Three Minus One

Two calves were born Friday morning. I kind of think the bull calf ran out…and just kept running. What an energetic little guy.


The heifer calf from our dairy cow was a little slow getting up but she’s a happy, spirited little one too. And now we get to milk a cow again. Please note the enthusiasm in my writing voice.


Another calf came on Sunday evening. This story ends differently.

Some of my blog posts are more real than others. Not more honest, just more…just…sometimes…sometimes farming is really hard and I try to address it. This is one of the hard posts.

I don’t like to dwell on the bad stuff…though I do hear it going on in a loop in my head. “Was it my fault?” “Could I have done more?”

I don’t know.

But I do remember my grandfather. So let’s go there instead.

I have strong memories of the farm when I was much younger. Grandpa had the herd in the feedlot across the road by the red barn. I guess it was spring and Sis and I were visiting for a weekend. Grandpa took me out to do chores then, later, to meet with a man about some equipment. One of the cows in the lot was pregnant and grandpa said she should calve soon. Grandpa needed to run and take care of a little business and it looked like the cow would wait. When we got back I was excited to see a calf peeking out of the back end of the cow! Grandpa was alarmed.

That cow couldn’t have that calf without help. Grandpa saw it, dropped me off at the house to get some milk and cookies then went to help the cow. I don’t think he even changed clothes. I assume they pulled the calf.

The calf didn’t make it. The next morning I saw it laying on the tailgate of grandpa’s truck. I remember its tongue was sticking out and its eyes were open.

I cried.

That one event has made a lasting impression on me. For example, I actively seek out bulls that throw calves with a low birth weight and cows that calve easily. But I have so many questions for my grandpa. Just questions about this one event! But I didn’t know or think to ask 30 years ago.

So I just have to put things together from what I know about Grandpa. I obviously admired the man. I found my grandpa to be loving and caring, though some found him to be harsh and hard. I don’t remember sitting on grandpa’s lap reading stories. I don’t remember him ever taking me fishing. That wasn’t his thing. But he took me with him to do chores…even if I had to wear bread sacks over my shoes and he took me to cattle auctions.

I can picture my grandpa smiling and laughing – maybe more of a chuckle than a loud laugh – but I don’t remember him ever telling a joke. I saw him kiss my grandma once. He was an intelligent man and a hard worker. He was honest. And he would let me prattle on and on about whatever stupid things children think to say. He was big and strong and steady and he didn’t need to talk much. When he spoke to me it often started with, “Now listen…”.

The only thing he said about the calf was, “Now listen, sometimes this happens.” Then we went out to do chores.

I lost a calf this morning. And it hurts. It hurts a lot.

It must have hurt grandpa that day.

But I guess sometimes this happens. I still have to do my chores.

Grandpa didn’t cry.

I can’t imagine my grandpa wondering to himself, “Am I a failure?” I can imagine grandpa evaluating the livestock involved, making appropriate management decisions that needed to be made and moving forward.

Sunday afternoon a calf was born. My nephew spent the night and was there to see the calf shortly after it was born. Then he went back to my house for a snack. The little heifer never stood up. At first I thought she just needed more time so I stepped away to give mom some alone time with her calf. I came back to check her and things were only worse. I massaged her spine, I tried to stand her up, I rubbed her legs, Dad and Steve and I fed her with a tube. No response. A little grunt, a little manure, no strength in her legs. She died early the next morning.

I came back to the house at 10pm, my arms and clothes covered in dried blood, manure and amniotic fluid. My nephew had gotten out of bed to go potty and saw me come in. He asked, “Whatch doin?”

How do I explain?

What do I say?

My nephew will not see a little dead calf laying on the tailgate of the truck in the morning. Maybe he will never know what happened. He didn’t see me cry. What did he see? What does he see when he looks at me? Do I read him stories or take him fishing? Or am I just busy?

My grandpa was a strong, loving, caring man. A better man than me by any measure. He would be working now, not typing. And he certainly wouldn’t be crying. He would not be questioning his decision to farm. He would not be wondering if he would ever do anything right.

He would make notes about the bull and the cow. He would dispose of the calf. Then he would get back to work.

I need to ditch the drama and get back to work…with this one, small tweak. My nephew needs to KNOW that I treasure him more than any cow. My children need to know that. My wife needs to know that. Grandpa worked hard and Grandpa loved us. And I knew it.

Grandpa still has a lot to teach me.

10 thoughts on “Three Minus One

  1. I hesitate to write this, but when you farm you fail at something every single day. It doesn’t matter how much you know, or what you think you know, how much money you throw at it, or what you do. Unfortunately with farming being the new black, planning a farm life out on paper never translates to the reality of farming. One the bright side, many things go right on a farm every single day, and that’s what we need to focus on. A moment holding your wife’s hand, seeing a good friend at church, watching your children watch the grass grow. Stuff like that. Sorry about the calf my friend, my calves will all be late this year, my failure, but on the bright side, I can do get other things done now in the spring busy time because I am not expecting calves for 6 more weeks. Virtual hugs!

  2. Very first calf my Dad bought died two days later. Christmas Eve, our first winter on this farm. I was just turned 9. I have never forgotten. It is tough. Sometimes what happens doesn’t have a fault, it just is what happens. I was all drama (I was a girl, and I was nine). So was my Mum, come to that. My Dad had a few tears in his eyes and he didn’t talk much for a day or two, but he was otherwise the same Good Ole Dad. He went and got a couple more calves, and later, lots more. It isn’t weakness to be choked up about the loss of a life. That’s as it should be. It isn’t weakness to be choked up about the loss of a life. That’s as it should be. Life goes on, though and you will too. Hugs from here too.

  3. In baseball we teach players to learn to deal with failure. Think about a good hitter, a .300 hitter fails 7 out of 10 times. But that is a game, and as Matron said we have successes each day to go with the non-success. Listen to your Grandpa, he teaches well.

    • Jersey cow to shorthorn bull. Last year’s is all red with a white belly and she’s a great looking heifer. We haven’t handled her and don’t expect to milk her. This one though? I dunno. Super cute.

  4. Nice looking cross. My half dairy cows are good beef cows, a little more milk but not so much that they need any intervention. I think a heifer like that bred back to dairy for a 3/4 would be a great family cow, less metabolic problems, not too much milk but enough and able to do well on forage alone.

  5. I remember reading your David Hall Part 1 post – “I’ll relate David’s example. Of a group of 30 heifers, 25 settle in your breeding window. Of those 25 pregnancies, 20 wean calves. Of those 20 heifers that brought in calves, 17 re-breed. Those other 13 heifers don’t fit our program.”

    Based on those numbers if you only loose 1 you have done good. That doesn’t make the death any easier. They leave a “mark” on you -you never do forget those that’s for sure. Two of my “marks” are from a stables I worked at when I was a teenager – a still born foal and later a racehorse stallion that reared up and flipped over backwards and broke his neck instantly dying while trying to load into a horse trailer. I had nothing to do with either just witnessed. Marks all the same …you cry, you lick your wounds of the loss of life and carry on learning something from the experience. Years later I had a yearling filly die very suddenly. I was able to get it hauled into to the gov’t animal lab and for $100 their autopsy determined the cause of death – an unusual internal deformity in her intestines that I could not have done anything about. I felt a little better knowing the cause and was able to stop the “coulda, shoulda, woulda” playing a repeat track in my brain.

    Did you do as you Grandpa would have and made some notes? What was the condition of the cow? Was it her first calf? Do you have a lab to ship to?

    • Thanks Kari. Yes, I made notes. This was her second calf. Last year she gave us a very nice heifer. That heifer has grown well and has already slicked off.

      Steve and I talked about it some more the next evening. I wasn’t as observant as Steve but we broke things down in sequence. When we found the calf something was already wrong. Things got worse over time. We had it up on its feet a few times early but later it had no strength at all. Steve said it didn’t have yellow meconium. It had black…like bloody. We suspect the calf was stepped on.
      I moved the cow to the barn for calving because a storm was coming in. In fact, the storm hit while we were in the barn and it was violent storm with heavy rains, 5″ of rain in 20 minutes in nearby areas. So I’m glad I put the cow in the barn. But I did not have her separated from the two dairy cows. I should have.

      So I think that’s that.

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