his dreams had been of a great sale to a Paris art connoisseur.
"Hullo," he mumbled drowsily into the mouthpiece. Then, "Hunh? What did you say?"
"Did you ever pull a calf?" repeated the voice on the phone. He recognized a middle aged neighbor woman. "My heifer needs some help and I don't know what to do." As the question began to penetrate his lethargy his thoughts turned back to the Eastern Oregon ranch where he grew up years ago. His father and older brother had come to the rescue of cows in trouble with birthings. He had often watched the procedure and sometimes helped a bit.
The neighbor was waiting. "Yeah," he acknowledged, "I have."
"Well, please come down then if you will," She hung up as he said, "OK, I'll be there."
In about ten minutes he drove into the neighbor's yard clad in overalls and rubber boots, ready for action, but yawning mightily. He found Mrs. B in the barn, a rope over her arm, watching the heifer lying on the stable floor.
The stable in this old barn was poorly lit by only the open door and two small openings in the back wall where manure was thrown out. The floor was of old planks that were both damp and well impregnated with manure over the years. A scattering of trampled bedding provided a little protection from the dirt.
The nose and one hoof of an unborn calf were visible at the heifer's rear. The calf's tongue hanging out had turned a sickly bluish color, so it was apparent from the start that it was no longer alive.
"Am I ever glad to see you!" Mrs. B exclaimed. "This one didn't come in yesterday morning with the rest of the cows, but I had to go to Portland for the day and didn't have time to hunt her up. I'm thankful she showed up on her own this morning, poor thing. But I think it's too late for the calf. All I know about this business is what I've read in James Herriott."
Former ranch hand Mike sized up the situation and proceeded to tie a couple of half-hitches in the rope around the visible hoof, then reached inside for the other and repeated the knot around that one.
About this time Mrs. B's daughter, a college student not yet gone to classes for the day, appeared at the stable door ready to lend a hand.
"Good morning, Mike. You awake yet?" she greeted him.
"I'm not sure," he answered as the three attendants began to pull on the rope for all they were worth. Gradually the calf's head emerged completely. Then inch by painful inch the shoulders came out, but pull as they would they couldn't get the calf out beyond its mid-section.
Running an exploratory arm up into the birth canal, Mike determined that the calf's hip bone was lodged against the heifer's pelvis and neither bone seemed likely to give. Meanwhile two other neighbor men, who had been summoned, appeared on the scene. Father and son were both well over six feet tall, two generations of football "heavies."
Seeing what was up, they grabbed hold on the rope and pulled with all they had, whereupon mama cow began to slide across the floor.
"Jeez, ain't that something?" asked the older man. "What a huge calf! You know, it's not that easy even in a normal birth." He darted an embarrassed glance at Mrs. B., mother of eight, as she came back with, "Tell me about it."
"This is what the vet's call a hip lock," Mike said.
"Shall I call a vet?" worried Mrs. B.
"Oh, not yet," Mike said. "When we've tried everything we can think of without success, maybe. Vets are pretty busy and they cost a lot of money. This cow is still pretty lively."
The heifer had been in labor for at least 24 hours. One of her hind legs seemed partially paralyzed from the pressures. The men rolled her over enough to get that leg back under her instead of having it awkwardly extended forward its entire length. They thought that might make a little more room for the calf's exit.
The reshuffled pressure of that turn forced rank-smelling gas from the cow and bubbles of putrefaction from the birth canal. The older neighbor was sufficiently in line with the discharge to get a good snootful of the heavy stink.
"Oh, God!" he choked, dropping his hold on the rope and turning to the door where he could fill his lungs with fresh air.
"If you gotta puke, go do it," Mike grinned. "It's all part of the job." The boy actually barfed his breakfast on the ground outside. More pulling gained perhaps another inch. They pulled at an angle; tried rotating the calf in the birth canal, all without success.
At last someone suggested turning the heifer completely over on her side. In that position she looked so distended through the abdomen that there was speculation about whether she had another calf in there, or whether it might be Siamese twins, the second one attached to the first in such a way as to prevent its exit in the usual fashion.
Once the heifer was turned almost onto her backbone, the pulling was resumed and finally with a great gurgling, sucking sound an oversized bull calf slid out onto the floor, trailing afterbirth and a foul smell. Whew!
At last the poor mama could stop straining, empty her overloaded bladder and bowels and begin to relax.
"Maybe we learned something, turning her that way," Mike said. "When I was a kid my dad and big brother did most of the work. Mostly they let me spread the straw to keep them out of the dirt." He began stroking the trembling heifer's side and neck. "It's all over, Mama.You'll be OK now." Covering her with straw to hold in her body heat while she recuperated, he grinned up at the others.
Success at last! "I can just see the headline. BIG CITY ARTIST DELIVERS OVERSIZE CALF! I'm awake now. How about some breakfast?"