Through the Fence 5-18-09
Motherhood is a defining moment. From the day you bring another human being into the world, you are responsible for it, to some degree, for the rest of your life. Those first few days together are critical, beginning what the behavioral experts call “bonding.” Establishing a nursing routine and a daily rhythm successfully sets the groundwork for a relatively peaceful coexistence.
Before we had our first child, I attended a nursing mothers’ support group called La Leche League. It was a lot of hip earth-mothers who advocated nursing their children as a means of comfort and nurture as well as nutrition. Once when our leader was touting all the health benefits of breast milk to the group, one enthusiastic dad chimed in, “Yeah, the milk is free, always ready to serve and comes in attractive containers.”
When we started ranching, we saw firsthand the nutritional benefits of natural milk for farm animals versus manmade milk replacement. Most of the orphan goats and calves that we raised on bottles survived but never thrived as well as their naturally fed counterparts. We eventually abandoned powdered milk and bought a milk cow. It usually took a while for her to accept an orphaned calf, but it was always worth the effort.
My friend, Stacy, had a Holstein cross milk cow once named Minnie because her big black floppy ears made her look like Minnie Mouse. She had successfully raised 12 of her own calves had raised almost that many orphan calves. Minnie was dog-gentle, so it took very little coaxing to persuade her to take on her next orphan. As long as she could get a few extra range cubes dumped in her bucket, she didn’t really care which calf came into the barn to strip the extra milk from her always bulging udder.
Sometimes, she’d sidle up to another cow’s calf and whisper something enchanting in its ear, and it would follow her anywhere. Stacy and her husband would often find Minnie happily grazing under a tree with two or three extra calves around her. Minnie was the quintessential mother. But one day, she crossed the line.
Stacy had a little black heifer that had just had her first calf. They were getting along pretty well when one day her calf went missing. Stacy and her family rode around looking for the missing calf under every tree and thorn bush on their property to no avail. They thought that maybe the calf had climbed through the fence in search of its mother after they got separated and died in another pasture. They even watched the sky for circling buzzards. The black mama cow bawled for her baby day and night. They did not suspect that Minnie had enticed the calf away since she was already raising two orphan calves.
They called off the search, and the new mother cow’s milk eventually dried up. She stopped her constant grieving, at least out loud. Of course, a rancher is disappointed to lose one of their new offspring, but losing one occasionally is to be expected. A few days later, when they were repairing fences at the far corner of their place, who should mosey out of the brush but Minnie. She was sporting three baby calves, two adoptees and the calf that had mysteriously disappeared. Minnie had somehow managed to evade detection until it was safe to come out of hiding. Stacy didn’t know whether to hug her or beat her senseless with a cattle prod. She knew maternal instinct was extremely powerful, but this was over the top. She was reminded of those crazy moms on the news who kidnap newborn babies out of the hospital after losing their own child. Maternal hormones can drive one to behave in bizarre and unexpected ways ” of which Minnie was a prime example.
She didn’t lose her job as the nurse cow. In fact, she raised those calves until they were ready to be sent to the sale and got to raise a few more later. However, the next time all that the mama cows starting calving, Minnie got sent on a little mini vacation to another pasture ” far away from the crop of impressionable newborns.
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