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Stop, Look & Listen

February has often brought bitterly cold days to Texas ranchers. One would not want to leave the house or barn without cold weather clothing. Planning and routine care and feeding measures are a part of what a rancher must do to make sure his/her cattle can survive during extreme wintery conditions. An essential part of planning includes providing dry matter food sources such as dry or silage hay, mineral block supplements, range cubes, high energy molasses liquid feed, and oftentimes a high-fat, high-protein feed ration.

A rancher who plans well during the summer and fall seasons and takes extra steps of precaution out of an abundance of care can generally be assured that his/her cattle are conditioned well enough to withstand long periods of cold weather. A rancher who takes these precautions can have good sleep nights rather than sleepless nights.

However, the Valentine’s week of February 11-20, 2021, was anything but normal. On February 10, Texas sustained a blast of subarctic air, only to be followed by a second and colder blast of well-below freezing temperatures. During the next few days, rain, sleet, snow, and ice covered every square inch of my land as far as the eye could see. The term of “colder than hell” was being redefined. Suddenly, the ranchers of Texas, as well as the citizenry generally, faced not only subzero temperatures, but also a loss of water and electricity. Despite taking the normal precautions, there was no way one could have prepared for such a historical weather event. Clearly, this February could be chronicled in the history weather books as a 100-year event.

During those days, I did not experience a loss of electricity, which was both a mystery and a blessing. Many of my neighbors were not as fortunate.

The blessings stopped there. All of my stock tanks and natural ponds froze. Axes and rock bars were of no help in breaking the 6 to 8 inches of solid ice. The diesel in my truck and tractor became sloshy frozen, and neither vehicle would start. The one item left off my emergency shopping list was a diesel de-icer additive. That proved not to be just a minor oversight. It was a huge problem, and but for the help of my mechanic friend who risked his safety and life climbing the frozen hill leading to my ranch, I would perhaps be writing a different story with a different ending.

During the eight-day onslaught of historical winter conditions, my days started well before daybreak. My Polaris buggy continued to start, and I would make my way across the snow- and ice-packed pasture to look for down, hurt, or dead cattle. My anxiety during the daily rides was due to the fact that my cows were calving during this period. That fact alone intensified my search. It was on February 15 that my fear, anxiety, and adrenaline reached a high point and thrust me into a mode of action and reaction.

I was down in a heavily treed area next to a creek pond attempting to break the ice using the front-end hay spike attached to my John Deere tractor. Yes, it was going by this time. I was making no headway and stopped the tractor to ponder the dire situation. I listened to the limbs breaking from the heavy weight of the ice that formed on the branches. The ground and the trees were both beautiful with flickers of ice crystals catching intermittent brief rays of sunshine. My spirit leaped forward despite the difficult life-threatening challenges of the day. I concluded that nothing more could be done here. I started the tractor and was preparing to leave when the thought occurred to me to climb out of the tractor and to take one last walk and look around the trees. I had not walked terribly far in the deep snow when I saw a cow that had purposely separated herself from the herd. She was standing statue like over what appeared to be a newborn calf. As I came closer, I could see that it was indeed a calf no more than an hour or two old. It was freezing cold and shaking uncontrollably. That is when the adrenaline began to pump through my veins.

Time was of essence. I made a desperate flight back to my barn to pick up a milk bottle filled with regular whole milk and a pinch of sugar, a shot of influenza medication, and a blanket. Upon arriving back to where the calf lay on the ground, I quickly injected the medication, placed the blanket over the calf’s body and began to try to encourage the calf to nurse on the bottle. My thumb was my first maneuver and it worked. His little jaws moved back and forth as he was sucking lightly at first and then a little more aggressively. He was slow to get the hang of it, but eventually he did manage to get a small amount of milk into his stomach. Those are tricky moments. Despite one’s efforts, the calf may refuse the bottle.

Once reasonably stabilized, the next challenge was to get him up and back to the barn where a heated dog kennel was located. Lifting a 65-75-pound newborn calf of mostly loose weight into a Polaris buggy can be a mighty big job. With the help of my trusted hand Abundio, we were successful in getting him into the Polaris. Abundio held the calf gently in his arms and I drove. We were a great team. Despite the wild hog-created potholes and rough ride, we were able get him to the barn and put him in the inside kennel on a soft pallet without a mishap along the way.

So, what happened to my newborn calf? For the first 24-hour period, he could not stand or much less walk. Gradually he gained strength and consumed larger and larger amounts of milk. He was in the kennel for about 48 hours. I was anxious about getting him back to his momma as quickly as possible. The big question was: Would she take him back or reject him? Was he to become a permanent bottle baby? As I lifted him down from the buggy in the vicinity of his momma, she immediately came to him and started licking him, then began making low cooing love noises that momma cows make to their babies. He immediately jumped up and began to nurse. The last I saw of them on that day, the cow turned and started walking to rejoin the herd with her baby close behind, stumbling and walking better with each and every step.

All was good, and the cycle of life was now started anew. Today that almost-frozen little calf is healthy and romps and frolics in the pasture. Except having lost half of one ear to frostbite, there is nothing to show that a near-death experience ever happened during the early hours of his young life.

The outcome could have been vastly different that very, very cold February morning. No pats on the back for me. I certainly was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to make a difference. The real difference was following my intuition to stop the tractor and listen and view the beauty of nature for a brief moment. But the single most important and life-saving decision I made on that 15th day of February, was to take that extra step of care. Despite being miserably cold and frozen to the bone, I walked, listened, and — most importantly — looked for a cow or calf that might be in a state of stress. I will never forget that incident or the steps I took that made a life-saving difference.

Something for every rancher whose job it is to care and protect his or her herd to keep in mind: That one little extra step of care may mean everything when it comes to being the herd’s protector and caretaker. As something of a postscript to this blog story, I was telling a lifelong friend about the event. He said, “Now tell me one more time why you do this?” “This” meaning have a cow herd and all the things one must do for the sake of maintaining it.

My answer was simply this: That’s a good question which indeed requires a thoughtful answer. The short version goes something like this. I work out with a purpose in mind, and I do this also with a purpose in mind. It is one of my passions to see the soil regenerate and to see things grow — both seed and animal alike. In the end, it gives me purpose and allows me to continue to be productive beyond my early productive years. I can see immediate results and successes from my efforts. My ranch is part of me and my legacy. It is where I will, in part, leave my fingerprints. And besides all of the above, it keeps me off the streets and a danger to no one. Now. aren’t you sorry you asked that question?

Thank you for reading my blog. Refel

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