Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

From the 50s and 60s to today . . .

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

SSS Shirttail

Ready to ride
I had been Dad's herdsman for two months. I knew everything about cattle. Their needs. Their peculiarities. Not.
But I loved the job.
Every morning, I would drag out whatever goofball horse I was currently riding, tack up, and be off to check the herd.
This is a bit more complex than the statement suggests.
Yes, I would ride around the field. (I'd like to point out here that the aforementioned 'field' was roughly the size of a good-sized town.) And yes, riding around it was pure joy to anyone as horse-crazy as I. But I also had to be on the look-out for any cows getting ready to calve. Having trouble calving. Already calved. And anything else remotely resembling cows, calves and all their antecedent and potentially fatal problems.
Thus, the most important of my duties was watching alertly for signs of a cow having trouble.
This wasn't always easy to spot. For one thing, a cow preparing to give birth will hide herself so completely that she cannot be found. Even with GPS.
Cows are funny that way.
Any other bodily function, they are happy to share with anyone and everyone. If they can do it, you are welcome to watch.
But when they are in labor (yes, they do experience labor) they head for nearest secret spot. Very, very secret. So secret that . . . well, let me put it this way. If bin Laden had been hidden by a cow preparing to calve, he never would have been found.
I must confess, I missed some of them in my travels.
Most of them were fine and I would ride out the next day and spot yet another little red and white baby 'hidden' in the tall grass.
Some weren't, and those either required immediate help.
or burial.
Ranching can be a brutal business.
On this particular bright and sunny spring day, I had just started my sweep. I was feeling particularly cheerful because the days were getting noticeably warmer and most of the snow was gone.
I directed my horse along the north side of the pasture, heading east. There were less trees there and movement was easy. Then I swung back, just inside the tree line.
There! A suspicious patch of red! I slid off my horse and investigated. Sure enough, a cow. An almost completely exhausted cow.
I circled her quietly, trying to see the business end of things.
Yes, definitely calving. As I watched, she strained.
But something was wrong. She had obviously been at this a while, but was making no visible progress.
I finally got a clear view of her back end. I could see a pink calf's nose.
And one little white hoof.
I must point out here that a calf normally presents with a little pink nose and two little white hooves. All is well. It's two front feet and head enter the world together, followed immediately by the rest of the body, a stubby white-tipped tail and two little rear hooves.
The appearance of one hoof means that the little guy is trying to come through with one foot and leg tucked behind him, forcing the shoulder to bulge.
Making him entirely the wrong shape to come via the normal entrance.
There are only two solutions: Push the calf back inside and quickly, very quickly, get your hand around that recalcitrant hoof and pull it forward. Or find a vet for an immediate caesarian.
My dad was a vet and could easily have performed the needed surgery. But there was over a mile between him and my patient.
I considered my options for a very brief time. Then decided on option two. I jumped on my horse and proceeded to herd my uncomfortable mother-to-be towards the ranch buildings.
We made it halfway across the field.
She wasn't making any detours and the straightest route to the gate was over the last remaining snow bank. She tried to push through. She didn't get very far.
She sank into the drift with a groan and . . . stayed there.
I immediately slid off my horse again and approached.
By this point, the poor thing was oblivious to my presence. I had a very short time to do something and very few tools at my disposal to do it with.
I looked down at my shirt, a long-sleeved, button-up variety. It would have to do.
Placing a gentle hand on that little nose, I shoved the calf back inside it's mother.
Then I slid my hand in beside it and felt for that wayward hoof.
There it was! I cupped it in my hand and pulled it forward.
It slid easily.
I released my hold on the wet nose and it slid towards light and life once more. But this time, it was accompanied by two hooves.
I stripped off my shirt, tied the sleeves around each of those little feet and, bracing a boot against the mamma's backside, heaved.
The little, shivering, wet calf slid out.
Into my lap.
But any disgust or outright repugnance was immediately dispelled when the little guy (yes, it was a boy) shook his head and I heard those wet ears slap weakly against his head.
He was alive!
Belying the manner in which she had entered the snow bank, the mother immediately struggled to her feet and turned around to see her new baby.
Ignoring me completely (maybe I was a part of the landscape by now . . .) she started licking him.
He bleated softly and she 'mmmmm-ed' at him.
I was no longer needed. I took myself off for home.
And a bath.

There is a codicil.
My father raised only purebred Polled Hereford cattle. And each animal was required to have its own registration papers. I can still picture him seated at his desk, trying to come up with imaginative names that not only identified the animal, but also connected it in some way to its parents.
The naming of my little calf posed no such difficulty.
Daddy named him SSS Shirttail.
No explanations needed.

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