The Calf and the Well Pit

Imagine, if you will, a spring weekend in Nebraska. The birds are singing, calves are playing, and this Mom had 30 hours home alone.

Such was a recent weekend here on the ranch. Hubby and sons went to visit family in Minnesota. I was determined to plant the garden and someone needed to keep an eye on the cattle, so I stayed behind.

One small heifer calf, eartag #711, had a doting mom, but was sick after the late (May 1) blizzard that wreaked havoc with several new calves. An injection of antibiotics and some supplemental milk replacer helped baby back on her way to health. Unfortunately, the cow’s udder was muddy, enlarged, and difficult for the calf to nurse.

We had been going out twice a day to take a bottle to baby, much to momma cow’s discomfort. The cow never tried to hurt anyone feeding her calf, but she was very concerned and kept moving closer to the human, mooing her disapproval over the situation. She was concerned enough that we generally did not let the boys feed the calf, and either hubby or I took the bottle out.

In a way, I felt like the cow considered me a rival for her calf’s affections as the baby would moo and run up to any human that she saw. The cow became agitated when the calf ran away from her and toward a human.

So, on this fine weekend when I was home alone, I made a quick trip out to check on the small group of sick or cross-fostered* calves.

*Cross-fostering is the process of grafting a calf onto a cow that is not their biological mother. This is done when cows or calves die, twins are born (a cow will usually only claim one of the two), or an older cow cannot take care of a calf. It is done because calves thrive more when nursing from a cow than when fed milk replacer from a bottle. 

As I walked through the pasture, 711’s momma saw me and immediately became agitated. She mooed and ran past me toward the corral area. I sighed as I saw her, assuming she was upset because she thought I was coming out to give her calf a bottle.

Backstory alert.

Before hubby and sons left for Minnesota, they showed me a problem with the water fountain for the cows. A broken part meant the fountain overflowed as long as the water was turned on to that line.

The temporary solution was to uncover the well pit and climb in and out to turn the water off/on to fill a supplemental water tank nearby to make sure the cows had enough water. It needed to be turned off when the tank was full so water was not wasted. The well pit was a cylinder, about 5 feet wide and 6+ feet deep. At the bottom was the input line from the well, and all the branching out-lines. These branches led to the old hunting cabin (on the farm before we bought the land), the cattle water (the one that needed to be manually turned off/on on this particular weekend), and to the house. A thick wooden cover generally protected this pit, and a fence around it was a second line of defense (but had fallen into disrepair over the years).

We rarely uncovered the pit and had never left the cover off for more than a few minutes in the 15-ish years we had owned the farm. Because of the current need to crawl in and out of the pit several times per day, hubby chose to leave the cover off.

I now return you to your regularly-scheduled blog post and example of Murphy’s Law in action.

The upset mama cow ran past the wire that was supposed to be her electric fence. I was annoyed with her because 1) she appeared to be upset with me and 2) that she had knocked down her electric fence.

I quickly noticed that her behavior was different. She was not as upset toward me as much as she wanted me to follow.

As soon as I saw her run up to the uncovered well pit and stare down the hole, I immediately knew why, and started swearing.

It took a bit of maneuvering, but I got her away from the pit and was able to look down. I was afraid I would see a calf tangled in the ladder with broken limbs or neck, but instead was relieved to see a calf napping at the bottom.

The well pit a few days later (I did not have a chance to get a picture during the incident)

The calf heard the commotion above, got up and demanded her bottle.

Afraid she would run around and tear apart water lines, I quickly retreated and hoped she would settle down again to sleep. There was no way I could get down there and pull the 70-80 lb calf out by myself, even if I dared challenge momma cow without any backup.

A phone call to hubby and sons affirmed that they were within two hours of reaching home, and would be there before dark.

At homecoming, everyone swung into action. Chore clothes were donned, bottles were made, and a plan concocted to rescue the calf while not upsetting momma cow further.

Hubby drove the ATV right up next to the well pit and climbed down to the calf. Son 1 jumped out of the nearby pickup when signaled and grabbed the calf’s legs and pulled her a few yards away from the pit and backed away when momma cow came to investigate.

It was nearly sunset, but no one got to go inside for supper or showers until all critters were tended and the well pit was covered again.

Since that time, momma cow and 711 have been moved into a more secure facility (corral) and she has mellowed considerably when humans come to feed her calf.

The fence around the well pit has been partially restored and the cover is not left off for any significant length of time.

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About jheem

I grew up on a diversified dairy farm in southeast South Dakota where I learned how to throw a hay bale, pull a calf, deal with death, and "name" the cows. I was in 4H and FFA, and was privileged to serve as a state FFA officer. In college, I studied animal science, focusing on beef cows, mostly because I figured they were less work than dairy cows....I ended up with a Masters Degree in ruminant nutrition and went to work for the University of Nebraska, first as a research tech coordinating data collection for a swine unit and beef feedlot on a research farm and then as an extension educator. In my current job, I focus on environmental issues related to animal agriculture (which is a nice way of saying I talk about manure alot). My husband and I live and work on a seedstock cattle operation in northeast Nebraska. You can learn more about our cattle operation by visiting my husband's blog at http://aldersonangus.wordpress.com.
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