My most memorable New Year’s Day took place five years ago on a cold, clear morning in another life. We awoke to find a 30-acre lake where there had been pasture the night before. The Arkansas River had been rising ominously for days, and when it got high enough, it always backed up the bayou into our place. But nobody remembered seeing it quite so high. Only about 10 acres around the house and barn remained high and dry.
I looked for my favorite cow, Trudy, who’d been due to give birth. A great beauty with a sweet disposition, Trudy loved having her ears scratched. Her best friend, Stella, would stand at a distance when Trudy would approach me for petting. Two years earlier, Trudy had delivered a stillborn bull calf. She and Stella had spent hours side by side, nudging the baby to stand.
I waited until they gave up to carry the body away.
I spotted Trudy and her newborn calf at the edge of the floodwaters. Still wet with afterbirth, the little heifer struggled to her feet and fell face-first into the water. I told Diane to call my neighbor C.J. if I got hurt, and ran to the rescue. As gentle as Trudy was, cows are filled with hormones after calving, and can be dangerous to anybody suspected of hurting their babies.
A lifelong cattleman, C.J. is also a Little Rock firefighter. Anything that happened, he could handle.
The good news is that Trudy trusted me and followed along peaceably as I lifted the newborn heifer — all 95 pounds of her — and carried her to high ground. Then I kept watch to see the baby begin nursing. It’s critical for a calf to receive colostrum — concentrated mother’s milk filled with disease-resisting antibodies — within hours. Without it, they sicken and die.
Problem was, Betty Jo, as I named her, couldn’t find Trudy’s udder. A stocky, compact cow, her udder hung close to the ground. All legs and taller than the Great Pyrenees dogs already shadowing her, Betty Jo searched eagerly: under Trudy’s chin, beneath her tail, etc. But she simply couldn’t find it. Like all cows, she stubbornly resisted being manhandled. So I mixed up a batch of powdered colostrum in a 2-quart bottle and fed it to her in mid-afternoon.
Around sunset, I gave her a second bottle for good measure.
By the second morning, the calf still hadn’t nursed. How you can tell is that a nursing cow’s teats will be shiny clean, as if they’d been power-washed. Trudy’s udder was swollen to twice its normal size and as muddy as the rest of her.
Having recently finished eight months of bottle-feeding a bull calf named Tommy, who still followed me around the pasture like an 1,800-pound dog with sharp, pointed horns, I had no ambition to begin again. Lots of boiling water and bottle sterilizing, plus you’re on demand every morning and afternoon, holidays and weekends included. As much as I loved the farm, I also liked going to town sometimes.
Besides, Betty Jo would do better on the real thing.
So I phoned George Rappold, Perry County’s resident cow whisperer. Also a Little Rock firefighter, George and his buddy Tyler were basically bovine troubleshooters. He advised me to catch Trudy in a squeeze chute, and then ...
I told him my corral was under 6 feet of floodwater.
George said he and Tyler would be right over.
A couple of hours later, here they came in a three-pickup caravan, hauling trailers carrying a portable squeeze chute, a pile of cattle panels, and a tractor to maneuver the chute — heavy enough to immobilize a restless 2,000-pound animal.
It took about an hour to set everything up, but only a few minutes for me to lure Trudy into the corral with a bucket of feed and catch her in the head gate. Then George milked Trudy into his hand, stuck his hand under Betty Jo’s nose, and guided her to the udder.
Peevish at being confined, Trudy gave out a great groan of relief as the calf latched on to her teat and began to nurse. Mission accomplished. On her second day in this world, Betty Jo had completed the first semester of Cow 101.
Prompted by a friend, I asked George if a calf ever forgot where to find the udder once shown it. He acted surprised.
“Not never one time,” he said.
Alas, Trudy died last year. A couple of months ago, I went to see Stella at a friend’s farm. When I called her name, she left the herd and ambled down to the gate. She even let me pet her neck. Not entirely sentimental, I know what she was thinking. To Stella, my name is “Feed Bucket Man.”
Even so, cows don’t forget their friends.
Not never one time.
(Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com.)