Tony Vagneur: Holy cow, those were some good days after all
It got down well below zero the other day. How far below is really insignificant — it’s just cold and lovely. Walking around on the comforting, squeaky snow always brings to mind the times a cow’s hoof landed on my foot and refused to move. If you think cold toes and misery late at night are bad enough to an 11-year-old kid, add the weight of a 1,200-pound cow standing on your foot to the feeling of “will this project ever end” on a below-zero night and you can begin to get the picture.
It’s easy for a ranch kid to end up in a position like that, simply because there really isn’t any choice when dad calls, and besides, ranching is fun to most youngsters. Most of the time. Calving season is a trying time for everyone, and all available hands are called on to do their fair share.
Looking back, it was a rather primitive operation, or maybe not, and my dad always had the help of my grandfather for those after-dark excursions, until Gramps got seriously ill. Then you-know-who was called off the bench to take up the slack.
We had a big corral, big enough to hold 200 or 300 head of cattle at one time, and off to one side, there was a small barn, maybe 20-by-20, built out of stout logs hauled off the mountain behind the ranch. It was a cozy-looking little structure, very old, straw on the floor, with a hay mow above, although at the time, its original use had been lost to history. There was no electricity to the building, and although it may have looked snug, it was usually colder inside than out.
During calving season, my dad would put the cows imminently ready to birth into this large corral, having them in a contained space where he would hopefully be able to manage any problems that might arise. There is no shortage of issues that can arise with calving, and a prudent rancher keeps his eye on things around the clock.
Just before bedtime, my dad would have me drive the pickup truck along the lane, shining a very bright light down on things while he walked through the corral, which was directly below the Woody Creek Road. My job was to keep a very large spotlight on him — if he needed to stop to doctor a sick calf or check something out, I would stop, shining the light on his location. Not a very complicated job, you wouldn’t think, but integral to entire operation. I got yelled at a few times for not paying attention.
Occasionally, a heifer wouldn’t allow her newborn calf to nurse, or an older cow needed some convincing that, yes, it really was her calf, or maybe something more serious. In these cases, we’d push the heifer or cow into the above-mentioned barn. Dad had a gate, one end attached to the barn wall, that allowed us to trap the cow in the triangle when the gate was closed toward the wall. These were not tame cows we were working with.
We could then get the calf a meal of mother’s best, or work on whatever problem the cow might need addressed. We’d also usually put them in there to assist with the birthing of an obstinate newborn, usually from a first-calf heifer, unwilling to come into the cold of February or March without a little persuasion. In rancher parlance, that’s called “pulling a calf.” It’s necessary to save the life of the calf and many times, the mother.
While the cow was being trapped against the wall, that seemed to be the time they could step on your feet if you weren’t paying attention. Imagine a big, cloven hoof splayed out, stomping down on top of your soft rubber boots while you’re trying to coax her into the proper position. Once those cows got a foot planted, they generally seemed to like their stance and were very reluctant to move. There’s not much help that comes your way, either, as my dad wasn’t about to let the cow back out of the trap, and his advice generally was, “You’ll just have to deal with it.”
As mentioned, there was no electricity in the barn so we were also trying to keep track of lanterns and flashlights along with an unhappy cow, an added complication that in the end, made success that much sweeter.
After Gramps died, Dad built a modern calving barn near the house, replete with electricity and a modern chute designed for new-born work. It was his pride and joy and made his, and my, life much easier. I’d be on duty while my dad went to various evening meetings, but other than that, he and the hired hand had it under control.
I kinda miss those days.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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