Garnet the Miracle Cow: Part 1

We got very exciting news today– Garnet, my pet cow, had her baby calf, a boy! She had her first calf last year, a little girl named Sapphire. I’m holding off on naming her newest gem until I meet him on Sunday…be prepared for pictures!

Garnet is a four year old black Angus cow with a very special history. She’s our miracle baby. In order to understand Garnet’s remarkable journey, you have to understand the birthing process for normal calves. Most Angus calves are standing up and walking within about 20 minutes of being born. They are suckling their mothers and receiving the all-important colostrum from the milk shortly thereafter. Garnet’s mother, #517, went into labor weeks prematurely, and we had to haul her into the vet for an emergency C-section. When our vet removed Garnet from her mother’s womb, he said that it was very unlikely the calf would survive more than a couple of days. She was just born too early. He also said that she did not have a chance at all if we didn’t raise her inside the house, where it was warm.

Garnet was born during my first winter on the farm, the first calving season I had experienced. Calving season is a marathon– the alarm going off every four hours, stumbling out of bed, putting on layers of clothing over pajamas, wandering towards the calving pens with a flashlight, looking for new babies to vaccinate, looking for mothers in troubled labor, wandering back to the house in the bitter cold, stripping off layers of clothing, resetting the alarm and collapsing back into bed for another four hours. The intense part of calving season, the time period that requires the night calving routine, lasts between 6 and 7 weeks. During those weeks, 85% of our calves are born.

When you raise beef cattle like we do, there is no question you are raising a commodity.When they are about nine months old, the calves, excepting any female calves we keep as replacement heifers, will be weaned and sold. However, I can tell you with certainty that the death of a calf, especially a newborn calf, is taken extremely personally and emotionally by any rancher worth his salt. Cows have been bred for millennia to be docile, get pregnant annually, make milk and be devoted mothers. They are excellent at their jobs. As a rancher, it is your job to provide food, water, shelter and do everything humanly possible to make sure they have a live baby to nurture. So, you forgo sleep, forgo food if you must in order to tube calves who are unable to suckle or bring in a baby that is freezing. And when, as inevitably happens, a calf is lost, you blame yourself and try to determine what you can do next time to achieve a different outcome. You work harder. To do anything else would be an offense to the cow and all she is built to do.

I will never forget waiting in the farmhouse for Richard to return after taking #517 in for her C-section. I finally heard the rumble of the big red Ford truck and trailer, and I ran outside to meet him to see if either calf or mother were alive. When I reached the truck, I could hear 517 making a ruckus in the trailer. I looked at him questioningly, and he opened the door to the back seat of the truck. The seat was covered in a bloody sheet, and on it lay a tiny calf, covered in amniotic fluid, her little sides heaving. She had survived the drive home. Unsure of the reason, be it her vulnerability or how tiny she was compared to the other calves I had seen, tears sprang to my eyes. Richard asked if we could raise her inside for awhile, told me that it was her only chance. Then and there, I extracted two promises from him: if we brought her in the house and she survived, there is no way anyone would ever eat her. Secondly, she would have a name rather than a number. Garnet, our January calf named after the January birthstone, was wrapped up in the sheet and carried into the house.

Upon entering the house, Richard went straight to the bathroom and placed her in the bathtub, the place sickly calves had lived in the past. We tubed Garnet every couple of hours the first night, meaning we stuck a tube down her esophagus so we could pour milk directly into her stomach, since she did not yet have a suckling reflex. The next morning, she was not doing very well. She was cold to touch, and her little cries had gotten weaker. Richard and Bob, a man who works for us at the farm, both thought we were doing all we could. Thinking it was cold in the bathtub, I was certain that if she could be closer to the wood-burning stove it would  help her. Overruling both men, I moved Garnet and her sheet to the middle of the living room, directly in front of the toasty stove. Within hours, she perked up.

We were giving 517 shots of oxytocin to keep her milk production up, hoping that eventually Garnet would be able to stand and suckle her mother. We also milked 517 each day, so Garnet was receiving a diet of her mother’s milk mixed with goat’s milk. Soon, she was drinking on her own out of a bottle, an improvement that delighted me to no end. Richard and Bob, seasoned cattlemen, were quick to point out that we should not get ahead of ourselves– Garnet had a long road ahead of her. She was a few days old and could not even stand yet. As her days continued on the living room floor, she developed more and more of a personality, recognizing the people, dogs and cats surrounding her. Each time I walked into the room, she would bawl and try to inch towards me, knowing I was her surrogate mother. When she was about a week old, we brought home Whistle, our new 7 week old standard Poodle puppy. Whistle thought having a cow for a sister was the best present on earth. I would frequently find them cuddled up to one another sleeping.

When she was a little over two weeks old, I woke up to a violent crash coming from the kitchen. I started smiling before my feet hit the ground. I walked through the living room to see a wobbly-legged Garnet standing in the kitchen, the trash strewn all over the floor. I don’t know who was happiest between Richard, Bob and me– we had all been rooting for her, and now we knew she was going to make it……