The Old Broke Rancher on How Snowflake the Calf Ruined His Entire Morning!

Old Broke Rancher Masthead
Snowflake the winter calf
Illustration by Rob Rath

Did you ever have one of those days? You know, like something just comes up unexpected and ruins the whole thing? 

It was a spring morning in March, but someone didn't tell north-central Montana; ignorant of the passing of the season, she was bitterly blizzarding away. 

Typically my morning routine is to put a cup of yesterday's coffee in the microwave, glance at the thermometer/ barometer, and have a look-see out the window. Unpleasantly, the instruments and the window agreed: blizzard. Good day to lie low. Only the angel on my shoulder told me to gulp down the coffee and go check on the cows. Temperature is two degrees south of zero and my first mistake of the day was not to dress for hours of inclement weather. I expected a quick all-is-well signal from the cows, and then I'd beat a hasty retreat back to the warmth of the hearth and another blessed cup of stale coffee.

Coffee mug

Not today: One of the cows was off by herself under the cottonwood trees. Never a good sign; they should have been bunched at the bale feeder complaining to one another about the state of the world. The cow's name was Winter. An ironic touch on this miserable spring morning.

I went to the cow then, for a friendly visit, only to discover she was in a fit of bovine rage. This, too was not a good sign. As a fat old man, I figure it was about even odds in a fair fight, but I refused to die without another cup of coffee, so I started to trudge back to the house when I noticed it: a wretched little bundle of white, barely visible amidst the snow. It scarcely had the energy to shiver. So that's why Momma was trying to kill me.

I maneuvered upside of the calf, scooped it up, stealing it from the Momma. I realized at this point that while she was only mildly irritated with me before, now she was furious. I could not persuade her that this all for the good of her little one. Cows rarely listen to reason in my experience.

When I got to the house, she had ceased all movement, and I thought I hadn't made it in time. But upon inspection, I found that her eyes, edged with frost, were still blinking, slowly.

Snowy blizzard

To the bathtub then. The secret is to do this slowly, warm first, the next tub-full a little warmer, and the next tub warmer yet, then almost hot. It took all the hot water the old 50-gallon water heater could muster.

Upon reflection, I was probably engaged in a little passive aggression, subconsciously realizing that if I cursed enough in the process, someone in the house would realize I wasn't just taking a prolonged, multi-stage bath, but was trying to do something. And indeed, finally, my wife popped her head through the door.

"Please help me, the calf will drown if her head is not held up," I said, although it was probably a little more colorfully put in the moment.

Being a tough gal and an excellent hand, she went right to work bringing the bath towels reserved for guests from the barn, hairdryers, milk feeding bottles, and all the accouterments necessary for a fun morning.

Did I mention I hadn’t had my breakfast yet?

Snowflake the calf

The first problem is that though I'm a highly eloquent, intelligent, and educated man, I'm not a vet and not, therefore, able to immediately recall a calf's normal body temperature. But I have been around enough cowboys to know that if you stick a digit in their mouth and they exhibit a suck reflex, it's a good sign. The poor little critter declined to suckle, and the back of her tongue felt cold.

Problem two was getting some of mom's milk. After suiting up and returning to her, I found that having stolen her calf from her did not endear her to me. Luckily, we have a Maternity Pen for just such occasions, but problem three was that she was in no mood to go in the pen.

A veritable rodeo of screaming, cursing, and being charged ensued, but after a while I had her contained. Mom was still not impressed with me, and as I tried to fill a pail with milk, she did her best impression of Jean-Claude Van Damme. So, muttering curses of my own invention, combinations of salty words so vile that I am ashamed to this day of having conceived of them, I went for a rope.

Catch a hind leg in a loop, tie her leg back up in the air, secure the rope to the top rail of the maternity pen, and she was all done kicking; cows cannot kick you if they have one leg off the ground.

But they still have ways of making your life miserable, including a rudimentary (and brown) form of biological warfare. Remembering from Catholic school that I'd been given dominion over all the beasts of the field, I toughed it out. I secured all the milk I would need to feed her calf, untied her leg, dodged a few more kicks, and headed back to the house once more.

Cow in the snow

My dear wife had the calf still soaking in the tub, but now the little critter had its head up. It looked as if she would survive after all. Now it was noon, and my belly ached for some bacon and eggs almost as much as it cried out for that second cup of coffee. But first, we transferred the milk to a bottle with a nipple and started warming it back up to feed her. She (the calf, not my wife) lapped at it hungrily. I took the pile of towels, and after draining away the tub, began using them to dry her.

I suppose many Montanans have had to blow-dry a cow, but if you've never been so lucky, know this: they are hairy little critters, and the task would vex even veteran hairdressers like the great Vidal Sassoon. By the time we were done, it was 2pm, and all I could think about was a big plate of corn beef hash and pitcher after pitcher of coffee.

It had been quite an ordeal for a newborn, and now it was nap time. My wife and I began the process of cleaning up. Four PM came and went, and outside it was dark again. 

I would have killed your mother for a meatball sub.

Meatball Sub

But alas, our guest had made a mess of the bathroom. The meconium that she passed in the back entryway near the pellet stove required several mop rags and a dozen passes with the Bissel Carpet Cleaner to make a dent. What is meconium? It shall suffice to repeat what the kids said, which was, and I quote: "Ew, gross." 

Back at the maternity pen, I said hello once more to my friend the cow, now beside herself with wrath. I put down a bale of straw for her, but she did not display sufficient gratitude in my estimation. The only thing left to do now was to return the now-warm calf to Momma. Now it was about 6pm, a full 12 hours since I got up to start the day, and I would have burned down the town of Havre just to see a picture of a bucket of fried chicken.

But cow and calf were reunited. Was it my imagination, or did Mom nod me a 'thank you?'

I was relieved when the calf, hungry once more (I sympathized), began to suckle. That's about all I could do; I showed the calf to shelter and hoped nature would take its course. We named her Snowflake, by the way.

At 7pm, my work done at long last, I settled in front of the fire with my long-delayed second cup of coffee and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was asleep and snoring before the coffee or the sandwich were half done.

POSTSCRIPT: Snowflake grew up to be a productive member of our herd, and Winter had several more calves. We eventually got the stains out of the carpet in the back entryway.

Snowflake and family

Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy.  Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV.  Hell, scratch that.  Enough to buy the whole RV.  He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations.  Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.

Leave a Comment Here

Marci (not verified) , Fri, 03/12/2021 - 08:05
I grew up in Absarokee. Your morning with Snowflake and Winter made me laugh and remember our own calving chaos... Smile!
Jane Meyers-Bowen (not verified) , Sat, 03/13/2021 - 03:51
I grew up west of Havre on the Hi-line. You are a gifted writer! Thank-you.
Anonymous (not verified) , Sat, 03/13/2021 - 09:21
Been there, done that
Barkat (not verified) , Thu, 03/18/2021 - 10:47
Your morning with snowflake. Nice weather.
Michelle Irwin (not verified) , Thu, 03/18/2021 - 11:17
Loved your story. You write so well that I could picture it all in my mind. I’m a city girl but love country stories and really love Montana.
Val Timmcke (not verified) , Thu, 05/20/2021 - 13:14
I am so glad that Snowflake survived. What a heart warming story and fun to read.
Thank you
Donia Ouzts (not verified) , Fri, 06/30/2023 - 09:25
We had a little farm in Weirsdale, Florida nothing like Montana and snow and blizzards, did have misty snow on the roof one year. We had about 5 mommas, 1 bull and 4 babies including twins (Martins) I remember a timid 1st time momma and having to use a chain to pull her 1st born from the womb. It was a cold morning. My parents weren't young called a friend who was just as old and here we are helping to give birth to an almost full grown cow. When finished it took momma cow a long time to stop charging at me, but she wouldn't feed it. In the end it did turn out great. You tell a great story and she turned out beautiful. Males were named after different parts of beef, the girls flower names. The girl Martin didn't make it. I cried every time we lost a baby. We celebrated on Facebook with pictures of every single one. Keep on writing its great.
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