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Monday, July 7, 2014


Life is hard on a ranch, especially when calving season comes along. With close to 1000 head of cows, the season can be 24-hour duty when first calf heifers begin calving. Late nights, long days, cold weather all play into the drama that takes place each year. Although we calve in the fall, we do live in a mountain valley and sometimes the snow comes early....even if it's only a skiff, it can be discouraging.

For anyone who hasn't experienced life on a ranch, perhaps the memoir shared here will provide a glimpse into the struggle to protect and/or save the lives that depend on us each and every day. Nothing about taking care of livestock is taken for granted; would that more people realize the deep bond that connects man/woman and beast!

Sometimes it's a hard drama, especially when a heifer has trouble. The following (true) event occurred in the early years of our marriage, before I had experienced the frustrating and disappointing loss of a calf or even a young mother cow. The loss is not one anyone accepts easily.

I wrote about this episode a few weeks after it happened -- perhaps as my way of processing and letting go -- and revised it several years later, so I am thrilled to see this story finally "find its home" in the anthology recently released by TwoDot/Globe, entitled ANKLE HIGH AND KNEE DEEP. It's one of the four I submitted.

If I might add, as editor and collector of the anthology/ volume, I was thrilled that the editors/publishers at TwoDot/Globe Pequot also loved the piece.

Gail L. Jenner
“Oh, Doug, is it going to be all right?”
“I don’t know. It don’t want to come. Maybe the calf is turned.” My husband pulled off his long-sleeved shirt and dipped his hands into the bucket of soapy water before turning to her. His hands entered easily, but the cow resisted when he pushed his arms in up to the elbows. “Come on, Mama.”
As the cow strained against the nylon halter I held taut, I swallowed the bile that burned my throat. At the same time, a series of groans rose up out of her throat, then her legs, shaking uncontrollably, gave up beneath her swollen body. She dropped to the straw with an ominous thud.
“Is the calf turned the right way?” My words, barely spoken, tinkled like coins in the empty barn. I dropped the end of the halter. This cow wasn’t going anywhere.
Doug hesitated, brows drawn together, tongue moving across chapped lips. “The head’s okay, but one leg don’t seem to be.”
“But will it live?”
He grunted, trying to wipe his chin against his shoulder. “Not unless we get it out soon.” He withdrew his hands and stood for a moment. He glanced up at me. “We'll have to pull it.”
With bloodied fingers, he picked up the length of chain he'd dragged out of the pickup earlier. The links of the mechanical stretcher clanked noisily.
I frowned as he circled and fastened one end of the chain around a small pair of hooves barely protruding from the young cow’s enraged cavity. Still down and panting, she twisted her head back until that the white sockets of her eyes bulged.
I held my protest. I knew Doug was doing all he could.
“When I start to pull,” he ordered, handing me one end of the chain, “make sure it don't slip off.”
The hard links rattled as Doug pulled on the lever – once, twice; the sound sent chills down my back, reminding me of fingernails scraping against a chalkboard.
Doug yanked on the pulley again. “Hold it steady!”
The chain grew taut, but the calf didn't budge. The cow’s belly ballooned with another contraction and she gasped.
I shrank back as she bawled again. “Oh, poor Mama,” I whispered. Why was life such a struggle?
Disgusted, Doug dropped the pulley contraption and shoved his hands back through the slimy opening, leaning forward to negotiate a better hold on the buried calf. Pearls of sweat trailed down his lean cheeks and they shimmered in the lopsided beams of amber light provided by his old pickup’s headlights.
He scowled as he probed and prodded, pushed and pulled.
Night finally edged in, the darkness filling the barn like spilled ink. Dinner hour long forgotten, I could not have moved away from the young mother even if I’d wanted to.  I was still new to marriage and this ranching life, and I hadn’t realized how tenuous life could be.
“Hey!” Doug interrupted my thoughts. “Give me that hammer and chisel.”
“Oh,” I groaned, reaching for the tools he had brought – just in case. Then I turned away, unable to watch. Only in impossible situations did a farmer or vet choose to split a young cow’s pelvis.
Hopefully it would heal.
“I have to,” Doug whispered. I nodded, touched by his attempt to ease my discomfort.
The hammer hit dully; the job was done. Throwing the tools aside, he moved swiftly. He reached for the calf's hooves and tugged. Like a soft ripe banana, the bloody body of the bald-faced calf oozed out onto the damp straw.
Dropping to his knees, my husband wiped the afterbirth from the calf's nose and tongue, but the tongue dangled like a fat pink tube sock, and its eyes stared blankly into the empty night.
Taking a quick, deep breath, Doug pressed his mouth over the calf’s. Sealing both nostrils, he blew breath after breath into the limp body.
I waited, tears slipping unnoticed down my cheeks.
Time passed cruelly.
Finally Doug leaned back and frowned. His eyes reflected my fear. “Too late. Too damn late.”
No! I took a step forward. You have to live. You can’t die. I held my breath. I felt Doug exhale slowly, but he avoided my glance.
And the cow, exhausted, lay, panting, her head flopped over in the straw as if she'd turned away from the awful sight.
Doug dragged the calf aside, his own face dark with unspoken disappointment. Then he returned to the cow.
He rested one palm lightly on her hip, but she didn't move as he inspected her and cleaned her off; neither did she flinch when he gave her an injection of antibiotic from the small black bag he always carried with him.
But I couldn’t stop the tears. Turning slowly, I looked out at the stars scattered like fool’s gold across the black dome of sky. Life. Death.
I turned back to the young cow.
Doug was massaging her back and shoulders, mindless of the cold air against his wet, stained arms and hands, compassion written across his weather-stained features. “I'm sorry, old gal,” he whispered. 
Slowly he coaxed her to her feet and pulled off the halter. She trembled, but seemed to gather her strength in the next moments.
It was then his glance trapped mine.
I winced.
The cow bawled.
He smiled tentatively. There would be another birth, his eyes said.
Perhaps another death, I wanted to retort.
Perhaps. But always, life prevails.

I hope you have enjoyed this excerpt from the recent release, ANKLE HIGH AND KNEE DEEP.

For more on ANKLE HIGH AND KNEE DEEP, check it out on


  1. Gail,

    I didn't grow up on a farm or ranch, but lived with the animals and people all around me. I didn't watch that many births, but did see enough that I know the joy and sorrow that surrounds such events. As I read you words that all came back to me. So beautifully sad. Doris

  2. I too didn't grow up on a ranch, so have never experienced this. Thanks for sharing. Cowboys are a tough lot.

  3. Thank you Doris and Kristy.....I think it's so important that we keep in mind how easily life is lost....and try as we want, we do not really have control over Mother Nature -- although many people foolishly think they can save every animal and preserve nature in its perfect state. Not so! Loss can be very hard to stomach...but it is inevitable.

  4. Gail, how sad. I know you must have just bawled over this...I did, reading it. And how hard for your husband--even though it happens over and over, it's still hard, I imagine, to face each time.

    Wish we could save them all...that's one thing I have come to realize through my work with saving stray animals. There will never be enough money, enough fosters, enough adopters, enough volunteers...but you do what you can do and take some solace and comfort in the victories.

    Thanks for a wonderful post.

  5. Thanks, Cheryl! Yes, it would be wonderful if we could save every one of them. But I think that is one of the things that life working with nature does teach you... that life is fragile!

  6. Hi Gail. Thanks for an interesting and moving post. 'Scuse me while I dry my eyes! Being an ex farm girl myself I have aided with the births of a variety of different animals, (though never a cow). The description of the hammer and chisel incident made me shudder, never needed to do that, thank goodness! Thanks for helping city people to see just how hard life can be 'down on the farm'. Thank you.

  7. Gail,

    I went down ranching memory lane with your story and wiped a few tears. But an experience for me that turned out well was saving a newborn calf by giving him mouth-to-nose resuscitation. Yup. In the heat of the moment, it's amazing what we'll do. ;-)

  8. Did that, too, Kaye. It's the most incredible exhilaration when the calf finally takes a breath. That's country life. And sometimes death.

  9. I'm sorry I didn't get here earlier, Gail.
    I would not fair well working on a ranch or farm. I would find it difficult to lose a baby animal and there is no way I could kill a chicken, or anything else, for my dinner. I could plant and harvest the heck out of a garden or an orchard though.
    I've done mouth to mouth resuscitation on several human beings, I don't find it too repulsive to do it to a baby animal, even though I've never experienced that event. Ranch life sounds so invigorating and so difficult all at the same time.
    I really enjoyed your article, Gail.