Death of a calf

Yesterday evening we took a walk around our farm, as we try to do at least a couple times per week, to check the cows and see how the grass is growing and just generally get a feel for what’s going on around the back half of the farm.  We had been busy the past couple of weeks, with preparing for chicken processing day, the chicken processing day itself, Ame baking cakes and arranging flowers for a friend’s wedding, harvesting and shelling dry beans from the garden, and the myriad little things that chip away at our ‘free time.’

Back in mid-August I moved the cows down to the east pasture on our farm, a total area of about 12 acres — half woods, half pasture — with the intention of them being down there hopefully at least until early winter.  (Since they’ve not been on that patch of ground since March or April, there is enough forage to last quite a while.)  When I have the cows on my other pastures I move them to a new paddock every day or two, but down in the east pasture I don’t have the infrastructure (piped water or electric wire) so for the time being I just give them the run of the whole area and let them drink from the creek.  The downside to this setup is that I don’t need to see the cows every day or two, as I do when I’m moving them through my other pastures.

So with our aforementioned busyness I hadn’t gone and really checked on the cows in about 9 days (since the afternoon of the chicken processing at least, if not more recently), though I’d see a handful of them up on the orchard hill behind the house every other day or so.  Then yesterday evening as we walked up toward the southeast corner of our east pasture we came upon the carcass of Alyssea.  (“Alyssea” means “one high-born,” a name of English origin that I imagine implies some sort of nobility, but as she was born on our hilltop pasture we thought the name was fitting.)  She was the first calf born on our farm, and our only heifer calf from this year’s batch.

By the time we found her she had been dead a few days, and the coyotes and turkey vultures had already stepped into their respective roles, so I don’t know what killed her.  Did she eat from the small patch of poison hemlock growing in that area?  But calves learn what to eat and what not to eat from their mothers, and in general stay away from toxic plants.  Was she attacked by a band of coyotes?  It’s possible that the cows were quite spread out in such a large pasture, so maybe by herself she made an easy target?  (And an inspection of her momma’s udder tells me that Alyssea was probably weaned, or at least nearly so, which increases the chances that her momma wasn’t around to ward off the coyotes.)  But this was no newborn calf; she was over 9 months old and weighed around 350 lbs.  And we actually have a newborn calf out in that pasture as well (the result of an “oops” breeding when the bull got in with the cows last December) that would seemingly make an easier target.  Then again, that newborn calf’s momma would have been by his side protecting him.  Or maybe it was a larger predator?  There are increasing accounts of mountain lion sightings in southern Missouri, and black bears are not infrequent visitors to our area.  Perhaps she was bit by a snake?  In her grazing did she swallow a piece of wire or a nail and succumb to “hardware disease” (traumatic reticuloperitonitis — we had to treat the same thing in one of our other cows last winter) when the object, lodged in her reticulum, punctured her heart?  Maybe it was a combination of factors: did she eat enough poison hemlock to weaken her, lie down by herself in the middle of the pasture, and then make an easy target for a band of coyotes to finish the job?

While it’s upsetting that she died, what’s really digging at me is the fact that I don’t know how she died.  Even if I had checked on the cows more often I may not have been able to prevent Alyssea’s death, but I would have at least found her carcass sooner and had a better chance at determining the cause.  Lesson learned.

For now the rest of the cows have been moved back to the hilltop pasture to get them away from the carcass and let the coyotes and vultures finish their job.