For love of a calf, he became cattleman

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, August 10, 2013

Now that his presidential library has opened for business in Dallas, perhaps we can retire the useful myth of George W. Bush, cattle rancher. Today, he’s an artist, painting not western scenes but lap dogs. I never bought that brush-cutting business anyway. I always figured Bush was indoors in the afternoon heat, pedaling a stationary bicycle and watching baseball on TV.

But enough partisan sniping: This is a recycled column about Layla, the Charolais calf that turned me into an accidental cattleman. I was out for an afternoon ride on Rusty, my quarter-horse, when we met my neighbor, who rents my pasture.

One of his cows had given birth to twin calves — not good. They’re often undersized and weak. The mother’s likely to choose the stronger calf and abandon the other; bovine Darwinism.

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Paul was trying to coax the little white heifer, all spindly legs and big brown eyes, to nurse from her mother’s teats. Without fresh mother’s milk (colostrum), she wouldn’t get antibodies needed to survive.

He wasn’t having much luck. The heifer’s mother was already showing signs of ignoring her for the stronger bull calf.

When I rode back later, the herd had moved on. The little heifer lay alone under some trees. After sundown, she’d basically be coyote bait. Rusty and I tried herding the mother back to her. Anxious to protect her other calf, however, the mother cow — all 1,500 pounds of her — was spoiling for a fight.

Rusty’s no cutting horse and I’m no cowboy. So I put him up, drove out in my truck, picked the heifer up, and tried setting her on her feet among the herd. Her mother actually ran away. Tottering along bawling, the little heifer tried to nurse other cows, which kicked her.

I volunteered to bottle-feed her if Paul would teach me. He allowed that she’d be mine if I could keep her alive, which he doubted. He and his wife came by to show me the ropes.

By morning, she was substantially weaker, unable to stand, barely able to nurse a bottle. Paul showed me how to tube-feed, inserting a plastic tube down her throat and pouring milk into a hot-water bottle hung from a nail.

Like every cattleman I talked to, he was fatalistic. “I don’t know if I’d fool with it,” he’d say. “It’s 90 percent she’ll be dead by morning.”

Indeed, when I carried her into the stall we prepared for her, the little heifer hung limp in my arms. She couldn’t stand. Yet when I’d force the feeding tube into her esophagus, she’d struggle against the insult.

I felt she was a fighter; I felt she wanted to live.

Next day, I drove off to fetch frozen colostrum on what I feared was a fool’s errand. I half-expected to find her dead when I returned. Instead, she was standing, sniffing noses with Fred the basset hound.

“Ah like to cried,” country folks say, meaning they almost did. There was no almost about it. The little white heifer with the knobby knees, huge brown eyes, spoonlike ears and amazing vitality had entered my heart. It was also a minor revelation seeing laconic cattlemen driving all over three counties to fetch what I needed to keep her alive: colostrum, antibiotics, vitamin B-12, steroids.

I named her “Layla,” after the Eric Clapton song. The extended melodic piano and guitar ride at the end has often brought tears to my wife’s eyes. Besides, Layla definitely had me on my knees, feeding her a bottle.

Next, she went blind. It was probably congenital, possibly an autoimmune reaction to foreign colostrum, veterinarians thought. Treating it was probably hopeless. However, if I had a safe pasture where she wouldn’t drown or walk off a cliff (I do), she and a companion calf might live 20 years.

They tried steroids anyway. Over three days, the white cloud over her eyes vanished. She began playing chase with the dogs, who somehow knew not to nip her. The two Great Pyrenees are over-the-moon happy there’s finally something on this place that needs guarding -— unlike the horses, who mildly resent their efforts. They let Layla nurse at their ears.

By six weeks, Layla appeared to think she was a basset hound, although she KNEW I was her mother. She also definitely knew where the milk was kept, inside the house. So she spent her days on the front porch, snoozing with the dogs and mooing for supper.

I’d been told that cows had strongly marked personalities, but I had no clue. My own feelings about this little calf, one among thousands in a county inhabited by far more cows than people, surprised me.

Update: Alas, repeated infections proved too much for Layla’s overwhelmed immune system. She died after nine hard months, having accomplished her mission: teaching me to love her kind.