“Yeah, that’s a lot of hamburger on the hoof!” “Just a dumb critter.” Both of these observations have been carelessly made regarding cows. But…there was a cow….
Her name was Penny. A dark red coat covered her from hoof to ears, making her look like she wore a turtleneck sweater. A white face and pink nose completed her bovine look. A big sandpaper tongue could rough you up with love if you got too close. Her motive in life, primal or pure–she wanted to be a mama.
This story starts in late spring. For the third year in a row, Penny took matters into her own hands…er…hooves. Our plans just weren’t put into action quick enough for Penny.
On a beef farm, the annual births of calves are scheduled. Shelter space, marketing time, and weather all figure in. On our Minnesota farm, the bull was re-united with his cow harem each June. This meant births in March the following year. Penny couldn’t wait.
Turned free along with her sister cows to sample the tender new shoots of green grass in the pasture in April, the fresh spring air brought thoughts of love to Penny’s de-horned head. And since our bull wasn’t yet available to choose for a daddy for her next baby, Penny campaigned to find another.
Grass occupied her attention for a time, then satiated, she raised her head, surveyed the blue sky and greening hills and sniffed the floating spring scents. She smelled grass, earth and…wait…a bull?
Penny’s heart surely quickened. A primitive force took over and she began to paw the ground. A bellow, low and beseeching, rose from the bottom of her aproned neck to echo out her throat, rumbling across the hills to the neighboring farm. An answering bellow rumbled back, and Penny tossed her head.
She didn’t even tear the fence down as she leapt over the barbed wire. Her excitement created winged hooves that flew over dampened, dormant, late winter hills to the one who answered her call.
He was handsome–white and well muscled…majestic.Their tryst didn’t last long; the neighbor called our farm to report an extra cow. We hauled her home, but Penny didn’t care by then, her mission had been accomplished.
Nine months later, Penny gave birth to a beautiful white calf that favored her daddy. We named her Lilly. Penny was a proud mama. We didn’t see the dark cloud that lay on the horizon outside the cow corral.
Lilly was a little subdued for a new calf. When she was a couple weeks old, the vet was called to our farm to treat another calf. With practiced eye, he saw Lilly and named the dark cloud we hadn’t noticed . Noting the subtly different shape of Lilly’s forehead, He remarked, “That’s a water-head calf,” Lilly would not live to adulthood. We didn’t tell Penny.
Saddened, we watched Penny care for her baby. At first things went quite well. Then at two months, Lilly no longer followed Penny to the pasture. While growing physically, she also grew short of breath and more sluggish. But she ate hay from the feeder and nursed as usual. Penny went out to graze the wooded hills, returning two to three times each day to the corral, washing and feeding her failing baby. The bond was strong.
At three months of age, Lilly lay down and died. Penny returned home to find her baby quiet and still. She mooed, encouraging Lilly to get up. Watching over her baby through the night, she went to the pasture the next morning to eat, then returned to Lily’s body.
Lilly needed burying. My husband used the loader tractor to dig a calf-sized grave in the corner of our corral. Penny was present as the loader bucket transported Lilly to her grave and covered her with black Minnesota dirt. The gravesite smoothed over, we left Penny alone in the corral.
Three days later, I came home from work and glanced at the corral. Penny still stood, her head bowed over the darkened dirt of Lilly’s grave, lowing mournfully. The tears ran down my cheeks. I was a mama too.