Sunday, June 22, 2008

Redwing, "Okie Cow"

Redwing, “Okie Cow”
©Ken Harris, 2008

The people who sold Redwing to us called her an Okie Cow. She had beef cow and milk cow in her DNA. She was brown and white; we figured her for Hereford crossed with something dairy. She had the dairy cow personality, mellow, easy to handle. Our son, Eric, named her Redwing.

We bred her to a beef bull every year. Redwing’s beef background gave us a 3/4-beef calf, something we could sink our teeth into when he (or she – we’re equal opportunity carnivores) grew to the right size. Her dairy background guaranteed enough milk so that we could raise a second calf, a “drop calf,” on her, thereby getting two edible animals for the effort of raising one. Drop calves were to be had at the dairy, little bull calves not much use to anyone who makes his living milking cows. Drop calves were usually free and, while the beef wasn’t top notch, the price was great.

Redwing had all the maternal virtues and bonded quickly with her own calves. She showed less enthusiasm for the “orphans” we foisted upon her, but she usually came around after a couple of weeks. Not only did she nurture her own babies, she was careful and considerate of other peoples’ babies as well, whether human, equine, canine, feline. I have a picture of my nephew, Mark Kampe, sitting on her back while she is lying down enjoying the sun. The amazing thing to me is that her brand new calf is lying down just a few feet away. Another time, I came home from work to find the three neighbor children and our own two all perched somehow on the cow. Eric was climbing hand over hand up Redwing’s tail. All of the children were singing Michael, Row the Boat Ashore at the top of their lungs. Redwing stood placidly and appeared, and if she didn’t enjoy the attention, she appeared resigned to it.

We bred her through by artificial insemination. On an appointed morning the local artificial inseminator would show up with his selection of bull semen stored in a dewar of liquid nitrogen. For the curious, nitrogen liquefies at -320°F. He handled his vials of semen very carefully, because at 320 below you could give yourself a nasty freezer burn. Then, while one of us held Redwing by her halter and the other held her tail aside, The Great Inseminator inserted a tube into the cow’s vagina, into the uterus, put his mouth to the free end of the tube, puffed firmly, and the job was done. The cow flinched every time. Well, I guess! That semen couldn’t have warmed up all that much. I always entertained myself with the speculation about what would happen if cows could come up with a pre-emptive uterine puff first. There would be fewer artificial inseminators and more happy bulls.

Once a Hereford bull did make it into our pasture. That animal was BIG. We didn’t go into our own pasture for several days, until we located his owner. Redwing loved it. Her own personal bull. She grazed at his side with a smile on her face like she’d just filled an inside straight flush.

When Redwing first came to live with us, she had little buttons for horns. If we had taken them off with a pocket knife right then, there would have been no problem. But we were so ignorant. We let them grow and soon she had four-inch horns and we had a problem because, while she wasn’t vicious and would never have gored us on purpose, she might whack us accidentally shooing flies away. We hired our horse shoer, Jack Howell, the same one who taught us how to trim a rabbit’s teeth. Jack came over with a hacksaw and a can of combination disinfectant and instant blood clotter-wound sealer. Again, with little formality, we held her down and Jack sawed away. My lord, the blood. It spurted with each beat of her heart, long streams, eight feet. The canned medicine worked and the blood flow ceased almost instantly. We turned her loose within a few minutes. For the next week, Redwing refused to speak to us. When we entered the pasture with hay or oats, she turned and looked away. If we pursued the matter, she would walk away. She just wanted nothing to do with treacherous people. I couldn’t blame her. We had let our ignorance get us into a situation that could not be resolved in any pleasant way.

Augustine was probably the best drop calf Redwing ever raised. We drove out to a dairy where a nine-year-old boy was in charge. He took us out to a large wooden barn where a number of calves stood, tied by their necks to the walls with jute baling twine. We chose one and loaded him into the bed of the pickup and drove home. At least, we thought it was a him because we didn’t check too closely. We figured even a nine-year-old, if he was connected to a dairy, must know the difference between a bull calf and a heifer.

He didn’t. August became Augustina and she was as gentle as one of the dogs. We knew we would have trouble butchering her for beef. She was just too nice. We traded her to some neighbors for alfalfa because they wanted her for a 4-H project for one of their daughters. A few weeks later we received a phone call from the neighbors wanting to know something about Augustina’s breeding. The 4-H organization didn’t require papers but they did want to know something about the heifer’s background. Sui generis doesn’t cut it with the 4-H. Joanne phoned the dairyman and explained how we’d gone out to get a bull calf and the kid gave us a heifer, ha ha, and now the new owners wanted to know something about the animal. “Is that what happened to her?” quietly asked the dairyman, more to himself than to Joanne. “That heifer’s mother was last year’s state butter-fat champion. Is there any chance I could get her back?” Joanne gave the dairyman our neighbor’s phone number. We never did hear how it turned out, but it seemed obvious that Augustina was not going to go on the butcher’s block.

When we moved to Guam we had to get rid of Redwing, send her to another home. Many people wanted to buy her. She was sweet, kind, gentle and if you staked her out by the road to get rid of a fire hazard, that hazard was gone. Our friend Betty Veal offered to buy the cow and to satisfy my ego I said I wanted $1.00 per pound for her, a fair enough price for the world’s greatest cow. Then I estimated her weight to be 100 pounds, and Betty and we struck a deal.

Redwing lived with Betty for many more years. Some years she raised two calves, some years one, some years none at all. After Redwing had passed her 20th birthday, one man suggested to another that she be butchered for bologna. “Good thing Betty’s not here. She’d make bologna out of you for that suggestion,” was the reply. Redwing had that effect on all who knew her. She wasn’t a cow, she was a person.

When Redwing died Betty hired a backhoe operator to dig a hole under the oak tree at the west end of her property and bury the cow there. She had liked to stand there in the evenings and watch the sun set. Like most of us, Betty was not foolishly sensitive; but some people just deserve a final gesture of respect, and Redwing was one of those.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Betty's Heifer

Betty’s Heifer
©Ken Harris, 2008

Back in the 1960s in Auburn, California, Jack and Betty Veal lived on some acreage with their horses, cattle, chickens and other family members including a white faced heifer whom they felt was ready to be introduced to a gentleman cow. Unfortunately for a good many of us, Betty’s heifer did not want to be introduced to any gentleman cow, thank you very much.

Betty hitched her two-horse trailer to the pickup, removed the divider so that the heifer would have plenty of room once she was loaded, and put a little hay and grain on the floor in front of the trailer, something to entice the beast inside. But the heifer wasn’t having any of it. Hay and grain were all right in their place, and that place in a manger or feed rack, certainly not on a floor inside of a trailer. The heifer wouldn’t go in the trailer.

Betty called her friends to help. Joanne and I responded to the call, along with our horse, Legend, in case we needed some good old fashioned cow ponying. Carolyn Geier also brought her horse. Ina Robinson, Max and Jonie Fields, and Woody Bexar formed the rest of our excessively brave and foolish crew.

The plan was to herd the cow into the trailer quickly and painlessly and then treat ourselves to self-congratulatory brewskis. Unfortunately, nobody consulted the heifer.

First, the heifer didn’t want to be herded. Joanne and Carolyn tried to sandwich her between their horses and guide her toward the trailer. The heifer was having none of that, however, and made a 90° turn to the left and ran under Joanne’s horse toward a fence. The horse, Legend, was somewhat surprised by this antic, but she had been used as an endurance horse, a cart horse, a trail driving horse, a parade horse and a carrier of small nieces and nephews. In fact, we had asked her to do everything but tap dance. So she didn’t panic when the heifer ran under her. She just thought it was unusual and raised her front legs so the heifer could proceed unmolested toward the fence.

The fence, now, that was really going to bring the cow up short. It stood four feet tall and proud, heavy gauge field fencing attached to thick, steel posts. Surely this fine fence would hold the cow.

But, actually, the fine fence didn’t hold the cow. The fine fence didn’t even slow this cow down. She ploughed through the fence and proceeded westward dragging ten yards of fencing and T-posts behind her. I am sure that when Leonardo first conceived of the tank he had just seen a runaway cow.

We followed behind the heifer as best we could. She faced another fence and slowed for it and so we caught up. By that time she had shed her field fence adornment. As we urged her trailerward, she took out the second fence and off she went again. We followed in her wake, confidence now replaced by desperation. We soon left the boundaries of the Veal ranchette and proceeded down a draw filled with scrub oak, poison oak, rocks and brambles. I began to wonder if we were going to have to follow her to Marysville, some thirty miles away. Suddenly Woody Bexar got close enough to the the cow to get a loop around her neck. He quickly ran to an oak tree that fortunately grew nearby and took a dally. The Cow hit the end of the rope and the earth around the oak tree quivered. The cow dropped like a rock.

We quickly loosened the noose around her neck because we didn’t want her to die on us, not there, not a half mile from the nearest motorized pulley. Skinning and dressing out a cow with a Swiss army knife and then packing it out was just not an option. She soon regained consciousness, but then she just lay there, flat on her belly, front and back legs pointing back, just as though she had splatted on the spot from an airplane overhead. In an attempt to motivate her to move, Joanne and Carolyn attached lassoes around the animal’s neck and began to drag her toward the trailer and her gentleman suitor. Surely she would yield to force majeur, and get onto her feet and follow along rather than have her head pulled off. Surely.

No. Surely not. Joanne and Carolyn dragged her on her belly, leaving a trail a foot wide and three inches deep in the scrub oak duff. She was easy to track that way, but we didn’t need to track her. We already knew where she was.

We loosened the rope, but we were still many, many yards away from anywhere useful. Our next idea was to sever a hot wire from a nearby electric fence and hold it to her nose. That motivated her to move rapidly, but just far enough from the hot fence to where we could no longer shock her. Then she dropped again. But she outsmarted herself and fell near a puddle of water. One of us collected some water in a felt hat and poured it in her ear. The idea was to persuade the animal she was drowning and maybe she would swim cross country toward the trailer. Stupid as the idea was, it worked – for fifty feet. Then down she went again.

At this point we began to think in terms of a barbeque right there, on that particular spot. Or better yet, just shoot the he cow dead and go to church bingo that very night.

Somehow, though, after several hours and the expenditure of much energy, we got the animal to within two hundred feet of the trailer. Unfortunately for us, close as we were to the trailer, there was a large barn in the way. And brutal as you may think us, that heifer was in a lot better shape than we were.

At that point Betty Veal’s husband, Jack, drove up. He saw our problem and at once announced a solution. First, he opened the barn doors on both sides of the building so that we had a straight shot at the trailer. Then, the trailer already having been prepared for the heifer’s virginal entrance, Jack stationed two of us to quickly slam the ramp up and lock it once the calf had entered. These preparations made, Jack picked up a pair of offset pliers and grabbed the heifer’s nasal septum and gave it a sharp twist.

The heifer sprang up with a roar and began to chase Jack with lethal intent. Jack had no desire to die that day, and so he ran for the trailer. Very fast. He was highly motivated. He didn’t dare let go of the pliers or slow down, either one. He flew into the trailer, closely followed by a fire breathing heifer. And then, as the ramp clanged shut behind him, he let go of the pliers and dove head first out trailer’s safety door up front. He let the heifer have the pliers.

And so we had our brewskies after all and finished the day covered with blood, sweat and beers. The heifer, meanwhile, left in the trailer on her way to meet her gentleman cow. Aint love grand?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Vaca Mexicana

Vaca Mexicana
©Ken Harris, 2008

In 1956 or 57 my wife and I lived in a Hollywood apartment and attended universities. We were both working very hard and welcomed the opportunity to take a brief vacation whenever we could. Usually we went to Joanne’s parents’ mining claim on Paiute Mountain in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Usually we took Bobo, a poodle, with us.

Bobo was very intelligent and could learn anything in five minutes. This was fortunate because he could forget anything he wanted in ten minutes. He would also put his own spin on his orders of the day. “Don’t get on the couch” meant “wait until everyone has gone for the day.” But he was pleasant company even with his faults.

On this particular occasion we had finished supper in the cabin and the three of us went for a walk to the meadow several hundred yards to the north. We gingerly crawled through a rusty barbed wire fence surrounding the pasture and noted the sign of many cattle. The meadow was part of the Bureau of Land Management domain and overgrazing seemed to be a part of their policy.

We came across the herd. There were a lot of them. Mexican cows, some with twisty horns, all of them lean. A few had extravagant brands on their hips. None of them looked like Elsie. The herd bull stood to the far side of the herd and ignored us. He didn’t look like Elmer, either. His disinterest in us was his only redeeming trait that I could see.

We stayed clear of the herd and tried to keep within running distance of the fence. It was just as well we had, for Bobo found a calf. He immediately tried to play a game with the calf, something named “I chase you around.” The calf cried, “Mama!”

The old lady showed up immediately. As soon as she saw Bobo and us her expression changed from exasperation to menace. She was a strawberry road cow, so lean you could count her ribs with long, twisty, glinting horns. The right horn could have gone in my navel and out my nose.

We called for Bobo, quietly. “Bobo.” Then firmly. “Bobo!” Then desperately. “BOBO!!!”

By this time the cow had decided which of us she wanted to gore first and she began to move. So did we. I beat Joanne to the fence by several yards at once demonstrating speed and lack of gallantry. Bobo, delighted that we had joined in the game, yapped and barked harder.

The calf ran away from all the noise and confusion and the cow followed. And that’s all of the story. Nothing really happened. Except I remember thinking the next morning as I shaved, “This is ridiculous. Indians don’t get grey at 23.”

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Copyright Ken Harris 2007

We have just returned from a sea kayaking trip off Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Washington State. Since we live in Tucson, Arizona, we found the weather colder than a teacher's wit. However, I'm posting again. Here's a story about our Main Coon Cat, Babe.


Sometime around 1978 someone gave us a Maine Coon Cat. For the uninformed, Maine Coon Cats are larger than the average family feline, and very hairy. They’d have to be to withstand the Maine winters, wouldn’t they? Babe was so hairy that it parted down the middle of her back and tail and drooped to either side, much like a skunk’s. Also like a skunk, she was black with some white markings, her four feet, her nose and some chest markings. More like a civet cat, actually.

She was a grown cat when she came to us. She had lived with her former owner in an apartment for several years until that owner died. She brought her own bed, blanket, combination scratching post and climbing gym, and toys with her. Oh, yes, she also had her baby book with pictures lovingly collected by her previous owner. Babe was a precious jewel, an apartment cat, and she had never been outdoors in her entire life.

The bane of Babe’s existence, at least at first, was Tiger, our half miniature poodle-half Yorkshire terrier. The little dog was already in residence and it was his home. He did not buy into the concept of sharing. Babe, on the other hand, had no concept of sharing at all.

When they first met Babe didn’t really know how to respond. Then Tiger barked and ran up to her. Babe then made of up her mind. She ran. She zigged and zagged and juked and jinked but when she neared the counter separating the kitchen from the living room she looked over her shoulder and there was Tiger zigging and zagging and juking and jinking six inches behind her. She hadn’t gained a centimeter. In fact, she’d lost a few just by looking over her shoulder. She leaped high onto the counter, rattling a few pans in her unceremonious landing.

The dog and the cat soon came to terms, mainly because the dog was essentially a pleasure loving beast and fairly easy company for a cat. Also, Babe was considerably larger than Tiger and if he had actually come to grips with her he would have regretted it.

Having a cat that had never been outside did not meet our family traditions. And so one afternoon when we were sipping our brewskis on the back lawn, we saw Babe happily sunning herself in the window. Joanne went inside, picked her up and brought her out to the lawn. She put the cat gently down on the grass, a thing she had never felt underfoot before. Babe raised all four feet at once, with predictable results. She landed on her belly, literally bounced, did a 180 in mid-air, and ran back into the house. It was a week before Joanne could get near her again.

But she soon forgave us because we were, after all, the people who fed her. And Babe soon became a notable huntress. Deep in the DNA of a Maine coon cat lie certain imperatives. See small animal. Stalk it. Kill it. Eat it. Mee-oww. And while she was very good at night stalking, she could never entirely overcome the handicap of the white breast patch. Usually the small animal saw her in time to escape unscathed. But both Babe and the small animal got lots of exercise that way.

Babe and Tiger even became partners in crime once. It was winter in Upland, California, mild by Midwest standards but unpleasant by California criteria. I lay prone upon our water bed for a well deserved afternoon nap. The bedroom window provided the only sunny spot in the house. The only warm one, either, for that matter. When I woke up I found Babe asleep in my left arm pit and Tiger asleep in the right. Joanne said they’d been that way for half an hour. Of course, they weren’t supposed to be on the bed. Neither was I for that matter, not in mid-afternoon.

One night Babe went hunting and never came back. All we ever found was some hide and part of a jawbone. We reasoned that two coyotes got her, or there we would never have found anything. As you may or may not know, coyotes run freely through urban southern California. Streets, walls and fences don’t seem to mean much to them. We were sorry to lose Babe, but glad in a way that she died hunting, the thing she was literally born to do.