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.