Calf milkshakes on ice


Terry Allen photos

SUBLETTE COUNTY — The 3-hour-old calf staggers around the hay pasture on buckling legs, reminiscent of the deadness in a slept on arm waking up slowly. The effort required for figuring out how to navigate the obstacle course of the deep snow, plowed snow berms, bogs, frozen cow plops and the unsettling nudges from the mother cow slowly wakes his brain to a new world. He gains enough control of his legs to make a few halting steps toward his mother, and he gets a promising glimpse of a mysterious, and undefined comfort.
But here comes a four-legged critter carrying a two-legged critter swinging a rope, and he feels it drop around his neck. Caleb Helm gets off his horse, comes over and takes his legs out from under him and lays him on the cold, hard ground. The cowboy reaches into his side bag for some stuff and suddenly Little Bull is infused, injected, button-holed and tagged. Caleb stands up, pulls off the loop, helps him to his feet, and gives him a push toward his mother.
Little Bull 007 stands there on 4 stiff legs catching his breath. The fresh umbilical cord sways in the light breeze and warms in the sun. Two white swans fly by overhead. The photographer moves in closer and little bull turns and looks into the camera for his close-up. Then he turns away and looks at the big black patch that is his mother, his safety, his happy place, the promise.
Caleb, Coke and the photographer watch as he goes. They watch as his mother waits for him, and when he gets there, he goes where he has never been before. He goes toward the instinctive promise of warm, nourishing comfort. The three men don’t say anything, but they feel the impact as a wave of satisfaction reaches them.
Caleb gets on his horse, Brownie, and rides south toward the ranch headquarters, checking the willows for signs of hidden newborns, as he goes. Two Sandhill cranes stand like statues in an opening in the willows, watching. Coke and the photographer climb into the tall tractor cab, which is trailing a round-hay-bale un-spooler. They head north leaving long ribbons of hay for the hundreds of following cattle. They follow the wide path Coke has bladed free of snow, so the mother cows can birth their calves onto relatively bare, dry and warm ground. The path they follow winds through the willows where there is privacy, less wind and more warmth for the newborns. Calves are born wet. Mothers lick them as dry as they can, but in Sublette County, hypothermia is always a deadly threat. Privacy during birthing is so instinctively important to a cow that she at times will wander off into deep snow and give birth, rather than onto open plowed ground. A dozen vultures circling in the distance have likely found a small lunch.
Coke Landers and Caleb Helm work for the Murdock Cattle Company, situated in the Upper Green River Valley of Wyoming. Little bulls and cowboys have been living this kind of life in Sublette County since the 1870s.
People often wonder why ranchers breed their cows to calve at a time when it is so severely cold. The answer may define an old saying, “On the horns of a dilemma.” The pastures grow hay required for winter feeding, so cattle must be moved off it quickly in the spring so it can grow as lush as possible. In June, the new calves, mothers and bulls drift along a historic 70-mile cattle trail — the Green River Drift — running north into the mountain forests to graze on leased allotments. The calves need a good 30 days of conditioning before they can survive such a long journey. Before they head north, they also have to be rounded up and branded, and given other attention as needed. If the ranchers wait until more comfortable weather for calving, they will lose some of both pasture hay and summer feeding time in the forest.
Lastly, the forests are full of hungry grizzly bear and wolf.
Coke is the new president of the UGRVCA (Upper Green River Valley Cattlemen’s Association). He took over the position from local rancher and state legislator Albert Sommers. In an average year, their calf loss in the forest is around 11 percent.
Last year there was a bumper crop of berries and other food bears like, so the predation for Murdock cattle was down to about 4.5 percent loss. Ranchers have always operated on a very thin profit margin in what one could call a very short summer arctic zone climate. One might speculate a better margin could be achieved by raising yearlings, or by trucking the herds into the forest, or by applying any number of Wall Street-style cost efficiencies.
But what seems to tip the scales in favor of more traditional ranching methods is the desire to conduct a well-rounded form of ranching. Many ranchers like calves and cows and bulls being raised together. They also like raising their children in a full cycle of life context. For many, running cattle on The Drift is honoring and preserving a historic ranching tradition and it gives everyone a feeling of living a good life.
The ringtone goes off on Cokes phone. It is Caleb. He says a heifer (first-time mother cow) is having a hard time calving. Coke steers the tractor into a U-turn and heads it back south to the ranch headquarters where all the ranch heifers are kept so they can be watched carefully for any birthing complications.
While peeling off the last bale, the tractor drives by dozens of little calves playing or resting in and around the willow bushes. Interspersed among them are the babysitter cows. Coke explains cows have a social order, and they take turns babysitting while other cows eat their fill of the hay ribbons.
Arriving at the barn built around 1927, Caleb has the heifer, some tools, meds and a bucket of warm sterilizing water in a covered enclosure. The young mother is placed in a standing head stanchion to make life easier for everyone. Upon examination of the mother, one front, yellow-ish hoof of the calf is visible. Caleb reaches into the mother to feel where the other foot is and to see where the head is. Everything feels normal, except the mother has been pushing long enough that she is very tired, and the calf’s head seems a little too big and needs help to get out. Caleb gets the other front hoof and starts to pull with gentle pressure to gauge the challenge. He attaches a small pulling apparatus around the front legs, and gradually the snout and tongue begin to show.
As Coke massages and stretches the opening, Caleb pulls more firmly. Both mother and calf are silent. With more stretching and massaging by Coke, Caleb leans back with his weight for longer, firmer pulls. Coke and Caleb consult. Only the snout and lower half of the front legs are out. They are concerned about the fluids collecting in the head end of the calf, making it more difficult to get it out and possibly threatening survival.
A larger apparatus is quickly brought in. It consists of a brace to fit the backside of the heifer, a bar, jacking tool and a hook. With hand cranking, it will firmly and gradually pull the calf free. Things are more urgent now. Coke, Caleb, three dogs, mother cow, various apparatus, the as yet unspilled warm bucket of soapy water, and the photographer all do a silent, synchronized dance in the small enclosure as if they had practiced it many times before. Coke continues trying to alleviate any discomfort to the mother by continuous stretching and massage. The mother still makes no sound. All of a sudden the head breaks free and the tension on the pulling is gone. The slack is taken out, and with another tug, half the calf slips out in one fluid motion, the mother tips over in apparent relief and the cowboys are left standing amid the clutter and mess of success.
The bug-eyed baby calf is cradled by a cowboy, carried into an enclosure with clean hay bedding and laid comfortably down. Coke sprinkles some tasty nutritional flakes onto the calf, and lets the mother in with her baby. She proceeds to thoroughly lick the calf’s fur clean of amniotic and allantois fluids. It is part of a bonding process older than cattle domestication.
The eyes seem less buggy once the fur dries and rises a bit, and the calf looks more of this earth rather than from Mars. The photographer moves around for a photo, and feels the curious snouts and tongues and hears the sniffing of the 4-H calves of Coke’s daughters in the next enclosure stick their snouts and tongues through the fence boards and check him out. It is their way so he lets them do it. They are all there to witness a new soul touch down, and everyone seems to belong.
Thank you to Coke, Caleb and Madeleine Murdock for the opportunity, and for the invitation to bring my camera and words to your branding in about 30 days, weather permitting.