Learning the equine way

In an effort to use less diesel, not be so lazy, and use the 13 horses that roam the farm, free of cares and responsibilities (though they do mow the lawn), we decided to get ’em dressed and do some farm work horseback-style.  Plus, they offer a great vantage point to search for mushrooms (FYI: I’m researching Namibian fungi).  So although, at 9:30, it was a little late into the morning, Jay and I saddled up and headed out in search for some missing cattle.

On mowing duty

Jay chivalrously gave me his horse, Trooper, so named from a long ago accident and his unexpected recovery.  He’s now 22, but in good shape for an old guy.  Jay then took Tissy, a female born on the farm.  He said though Tissy may be more receptive, she scares easily (which was proven later with a surreptitious warthog), and as the more experienced rider, he had less of a chance of being thrown off.  So I got Trooper, the most stubborn horse I’ve ever met.  Though to be fair, I haven’t met many.

Literally, right out of the gate, Trooper wanted to go the opposite way as Jay and Tissy.  With my attempts to turn him left, and his refusal to do so, we ended up in a jackknife in a slim corner between a fence and a tree.  I eventually won the battle, but he got the last laugh, for as we turned left, my face and I got dragged through the acacia thorns, which in turn, stole my hat and threw it on the ground.  So while Jay and Tissy waited for us up ahead, I quickly slid off and back on the smug Trooper, and later, picking a thorn out of my eyebrow, decided that he should have a waiver each rider must sign before leaving, that they might know what to expect.  I imagined it would read something like this:

1. Ride at your own risk.  Horse is not responsible for injury to person or property.

2. Speed and direction are subject to change without warning.

3. Eating breaks may be determined by horse at any time.

P.S. Horse trips a lot for no apparent reason.

Though Trooper was certainly tricky at times, he was not completely to blame – it became clear that I was simply not a good rider.  As Jay said, the horse needs to know who’s boss.  My light tugs on the reins were lost on Trooper who promptly walked off the road for some grass.  After a few complete circles we made it back onto the road, where I had a split second to ask Jay, as we walked diagonally across his path to the other side of the road, what was wrong with this horse.

“Hold the reins tight”, he said. “The horse needs to know his rider is there.”

“I’m trying to be nice”, I explained.  I already felt bad for making him leave his high life of grass-eating all day to carry my ass all over the farm on a hot day.

“It’s like us carrying a backpack”, Jay said.

Maybe a backpack with a sack of potatoes inside, I thought.

“Plus, the horses know this road.  They know if they turn around, they get to go back home where food and friends are waiting”, he added.

So with a tighter grip on the reins, so to speak, I slowly established a relationship with Trooper, and we managed to walk in a straight line for a while.

Once off the main road and heading into the farm, Trooper seemed more interested in our journey and picked up speed, so much so, that he started trotting without any signal from me, and I did one of those cartoon things when the bottom half of your body goes on ahead without the top half.  Thankfully, the saddle had a little handle to grab on to, otherwise, I would’ve tumbled right off the back.

Jay came by with some more advice.  “He needs to know you’re in control.  That you have a direction, and are paying attention.”

This made it clear that I was not meant to be a horse rider.  I daydream easily and often, and I was looking for mushrooms more than at where we were going.  So as soon as Trooper fell into a decent saunter, not turning suddenly, tripping over his feet, or stopping to fart, sneeze, or crap, the cool breeze and rhythmic saddle squeak sent my mind a-wandering.  And as soon as he realized this, he took the opportunity to lead us off in whichever direction he deemed worthwhile.

Getting Trooper through gates was another task.  If it required turning right, he wanted to continue straight, and if it was straight ahead, he would want to turn around.  With talking and tongue-clicking and rein-tugging, I’d eventually get him through, but usually only with enough clearance for him.  The horse had no concept of space.  I inevitably needed to lift my legs over the fence poles, or duck under trees or dodge bushes, wires, etc.  As long as he fit, that was good enough.  Anyone on his back had to take care of themselves.  This resulted in a lot more thorns in my skin and a new hole in my pants.

Late morning we wandered into a relatively open field, and fell into one of our rare understandings when Trooper walked straight and turned in response to the reins.  I was even allowed to take a couple of pictures from horseback.

Of course as soon as mushrooms were spotted and I tried to get a closer look, Trooper resumed his own mysterious horse mission, and we’d do donuts, fighting for control.

Lunchtime meant a water break and a detour, specifically to bring the horses to a water point.  Trooper seemed to realize this and picked up speed again.  Whenever Trooper liked the direction we were heading for whatever reason, he walked much faster.  Tissy and Jay struggled to keep up and often had to trot, but then quickly fell behind again.  However, it turned out that the horses didn’t want water, and didn’t care for the grass under the shady tree we picked for lunch, so as we ate our bread and cookies, this was my view:

As the day grew warmer, the clouds grew in size and number and sometimes hid the sun.  When coupled with a breeze, these were the only times that I stopped sweating, and somewhere along the way, we managed to bring in some cows.

Moseying toward home in the late afternoon sauna, I realized I had learned a little about the appeal of horse riding.  In general, the draw is beyond me.  Maybe if it was the wild west and they were your companion, like a trusty dog but one you could sit on and that carried your stuff.  But just to ride horses for the sake of riding horses always seemed to me like making them work for my pleasure.  Yet as I got a feel for Trooper’s idiosyncrasies, it was like making a new friend, and getting to know his buttheaded, yet somehow charming, personality.  Nevertheless, I think we were both happy when we got home.  I got to use my legs again who were close to joining forces with my butt in mutiny.  And after being up high for so long, when I plopped onto the ground, I felt short, a rare occasion for me.

As Trooper slurped down his bucket of grains, I wondered how this episode of our sustainable farming would progress.  Regardless, the most important lesson of the day was painfully clear: don’t forget the sunscreen.

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That’s one way to learn

Sitting down for my daily dose of language study (it was an Afrikaans day, the day before was German), I wanted something more than the basics: Piet will die boek koop, Hy kan nie die boek koop nie.  I didn’t care if Piet wanted to buy the book, or if he could buy the book, or anything at all about Piet and the stupid book.  I wanted something more complex, sentences with conjunctions, things that real people say.

And just as I was searching for the “intermediate” Afrikaans lessons, I heard a car coming down our dirt road.  Since it was moving at a healthy pace, I figured it was just a neighbor cruising by.  But then the motor slowed and the wheels bounced over the cattle grid at the entrance to our farm.

Could it be Jay?, I wondered.  That was a fast trip to town, it’s not even noon yet.  But soon I saw it was not Jay; it was his right-hand man, Zacka, in the old rattlebox farm pick-up back from checking if any of the pregnant cattle had given birth.  A minute later he was at my door.

I came outside.  “Alles OK?”, I asked.

This was a stupid question; he only comes to get me if he needs something or something is wrong.  But it was the question that launched my Afrikaans lesson of the day from easy, right past intermediate, straight into holy shit.

Zacka proceeded to inform me in far too many words that one of our cows had died while giving birth.  At least I caught the main part and responded with the appropriate shocked facial expression and repeated the crucial word back to him.

“Dood?” Um, that’s not good.  What do I do now?

“Ja, dood.  Kan jy Jay bel?

Yes, call Jay.  Good idea.  Let’s do that.

Naturally, when I’m in a situation where I don’t know what to do and need some input from the guy who does all the cow stuff, the guy has his cell phone turned off.  All that crap about “Call me if you need anything.  Let me know if there’s any problems, etc. etc.”, only applies when everything is running smoothly.  After the third try, I swore at the automated “this number cannot be reached” woman and slammed the phone down.  Zacka and I were on our own.

He asked me if we should just leave the cow where she was.

“Miskien”, I replied.  Maybe was a safe answer while I searched my brain for a solution.

What would Jay do?

But then Zacka went into a ramble how the vultures were coming and vultures were bad, though I couldn’t understand why.

Should we bring it in to the vulture restaurant then? (The clearing by our house where all the leftovers from slaughtering go).  Or are those vultures bad too?

Then I realized there was a smarter option.

“Kan ons die vleis verkoop?”, I asked, using the Piet-and-his-book sentence structure.  If we could sell the meat, the death of a calf-producing cow and her (female, Zacka told me) calf would not be a total loss.

That is what Jay would do.

“Ja”, Zacka said, but not very confidently.

Well, we’ll see how good the meat is when they bring it in.  At least we have a plan.

Zacka then asked if I would come with.

Um….

“Ek kan”, I said, more like a question than an answer.  I had hoped my role in the ordeal was over, but Zacka was already suggesting we take the other pick-up along so that we could load the cow onto it.  Then, he said, I could bring it back home and the other farm guy could slaughter it while he continued the search for newborn calves.  Admittedly, this sounded like the best way to go about it, so as soon as I pulled the word for ‘shoes’ out of my head, I ran to get them and a hat and off we went, Zacka leading the way.

At least I don’t have to make small talk in Afrikaans (a task I prefer not to do in any language).  But why are we in such a hurry?  It’s already dead.  Oh, there’s the cattle guy.  Wave!  Maybe he’s worried the vultures will start in on the carcass.  Great, now he’s stopping to wait for my pokey ass to catch up.  What is this, normally Africans don’t move so fast.  Oooh, baby warthogs!

When we got to the camp where the pregnant cattle roamed, a glance around revealed no dead animals.  Zacka casually opened the gate and puttered forth, so I, now confused, followed as he drove deeper and deeper into the bush.  Finally, he got out of the truck, and just as I went to do the same, he climbed onto the roof.

Oh good, he’s lost the cow.

I climbed up there with him while he muttered something about how he just needed to find the other guy who was standing with the body, but we saw nothing and hollering his name only scared a few birds out of the bushes.  So, bumbling over my words, I offered to come with him; I’d ride on the back for a better chance at finding the missing cow and her human guardian.  And once more, we were off through the bush, bouncing in and out of warthog holes, sun pouring down.

This is not what I thought I’d be doing today.

Eventually, a man appeared through the herds of acacias and I leaned around to Zacka’s window and directed him “links”, left.  Once through another few craters, we turned around and backed into the small clearing where the cow had taken shelter.  I immediately felt sorry for her.  She had died under a tree, all alone, and probably in a lot of pain.  The calf’s head was out and partially eaten by something, along with its two front legs.

Well, you suck at languages, but at least you aren’t suffering in the bush by yourself.  Note to self: It could always be worse. 

Yet, it would be another Afrikaans-filled hour until we had her loaded.

We hauled out the winches, plural, two, because she was so big, and had the extra weight of a calf inside of her.  I tried to help where I could but it’s a man’s world in Namibia.  I realized I didn’t know how to use the idiosyncratic winches, because the men always do it and even when I could do something, like hoist the cow by her leg up onto the metal ramp we’d brought along, the guy who’d been standing guard grabbed the leg a little higher up, effectively pushing me out of the way.  This is a very common occurrence on the farm.  I don’t know if it is because they think I can’t do it, or that I shouldn’t be doing it, or if their manliness is challenged and they have to do it.  Regardless, I didn’t want to argue, I just wanted to get the cow on the truck.  I moved to the other side and hauled her up by the tail.

Luckily, with this sort of work, there was no need for conversation; we knew what needed to be done.  The winching, however, wasn’t working, the truck was too high and the cow too heavy.  Zacka offered a new plan.

Ok, gathering by his hand gestures, he wants to move one of the winches to the front of her body and flip her up and over.  That’s…um…not going to work.

But I couldn’t get words out fast enough to say that, nor did I have a better idea.  So twenty minutes later she was still on the ground, clasped tightly to the bed of the truck via her head and hind legs.

Zacka already had a new plan; something about driving her like this back to my truck still waiting on the road and we could then use both trucks to lift her up.  I didn’t understand how we would do this, but at least I knew the other truck was lower to the ground.  So Zacka motored off in that direction while the other guy and I walked behind, watching cow and calf bounce through every hole.

As the process unfolded, I realized Zacka was going to use his truck to pull her onto mine, forgetting the winches altogether.  I felt bad that I hadn’t been contributing to the plan-making lately, though winching and flipping cows onto trucks was not yet part of my Afrikaans vocabulary, and I scoured my brain again for anything that might help us succeed this time.

What would Jay do?  Well, there was that time last year…with those huge oil drums…and no winch…

It took time for me to find the words but Zacka nodded his head and made affirmative vocalizations.  If we backed my truck into one of those many warthog holes, its bed would be tilted low to the ground, making it much easier to load our heavy girl.  But, seemingly having understood nothing of my idea, he dropped the cow right there onto the road.

Wait…we have to…a hole…

Then with a pick ax from the back of the truck, he started chopping up the dirt road.

Well, he understood something.  Maybe this is just how he prefers it. 

So I grabbed a shovel, which was promptly taken from me by the other guy, then grabbed another one, and scooped out what had been chopped.  After a couple of tries the holes were big enough to get the two rear wheels into and the bed of the truck was only about a foot off the ground.  With a rope as thick as a cucumber around the two hind legs, strung up over the roof of my truck and tied to the hitch of Zacka’s, we slowly inched the cow onto the bed.  Although, I could not get out of the way fast enough and ended up with a bloody carcass smeared across my legs and feet, she was on the truck.

Thank god. 

I made sure Zacka was good to continue on with his original job and thanked him. “Baie dankie vir jou help.  Sien jou by die huis”.  I’m going home now.

In the end, the cow was slaughtered and the meat sold.  Jay turned his phone on again (he’d been in a meeting) and thanked us for our efforts.  We had done the right thing.  And I had survived the best and worst language lesson, sunburned and covered in dead cow blood, ever.  It was certainly better than the last fiasco.  Maybe, some far away day, I’ll actually get the hang of these tortuous languages.

Winter with a bang

That line sure is fine sometimes.  Summer, winter.  Warm, cold.  Life, death.  One day, we’re wearing shorts and all is well.  The next we’re sheltering sick and struggling animals from near-freezing temperatures, as if Namibia was looking for a snack in the fridge and then someone shoved it in from behind and slammed the door.  It’s been a roller coaster week here on the farm.

The cats and Sniffel are unfazed.  They’ve been packing on extra hair for a while and the cold hasn’t interrupted their schedule of sleeping.  But four newly hatched chickens got a rough welcome to the world.  At least they have a fat and fluffy mom who takes pride in sitting on them.  The other six eggs were worse off – abandoned when they took too long to hatch.  Jay and I went in and rescued the two that were still alive, keeping them warm with a hot water bottle.  Only one chick survived the first night and though she’s wobbly, she seems eager to get going with life.  At first, I’d hoped her mom would take her in but her little legs don’t work too well (earning her the name Rollie, as in she rolls more than walks).  She couldn’t keep up with her siblings and would end up sleeping in the cold.  Now she’s living with us and eating infant bird food from a syringe multiple times a day.  Without a mom to teach her, she took the plate of corn meal mush I gave her as a new, very wet, napping spot.

Rollie, the one in the middle, hanging with her family.  Her mom accepted her at first then began pecking her on the head.  She stays in the living room now. 

The cows are giving birth as well and like every year, we’ve lost one or two or six newborn calves to predators.  The worst though is when they’re only bitten and not killed.  That means we have a calf on the yard, weak with infection from a leopard bite, like this week.  The holes in his neck made just breathing a struggle.  So to drink milk from the bottle I offered we’d have to stop often so he could haul in some more oxygen.  The rest of his body was rather helpless as well, he even needed help pooping (don’t ask).  But when he saw me coming with a bottle of milk, his ears, the only part he could move on his own, perked right up, as if ready to take flight.  But the little bit of food in his belly and the blanket over top of him wasn’t enough when the cold came.  Although I greeted him yesterday morning, rubbed his head and told him I’d bring him some milk, he left us before I returned.  The next calf has already taken his place.  Not because of a leopard; he’s just too weak to stand.  He’s now inside in the laundry room and sleeps with two blankets.  Luckily, he’s still a champ at drinking milk and hopefully we’ll get him out in the corral with the others in due time.

Calf number two enjoying the waning afternoon sun – assuming that’s a face of enjoyment.

Amongst the chaos, however, was an unprecedented event on the farm.  Jay’s cattleman flagged us down as we drove by the corral the other day.  He and Jay then commenced a conversation in Herero about something obviously exciting; the old, reserved cattleman was smiling.  A little later, Jay translated for me saying, “he’s never seen anything like it in all his years.”  With only that to work with, I was left hanging while they continued on for a few more minutes.  Finally I got another word and it was all I needed: twins.  One of the cows plunked down two heads, two hearts and eight legs, a lot to get out of a little hole.  Lucky for us they’re doing well.  Reading up on twin calves taught me that often one of them is neglected by the mom and has to be bottle-fed or one or both are underdeveloped and weak, also requiring a bottle, or a load of medicine when they get sick.  These guys though, both male, seem to be ok, relieving us of overtime bottle duty.

As the mom was not available for the photo, readers will have to take my word that these are in fact twins and not just two calves sitting next to each other.

I’m hoping from here on out we’ll all stay on the right side of the line, the warm and alive side, the all is well side.  But that’s a lot to ask of life, no matter where you are in the world.  At least we know Namibia will warm up again someday, returning to her blazing-hot ways.  And someday, surely, little Rollie will discover that the plate I give her is food, not a bed, and I will once again have that elusive thing on a farm called spare time.

Remember to appreciate your ears

I never lived on a farm in the States.  Can’t say what it’s like there.  Here, death is not unusual, be it a great kudu or a teeny tomato plant.  This morning, 5 am, a civet ate the head off of our only egg-producing chicken, mama Huhn (huhn = chicken in German).  And yesterday, I watched a two-week-old calf take his last breath.

Jay and the farm staff all took it in stride; schlepped the body away and continued with life.  I had a harder time.  I understand death but I don’t understand suffering at all.  How could they handle it so nonchalantly?

The calf had sweating sickness.  Not the kind from medieval England that killed dukes and lords, the kind in Africa that comes from a toxin produced by ticks and has many awful consequences, including the following listed in the Merck veterinary manual: The skin becomes extremely sensitive and emits a sour odor. Later, the hair and epidermis can be readily pulled off, exposing red, raw wounds. The tips of the ears and the tail may slough. Eventually, the skin becomes hard and cracked and predisposed to secondary infection or screwworm infestation.

These all were beginning to appear when we brought him in but he was eating grass and drinking water from mud puddles while tromping behind his mother, also on the yard, who was tromping through the freshly planted garden.  He wouldn’t drink her milk but he would drink warmed milk out of a bottle.  “You’re doing a great job”, I said.  It felt necessary to offer encouragement.

The next morning I already had my doubts about his survival.  The best treatment for the disease is prevention, of course, and the antibiotics we injected into his rump weren’t doing anything.  He wouldn’t drink at all perhaps due to misery of the maggots swarming in his eyes, ears, groin, and other miscellaneous places.  Two spoonfuls came out of each ear which were then flushed out with medicated water along with everything else.  Then a thorough spritzing of fly spray which turned him blue.  He had no energy to care.

In the afternoon, I revisited him in the rocky patch of grass in the corner of the yard.   Together, we managed half a bottle of milk into his belly.  Holding his chin up for extra support, chunks of fur came off in my hand.  I ignored the rotten sweat smell he emitted as well as the insects deflected off him that were now biting me.  Hands are washable, I reminded myself.  It was not his fault that he was really quite gross, he needed compassion.  Nearby, momcow glared at me with huge, apprehensive eyeballs.

Without any of us around, that evening he picked himself up for a cruise around the yard with mom.  When we found him he had the “what?” look on his face with a sprig of grass hanging lopsided out of his mouth.  He hobbled along with stiff legs, almost dragging his feet, but he seemed to enjoy moving and that he may yet beat this thing.  He had whole bottle of milk for dinner without any extra help from me.

Whatever he’d found the night before he’d lost by morning.  I found him flat on the ground, appearing to be dead, until I saw his chest rise slowly.  I propped him up with logs behind his back, he murmured a pathetic argument.  His head was too heavy for him to hold up and drinking was too much of an effort.  The side of his head that had been on the ground was nearly bald now.  Same maggots, same procedure as the day before.  The earful of water was all that got him to sit upright.  A fresh coat of fly spray and we let him sleep.

At the afternoon bottle attempt, I found him flat again.  The number of flies ignoring the fly spray told me they knew what was coming.  His chest rose again but it was clearly more difficult.  His mouth was open, tongue nearly on the ground.  He would not sit up.  The relentless flies laughed at my extra spraying.  His ears were already full of eggs again.  I scratched his head and muttered the most comforting words I could find, then went to get Jay.

He wasn’t ready to let him go yet.  Normally I would be all for that mentality but this guy was clearly suffering.  To make the decision to end a life, though, is not easy.  When Jay went to fetch the wheelbarrow to haul him inside away from the flies, I could see we wouldn’t need to make the decision after all.  His breathing slowed to the point of stopping until he could gather enough strength to inhale once more.  By the time we loaded him in the wheelbarrow, he had no strength left.  I watched for the mouth to open, the chest to rise, but they didn’t.  Momcow seemed to be expecting it.  She left the yard soon after.

Watching a life leave a body was strange for me and I was the only one sad about this calf.  Thinking about it at 5 am this morning, I realized maybe that was because death hasn’t been a big part of my life.  It doesn’t affect these Africans because it IS a big part of theirs.  It’s not to say they aren’t respectful or sad if it’s one of their own, but the disease, the suffering, the inevitable; it just isn’t an issue.  It’s the way life goes.  And perhaps they know better than someone like me that you have to enjoy what you’ve got while you’ve got it before the other stuff shows up.

Fire 2011: Day 1

It does rain in Namibia, even sometimes in the desert.  But like any semi-tropical country, only in the rainy season.  That season ended about four months ago and is still about three away.  Conclusion: it is currently very dry here.  Result: fires start in a careless instant.

For the past couple of months, voices have been crying out over the CB in the kitchen; fire.  Fire here, come help.  Fire there, they need more hands.  Sometimes the smoke towers could be seen in the distance.  But it was always that, in the distance.  Until last week.

Monday we saw the smoke billowing out of the neighbor’s farm to the north.  We called them up, asked what happened.  Their neighbor on the other side had workers camping in the bush one night and their fire ran away.  Without telling anyone, they let it spread and so it arrived without warning on our neighbor’s doorstep.  We asked if we could help.  No, they had it under control.  Until Wednesday.

That morning we looked outside and the fire had climbed over the hill between us and appeared awfully close to our fence line.  Another fire was already deep into our fields but far from anything it could damage.  Seems something had escaped control. 

Another phone call.  They needed help this time.  The fire was approaching their camp with cattle and what was left of the grass they had to graze.  They needed a firebreak.  Quickly.  We headed over and met another crew ready to go.  We could see the smoke above the trees.  The fire was not far away.

What was fortunate was the camp with the fire was separated from the camp with the cows by the main road.  So all we had to do was burn the grass remaining between the road and the fire to take away its fuel.  And not let it jump the road.  We had a pick-up truck with an enormous tank of water and a power sprayer on the back in case it did.  They call these contraptions firefighters, sensibly.  Then we set a chunk of dead grass alight and dragged it along with a rake.  It was my first time actually starting a wildfire.

It spread quickly and we kept moving forward.  We had a long way to go before the border to our farm.

As we worked, more people staff from the farm showed up with more firefighters.  They started the firebreak heading in the opposite direction.  The owners of the farm, drove through from time to time to check on things.  The husband, calm as a bug in a rug.  The wife, frantic as the flames.  Just to make her feel better, her tire popped in the middle of it all.  I had to continually return to our truck and move it away from the growing flames and snap photos in between.  Sniffel seemed absolutely oblivious to what was going on. 

I walked along with some other fellas, setting fires with matches, or in their case, cigarettes, to speed up the process.  When our fire reached back into the bigger trees the flames grew to sizes I’ve never seen in my life.  They created thick, black smoke, blocking the sun, and made mid-morning feel like late afternoon. 

The other half of the crew finished their side and met us at the border to our farm.  The fire did, too.

We closed what we could with a firebreak but some of it would just have to burn.  We went for a flight later in the evening to see where the fire might be heading, and the damage left in its wake.  It told us tomorrow would be a long day.

The fire found the neighbors’ house.  They were able to stop it without loss.

I came to call these “tree ghosts”.  Like a stick of incense, they fell in perfect form as they burned.  We would see many of them.

Brand new hairy grandkid

When Cow first came to us she was about a week old.  She had several infected wounds in her neck from a cheetah attack, one in her left eye, and was too weak to stand up.  Everyday I cleaned her wounds, fed her milk from a bottle and wiped her butt.  In time, she grew stronger and moved up to two bottles of milk a day. 

When she could walk again she roamed around the yard, munching on grass.  She lost sight in the one eye and many patches of hair but she had quite a spirit.  When she would hear the clink of the milk bottles she would come galloping in her off-kilter, uncoordinated way. 

Suddenly, without explanation, Cow again lost her ability to walk.  She kept losing hair and more and more of her appetite.  I would pick her up and entice her to use her legs but it seemed she had no control over them.  We’d move her in and out of the sun and rain, trying to keep her warm and alive.

Cow waiting out a rainstorm. Here you can see her bad eye.

Again, Cow pulled through.  On her own she got back up and moving, I even found her swimming in the pool once.  She moved up to four bottles of milk a day and was now four months old.  I had to return to school in the States but she was fine without me.  Soon, Cow stopped coming for milk and moved off the yard into the fields of grass. 

These days she is the leader of the pack of the Goonie cows.  All the cows who have been hand-raised, broken, blinded, or are somehow sick come to the field outside our house and graze with the others.  A few months ago a bull had come in with a twisted ankle and spent some time with the pack.  He was not as injured as he seemed. 

This last season, Cow was deemed an adult and put with the bulls along with the main herd of cattle to begin the next year of calves.  Only now are the rest of the cows showing signs of pregnancy, where Cow, we noticed, thanks to the sneaky bull, was almost ready to give birth.

Back at the house with her friends, we’ve been watching her for the last week, making sure she would not have trouble since it was her first time.  Then, three days before my own birthday, this Saturday at quitting time we came home to a little calf. 

We were only a few minutes late.  The calf was standing already but quite wobbly and wet.  The umbilical cord was still there and Cow was still gooey as well.  I, a proud and dorky grandmother, teared up a bit watching her lick clean her new baby.  We were unsure what kind of mother she would be having spent so little time with her own but her instincts are strong and her son is well taken care of.

I was saddened to find out that it was a male.  On a cattle farm, males are the first to be sold.  Only so many bulls are needed.  However, if he grows up strong, I was assured he would become one of the few.

I guess he takes after his father.

A tear in a cow

Yesterday morning, apparently, a very large cow attempted to jump a fence and ripped a hole in her side about a foot long.  It was a very clean tear, sort of like a rip in your jeans.  However, no one saw what happened so we don’t actually know.

So, out in the bush, you don’t call the vet every time an animal gets hurt or sick because it’s much too expensive.  You learn quickly how to do stuff on your own.  Jay is an amateur veterinarian if there ever was one, but even he had never before sewn up a cow.

As the sun was setting, the two of us walked out there, trailed by Sniffel of course, with a knife, disinfectant water and syringe to clean the wound, and a leather sewing needle and thread to sew it up. 

First, we needed to get the cow in the chute.  She was in pain and did not want to move.  Through a lot of yelling and arm-waving we got her in.  Sniffel had run alongside and now pranced around proudly expecting praise for his job well done. With a little more effort we got her head in the clamper.  It is a metal contraption that closes on their neck so they cannot move forward or back and is probably not called a clamper.  It doesn’t hurt, it’s not tight, unless they flail about.  Luckily, she was a rather well-mannered cow.

The wound was dripping blood.  It had a chunk of innardskin hanging out which Jay began to slice off.  “Can’t you just stick it back in there?”, I asked, grimacing in pain for the cow.  “No”, and the chunk came off and the cow swung her head toward the sky, eyes very big.

After squirting many gushes of disinfectant water into the wound, which she didn’t like much either, we had to start stitching.  With the first stitch, we realized how very thick a cow’s skin is.  It hurt Jay’s hand too much to simply push it in, so I offered my shoe.  The needle went through my shoe instead of the skin.  So he used a rock.  Then once in the skin, he could not pull it out.  He had to run back to the house for pliers. 

So there sat the cow and I.  Her side was dripping bloody water and I did not know how to comfort her.  So I scratched her head.  Time passed, Jay was not returning, so I scratched behind her ears and told her a story about when I got stitches.  About the time she was getting antsy, Jay returned with the pliers.

They did a good job until three stitches in and the needle broke.  We had only closed about half of the foot-long hole.  So I ran back to the house, grabbed all the needles we had and some dental floss.  Jay thought the floss might move through the skin easier.  It did but was not as strong.  So we switched back to the string.

After another broken needle, seven stitches in total and a lot of kicking from the cow, she was closed.  She never did vocalize her pain.  Then she squeezed her big belly out of the chute and stiffly sauntered away like she had just dropped a load in her pants. 

Later that night, she was still standing there, calmly chewing her cud.  She was a tough cookie.  If it had been a person, they would’ve been lounging in a hospital bed, doped up on drugs, slurping down blobs of green jello.

Sorry, I didn’t take a picture of the cow. Have a sunset.