Wednesday, February 6, 2013


I came home one day last week to find a newborn calf in our basement. This is not a completely unheard of situation, although one we haven’t had for a couple of years.  In addition to buying calves to “finish” (400 to 500 pounders who are raised up to a weight of about 1,200 pounds before going to market), the Farmer also has a cow/calf herd. The cows are bred to calve in March or April, when the weather is a little more welcoming.

This calf had the cosmic misfortune to be born to a feedlot heifer late in the afternoon on a day when the temps were on a downward spiral that was headed to double digits below zero over night. Although he was in the shelter of the barn, it was only about 5 degrees above zero when he hit the ground, literally - they don’t call it “dropping” a calf for nothing.

To make matters worse, his mama was  . . . um . . . what you might call a teenage mother. Or an unfit mother. She should not have been in the family way but these things happen. She had zero interest in her offspring. Most mammal mothers will do at least a cursory cleaning of their babies once they pop out of the womb. Cows lick their calves dry, which helpfully keeps them from freezing to death.

This particular heifer, however, was in complete denial about even having a calf, which meant he laid there in a big wet pile until the Farmer decided to intervene. He carried the calf out of the barn, across the yard, through the gate, down the outside basement stairs and into the basement, where he put him in an ex-pen. The calf weighed about 100 pounds at birth.

If the little rascal had been a typical frisky calf, the ex-pen would not have been up to the task of containing him, but being half frozen tends to take the zip out of even the hardiest of souls.

The Farmer toweled him off. I toweled him off. When the calf was dry, the Farmer thawed a bottle of colostrum (first milk) out of the freezer and got him to nurse a little. The calf was happy to suck on the Farmer’s fingers but not so enthusiastic about the rubber nipple on the bottle. Calves are also born with teeth. The Farmer suggested I let the calf suck on MY finger to trigger a better nursing response. I had experienced those teeth before and said he was doing a fine job. A nursing calf does a combination of sucking and grinding. I don’t know how the cows stand it.

The dogs, oddly enough, were oblivious. Doing stairs is now past Jamie’s realm of ability. If he’d been able to, though, I have no doubt he would have been in the basement with us, licking and poking and mothering that calf. Jamie has always had a mother hen streak.

Phoenix was aware there was SOMETHING in the basement and while he really wanted to go see what it was all about, the basement stairs remain the Direct Access To Hell and he will have nothing to do with them. From his viewpoint, I can understand. They are old wooden stairs, they are open on both sides and the back and they go to a landing, turn and go downward again. They are dark. They are scary.

When Phoenix was a puppy, he deviled Jamie so thoroughly, Jamie’s only escape was to go to the basement. I figured eventually Phoenix would just follow him down the stairs and until that happened, at least the basement was the Big Red Dog’s sole malinois-free environment.

But Phoenix never, ever went down those stairs and to date, my best efforts with clicker, treats and endless patience has yielded no further progress beyond one or two steps downwarn. I’ve made it very clear to the Farmer that if severe weather ever necessitates decamping to the basement, it is his job to carry Phoenix and I will guide Jamie down. This got me the eye roll. But if he can carry a 100 pound calf down the stairs I think a 53 pound dog should be a piece of cake.

So the calf stayed in the basement over night without any Belgian assistance whatsoever. At 5 the next morning, I woke, not by Jamie’s impatient “It’s time to get up now!” squeaking or Phoenix’s silent but tangible stare, but by a calf bellowing for his mama.

I rolled over and poked the Farmer. “Your kid wants breakfast,” I said.

When I got home from work that day, wee Angus has rejoined his mama in the barn. Dry now, with a belly full of milk, a passable mastery of the art of walking and a mama who was finally showing some interest in her baby, it was decided the calf could stay in the barn.

Sorry, no photos. If he’d stayed in longer than 12 hours, I might have attempted it. So close your eyes and imagine a picture of a black calf in a shadowy corner of a dark basement. There you have it.


  1. Did you see this years Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler trucks? It was a heartwarming rendition of Paul Harvey's 'when God made the Farmer'. It was beautiful.

    I just wanted to thank your husband for doing what he does, and being a Farmer :)

  2. I've learned that they can temporarily fit into big-dog sized crates and golden retriever sized head halters. I draw the line at transporting them in my van.