A cow named Noodle: Remembering a special cow near the end of her life
January 11, 2016
The old cow walked slowly down the alley and made her way carefully into the chute and head catch. The snow on the thick hair of her back didn't hide the hip bones or back bone. She reached around the head catch expectantly and a handful of cake was put in her toothless mouth. The vet gave her a thorough checking, but, he finally shook his head and said "She's open."
Stunned, I rubbed her thin back and bobbed the switch of her tail, marking her as open. I'll admit I was choked up a little. One knows that the day will come with an old pet like her. Her stifles are stiff and sore, her teeth are gone, and she moves slowly, but one still hopes. I let her out of the chute and told the crew in the corral behind the sad news. The old cow, Noodle, turned at the front of the chute and reached for more of the wonderful cake.
We had talked earlier about maybe just keeping her in the corral with the heifer calves this winter, what with her stifles being sore and her being thin. She had weaned a steer calf earlier in the month and maybe she just needed a little babying to get some shine back. But, with no pending calf to provide for, we know we can't keep her. She's a pet, but she's a cow.
Noodle. What a name. She was born on a cold March day to a thin, recently bought cow that came from a big ranch in Montana. Her mother tried her best but the calf couldn't even lift her head. Classic "weak calf syndrome" calf. We distracted the very protective mama so we could get ahold of her, then put the little calf on the floorboards of the pickup and hauled her home. She was laid on a folded blanket on the kitchen floor in front of the heater and a tube of calf starter was put down her throat. When carried, she was as slack as a wet noodle, hence her name.
“When visitors from the city would come out, I would take them out to the cows, knowing they could actually get their hands on Noodle and learn more about cattle.”
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Even as weak as she was, she seemed bright and alert. I warmed milk, an egg and a little white syrup on the stove and fed her a bottle. She nursed well and drank it all. I fed her every few hours and she got stronger. In a day or so she could even sit up and lay in the sun out in the yard for a while. She was still very thin and weak but she was also tough and determined.
Meanwhile, I had saddled a horse and brought her very upset mother to the corral for some extra care in the hopes the calf would get up and the cow would be able to nurse her and eventually raise her herself. The cow was wild and downright mean to deal with but a good mother. The ranch she came from was a survival of the fittest outfit, and that old cow had passed the test year after year until she was sold as a short term cow.
In a few days, Noodle was finally standing up and strong enough to go back to the cow and I was sure hoping the old cow would take her. I slid Noodle under a gate while her very irate mother banged her head on it. The cow started licking Noodle and mothering her right away. What a relief. In just a few minutes Noodle was looking for something to suck and latched on. Sadly, there was simply nothing there.
My problem of how to help the calf along without the cow killing me was solved when Noodle came right to the fence for her bottle. We did that for quite a while until it was clear the cow was never going to have any milk. So, I had a bottle calf and the poor old cow was turned out.
Noodle thrived. She took to the bucket quickly and then pellets and hay. Our son, who was a pre-teen with a soft heart, played with her and taught her to lead and pick up her feet. As she grew up he even started riding her around the corral and had her going nicely. He and his buddy decided to be bull riders one day and flanked her and found that she could really buck. But she never got upset over it and absolutely loved the attention.
Many hours were spent with one kid walking ahead of her with a piece of cake in his pocket and the other following her and heeling her. They never pulled her down, so she played "rope the heifer" very willingly.
When she was old enough, she went into the cow herd and became a cow. As a three year old with a newborn calf on a stormy night, barn space was at a premium, so my husband and son put a twine around Noodle's neck, led her and carried her calf through a narrow yard gate, across the yard and hopped her into a trailer where the pair spent the night.
When she had a brand new calf though, one sure wanted to be upwind of her before approaching, as she was still the daughter of that wild, mean old Montana cow. Once she heard my voice and winded me though, she was just glad to see me and would see if I had any cake in my pockets and lick me. I don't think a stranger would have wanted to approach her at that time though.
One winter she got a grass seed in her eye and needed to come home from a leased pasture and be doctored. I took the trailer and a rope and the young cowboy who had the place sure was wondering where my horse was. I walked out and she walked to meet me, I put the loop around her neck, led her across the pasture and over to the trailer where she stepped right in. He said "Well, it ain't the cowboy way but it sure worked!"
Just this past summer Noodle got a cut between the toes of a hind foot and it swelled up. She needed to come to the corral where it was dry and it could be doctored. My son saddled a horse and we took the trailer to the pasture. He walked over to Noodle and put a halter on her and led her to the trailer. She stepped right in and he led her to the front and tied her. Then he got on his horse, roped her calf and we loaded him. Pretty simple deal.
Now so many years have passed that it's hard to believe that she is finally old. Noodle never raised a big calf, most years barely an average calf, but she was still our pet. Anywhere she was, we could walk up to her and rub her all over and even snitch a bottle of milk if I needed one to help a calf at calving time.
Our little grandsons have never not known Noodle. Noodle was one of the first words in their vocabularies I think. They've petted her and loved on her, rubbed her belly and her face, and sat on her narrow back every time they were able. She always just enjoyed the attention.
One summer day we had all gone to look at the cows and calves and while there, the little boys were busy playing around the dam, catching frogs, and throwing rocks. Noodle came to investigate. I called the two boys (nearly 4 and 2 1/2 years at the time) to me and I squatted down and told them to hold out their cupped hands and I'd show them where milk came from. I squirted a generous amount into each set of grubby hands and they marveled at it. The little one then tipped his hands and drank it down. He grinned and held his hands out and asked for more. Now that was fresh and organic!
When visitors from the city would come out, I would take them out to the cows, knowing they could actually get their hands on Noodle and learn more about cattle. Last summer my visitors from Virginia posed with her and shared their pictures with friends back home, explaining how Noodle is a real ranch cow.
Well, she is. But she isn't. If she was any other cow, she would have been culled for being below par on the calf raising scale. Being Noodle has given her the privilege of being kept when it wasn't fiscally the best choice. She even calved on the tail end several years and still was kept. Being Noodle has sure had it's benefits. As ranchers, we just can't afford to keep cows that aren't pulling their weight as it's a dollars and cents issue. But sometimes, just sometimes, we overlook the facts and that is why Noodle stayed. Year after year, she has stayed.
She's in the corral now, eating hay with the other opens. Naturally, she's getting some cake too. We'll keep her a little longer than them to try to put a little more weight on her, but we all know that the day is coming when she will be loaded once more and that trip will take her to the salebarn. That will be a very hard day. Probably one of many.
My son has tried to be positive about it and has said it is better to sell her as an open cow than to find her down on the ice or in a snow bank because of her stifles. He's right and I know it. But I also know that he is going to miss her too. She's going to leave a big gap in the cowherd. I have no real idea how to explain it to the grandsons who are so young.
There will be some tears shed I suspect, as well they should, because a cow like Noodle doesn't come along very often. Never a big contributor to the cash flow, she still contributed good old enjoyment and fun. There may be another pet cow around here some day, but there will never been another Noodle. She is definitely one of a kind.