It Could Have Been Worse

Steve was gone. Most stories like this one start that way. It could have been worse, though. I could have been gone instead and missed out.

As this year’s president of East Slope Back Country Horsemen, my husband, Steve, attended the state convention in Billings. I stayed at the Graham Ranch to take care of the calving.

So far, all of the cows and most of the heifers had calved without our assistance and the weather was warm. When I checked in the morning, everybody looked fine. But the evening check revealed a heifer calving down by the creek. I walked up behind her as she lay on the creek bank and could see two feet and a nose appearing.

It could have been worse. The calf could have been coming in the wrong position or could have been too big for the heifer‘s pelvis.

Calves need to come into this world just as divers hit the water — with front feet and nose first. I moved the heifer away from the creek, gave the pair a half an hour and checked on them again. The calf was in the same position, no progress. The calf was too big for the heifer’s pelvis.

It could have been worse. I could have not had a good horse.

I ran to gather my 13-year-old son, Will, and trusty Freckles, our 6-year-old gelding. Will waited at the corral to open the gate at the right time while Freckles and I brought the heifer in. The heifer lay down on the creek bank again and would not get up.

It could have been worse. I could have not been able to pull the calf out right there.

I looped my rope around the calf’s feet and tugged. I could not get the calf out. I dallied the rope around the saddle horn and let Freckles pull. Nothing. Because of the creek bank, I could not position the horse to pull in the perfect direction so I pulled and tugged, moved Freckles a bit and let him pull again. Over and over, we pulled until the calf slipped halfway out and bawled.

It could have been worse. The calf could have been hip-locked.

Sometimes, a calf needs to rotate 90 degrees so the wide part of his hips can slip through the wide part of the heifer’s pelvis. I tugged again. The calf was hip-locked.

It could have been worse. My horse could have wandered off.

I tugged on the calf’s feet to rotate him, but he was stuck. I grabbed the rope to dally around the saddle horn. Freckles had wandered off.

It could have been worse. The heifer could have been in the creek.

I pulled. The cow pushed. She pushed so hard, she rolled over and landed in the creek. I jumped in to grab the calf’s nose before it slipped underwater. Now I could rotate the calf and hold his head up, but I could not pull at the same time. But soon, Will found me. He had seen the riderless horse and came running. We took turns pulling on the rope and holding the calf’s head above water. The calf sighed. The cow moaned.

It could have been worse. The calf could have been dead.

Finally, Will pulled hard and the calf came out. It was not breathing. Will gave it CPR, but the calf was dead.

It could have been worse. We could have had another heifer in trouble.

I had seen another heifer straining with her tail held up, a clear sign of impending birth. Will and I left the first heifer in the creek to rest while we looked for the second heifer. She was still straining and acting strange. I caught Freckles, and we got the second heifer to the corral.

It could have been worse. We could have had a barn fire.

As we moved the second heifer near the corral gate, both of us smelled smoke. The orphan lambs had knocked the heat lamp into the straw. While Will moved the lambs to the horse trailer, I dowsed the smoldering straw. Steve called about then to check on how things were going. Then we went to work on the second heifer.

It could have been worse. I could have had to call a friend for help.

I reached in to find a head coming, but no front feet. Try as hard as I could, I could not wrap my hands around those legs. I ran through my long mental list of friends to call in an emergency. Thales came quickly.

It could have been worse. I could have had to call the vet in the middle of the night.

Thales and I tried to reach those feet until we both had throbbing, numb arms. I called the vet. The calf had been dead long enough so the heifer’s uterus was contracting. The vet worked until sweat beaded across his forehead. He got the calf out in pieces.

Both heifers lived through their ordeals.

It could have been worse. I could have some dull, boring office job.

Lisa Schmidt and her husband, Steve Hutton, raise Montana natural, grassfed lamb and beef at the Graham Ranch near Conrad.

Lisa Schmidt