February seems to be the month my calf stories begin — for good reason, as it is in this month that the calving season starts. This is a true story that begins in early February 2020.
The story is about a young newborn calf. The calf is a bull, and Flash is his name. For the next 18 months he lived on the land, in my heart, and in the hearts of three other people.
Flash would prove to be not just an ordinary bull calf. There is no other way to say this except to say that Flash had the capacity to love. Not perhaps love as humans express and show love. As his caretakers, we understood that it was love on a level we did not totally understand but openly accepted.
On the day he was born, unlike most calves, he was slow to get on his feet. Most calves after 30 minutes or so make attempts to get up. Having reached that point, they wobble along, take a step or two, and fall back down again. This stand and fall process is repeated until the calf finds the coordination and strength needed to stand and take a step or two toward its momma. Reaching his momma early and starting to nurse is important. These are the critical moments following birth. It is the nursing and intake of important respiratory and other disease antibodies found in the colostrum that will determine the calf’s short- and long-term health.
As I watched Flash in the field for the first several hours following his birth, he made little effort to try to get up. Despite gentle nudging and licking, the momma was not successful and he just laid there in the pasture. It was now worry time; I knew that I would very soon have to take matters into my own hands. It is at that point when a rancher has to decide to leave the calf with the momma and hope for the best or remove it. Removing it means for the next six months, it will be a bottle baby requiring daily and regular, scheduled bottles of warm milk.
As I pondered that decision, I chose to try a third option: feed him in the field a few times until he was able to stand, walk, and nurse.
This is exactly the choice I made for the next three days. He did become a little stronger, was able to get up for a period of a few minutes, then he would fall back on the ground. Despite the several rounds of influenza vaccine I administered to him, it was apparent that he was sick. The momma finally surrendered and moved permanently away and joined the herd as it grazed a long distance away. There was no other option but to bring him in for daily care. He was indeed to become a bottle baby, needing to learn to suck on a bottle alone and eventually learn to eat formulated calf feed.
My partner at the time became his surrogate momma, and she taught him initially to suck on the bottle using her thumb as a replacement for the momma’s teat. He eventually became so good at it that the thumb was no longer necessary. He fed himself from a bottle holder held in place on a fence.
Later, teaching him to eat became the challenge. My partner created her own method. She would open his mouth and gently insert her hand with small amount of food. The teaching soon ended, and he successfully transitioned to eating from a bowl.
After the first four-week period, we were well into the calf nutritional home care, touching, and brushing phase of the growing process. All was good for our boy Flash. This period did not come easily, as he almost died four times — two times in the field and two times in his shelter, due mostly to dehydration and bacterial diseases. Flash would not have made it to celebrate the first year of life but for the miracle of antibiotics.
Flash began to grow in weight and height. He loved to be petted and liked to roughhouse like a dog. It wasn’t like he demanded human interaction, but he needed it in a way that we knew this little calf was very different from other bottle-fed calves. Human hands touched him many times during both the feeding and playing times of the day.
Flash was about six months old when a serendipitous conversation occurred with my neighbors Bryan and Kathy. They inquired as to whether I might be willing to sell Flash to them. I politely said no, but I would give Flash to them.
Then the second love affair with Flash began. It was truly a love relationship between an animal and a human. For the next year, they cared for him, and constantly played and butted heads with him. They loved him. And Flash loved them. It may possibly be difficult for some individuals to understand this kind of affection, but it was obvious and real.
Due to an unforeseen and unexpected event, Flash needed to return to my r
anch. I welcomed him back with open arms. He returned to a perfect environment with lots of shade, abundant grass, and a large stock pond. He was fed range cubes on a daily basis close to a fence where I could pet him and rub his head and ears. He was a content and happy bull, although I am sure he missed Bryan and Kathy’s special touches and extra care.
Unfortunately, at 18 months old, he was of a size that made it unsafe to be in the pasture with him — except for Bryan. The calf did not have an aggressive bone in his body. He had a gentle temperament and would not intentionally hurt a human. He loved to play and butt heads with Bryan. He could knock a person down with playful butting. I chose not to be in the pasture with him particularly since I was generally alone at the ranch on the days my loyal hand Abundio was off.
As I noted earlier, Flash’s momma surrendered her care to me. I then passed on my care to Bryan and Kathy. Then the care was passed back to me. He was never in the care of the herd. Cows are herd animals and embedded in their DNA is the very strong need to be with other cows. Old rancher’s advice to younger ranchers is never to keep a cow alone in a pasture without a companion. I can only conclude that something analogous to depression is possible and it generally does not make for a healthy animal.
During the short time Flash was back at the ranch, my cowherd was in a pasture adjacent to his paddock. He was able to daily socialize across the fence. It was on Saturday that I decided to move my cows to the back part of the ranch to graze.
On Sunday and Monday I fed Flash his daily ration of range cubes. Everything was normal. As he ate, I petted him and scratched his ears and rubbed his head. On Tuesday evening I called him up and he did not come. While I thought that was unusual, I was not overly concerned. After returning from breakfast the next morning, I drove by the working pens and saw him lying motionless on the ground. Upon my leaving my truck, my greatest fear was confirmed. Flash had died. My heart ached upon seeing him there; it still hurts as I remember and write ab
out his life. I saved him ultimately only to fail to keep him safe and alive in the end.
There are so many questions that remain. Is it possible for a two-way affection relationship between a human and a bull to occur? The answer is: absolutely. Four people loved this bull, and this bull showed affection to the four people. Was Flash’s death in part due to being separated from the herd? The answer cannot be known for sure. Was his very sudden death due to a disease or a piece of ingested material? Certainly one of the above causes could have contributed to his death. The answer cannot be known without a medical forensic examination.
As I conclude this story, I am grateful for every healthy calf that is born on this ranch. I am equally grateful for each calf with a medical problem that can be saved. Flash was special, and I will remember him as one of my great baby-saving achievements. Seeing him as an 18-month-old full grown bull was one of my proudest moments.
He has traveled from his early bottle days to where he lies now in the soil. While I will never know what caused his death, I will not again fail to remember and heed the advice of the
old rancher. Cows are herd animals and should never be left alone in a pasture without companionship. If this advice is followed, never again would one have to wonder about the impact of being left alone and whether it was a factor in an adverse event.
In the end, some things just happen that offer no explanation and are beyond one’s control. But suffice it to say, this rancher is wiser today than yesterday. I am grateful for Flash. I am also grateful for Wendy, Bryan, and Kathy who cared about him and loved him.