A long-ago orphaned cow becomes a babysitter and friend.
For many years, my husband and I made sure our cows calved in January. This way, we could be sure that the cows would be bred again by the time they went to summer range in April, and bred to our own bulls, avoiding any inbreeding that might occur out on the range. January calving wasn’t ideal, and when the weather was really cold, we made sure our cows delivered their babies in the shelter of our barn. There, we could monitor the birth, helping if necessary, and dry newborn calves when the temperature fell below zero.
Though we have a smaller herd now than we used to and no longer have to calve in January, there are still April blizzards that require us to use our barn for calving. Cows that have been inside the barn before will go in readily, but first-time calvers are timid and we always use an older “babysitter” cow to lead them inside. Over the past 42 years, we have used a number of patient older cows for this role.
Buffalo Girl is our current babysitter cow and she’s had that job for nearly ten years. She was the perfect candidate, raised as a pet after her mother, Onyx, died suddenly when Buffalo Girl was only six weeks old. Just a few weeks earlier, we’d lost another cow that left us a red steer orphan we had to raise on a bottle. My granddaughter Emily (age 6 at the time) named that calf Nicknack Paddywhack Jack and she enjoyed feeding him his bottle. Suddenly, she had two calves to help feed!
We kept the two orphan calves in pens around the barnyard, where there was some grass, and in our backyard a while. Emily would go out there to pet them every time she came to the ranch. The red steer was playful and obnoxious but Buffalo Girl, despite being wild and scared at first, quickly bonded with Emily. She seemed entranced by the small child and would come up to her and stand quietly while Em rubbed her forehead.
As Em got older, she was here only sporadically to visit, but when she did come, she could always walk out in the pasture and commune with her special cow. When Buffalo Girl was a two-year-old with a calf of her own, Em came to visit for the first time since Buffalo Girl was a baby. When Em squatted down in front of her, the young cow put her head down to be rubbed.
They’ve kept this special bond, even though Emily is now 17 and Buffalo Girl is 11 years old.
In that time, Buffalo Girl has had ten calves and is a very good mother — except for the first hour after she gives birth. We always have to be present when she calves so she doesn’t inadvertently hurt the calf in her concern and enthusiasm for her new baby. Without us, she bellows and roots the calf around, sometimes knocking it against the stall wall, not giving it a chance to stand up. If we can help the calf get to its feet and start nursing, Buffalo Girl mellows out and we no longer have to supervise.
This year, Buffalo Girl had a big bull calf that Emily named Gilbert. My daughter Andrea, Emily, and I sat quietly in the adjacent stall, watching as she calved and, true to form, as Buffalo Girl got up to sniff and lick her baby, she bellowed and started shoving him around with her head. We climbed into the stall and one of us held her back while the others helped Gilbert get up. Then we guided him to Buffalo Girl’s udder. He was still too wobbly to walk or even stand very well, but Buffalo Girl is so gentle that we could position her close to her calf.
Andrea put the teat in his mouth as Emily and I tried to hold the calf up and keep him in place. It was quite an effort because he was such a big calf! Buffalo Girl was behaving much more motherly by then and licking us as well as her calf. Gilbert nursed as much as he could hold and wore himself out. By that time, it was safe to leave the pair alone together in the stall.
Over the next few days, Em and her younger siblings started making a pet out of Gilbert, too! While many cows are protective of their new babies and it wouldn’t be safe to allow kids to be around them for the first few days, Buffalo Girl trusts us. The grandkids have all adopted her as their pet — or maybe it’s the other way around.