Last Calving Season

by Julia Jacobsen ,

My son Luke had been helping us feed the cows every day and assisting during calving season. He works really hard and is growing his own herd. The cows he feeds every morning are mingled amongst our winter feed/calving area animals.

Luke hadn’t had a day off in months but calving was winding down and he and his girlfriend, Roxy, were planning to go to a bonfire with some friends. I encourage his time off the farm as much as possible. Calving season is essentially “harvest time” to a cattle rancher but we were nearing the end of calving. Time away is good for the soul.

They were both cleaned up and ready for an evening with friends when they took “one quick trip” through the cows to do a night check on those few that hadn’t calved yet. One quick check turned into a quick hook up to a horse trailer so he could haul a mama that needed assistance with a backwards calf. That “quick haul” led to Luke pulling the calf and Roxy assisting him.

Luke, in his going to town clothes, had his nice shirt rolled up to his elbows and his forearms were covered in mucus and blood. He carried the calf out and gave it a spin by holding onto its hind legs. The calf’s head was pointed down and this is difficult to do by yourself unless you are tall and strong. Luke went right to work to help the calf take its first breath: clearing fluid away, tickling its nose with straw, rubbing the calf down trying to stimulate life. This quick trip to the barn would end with a loss. The calf never took a breath. It was essentially born dead.

calving arms in the barn

I watched my son and his girlfriend quietly clean up. Roxy had blood on her sweater. Luke was silent and for a moment took time to rest and catch his breath. He leaned down on one of the barn stalls and I snapped a photo. It was a black and white photo.

Sometimes an entire book could be written from one black and white photo. Any rancher could take one look at this picture and know there is a story of loss behind it. The black and white photo is telling them, “We were trying to mute the color of blood” and the lack of a photo with the new calf hints that this moment in the barn didn’t end the way we wanted it to.

These times in the barn are generally not something I share. Those are hard nights; they are usually quiet nights. I’m not typically in the barn this late but I was shooting some pictures and thought it would be a fun share about how the kids got all dressed up for a night in the barn. I remember these nights well. Plans to rejuvenate off the farm can easily be set off course by “one quick check”.

I didn’t say much to Luke as a way to console him. He was raised here; he knows this happens. His role has taken a turn and he’s much more involved in calving season as he has gotten older. I knew he felt responsible for the loss. Anyone who raises livestock and has loss will feel this immense responsibility. “If only I would have gotten there sooner,” is the thought.

I felt bad for Roxy, too. I know she and Luke were both looking forward to some time off the farm, but I imagine Roxy was especially eager for a bonfire date night. She had been assisting Luke with calving when she wasn’t working herself. I felt bad that this will be one of many times in Luke’s life that he will choose cattle over other things.

Bonfire invites will come and go and eventually you age out of a bonfire invite. Weddings will be reception only and that’s if the baler doesn’t break down and you finish the field you’re in. Days at the river will be few and far between during haying season and those in your friend circle will understand. There are also friends who will not understand and sometimes you just stop receiving their invites altogether.

Luke has accused me of trying to talk him out of ranching. I deny that, but I have been forthcoming about hardships that you generally don’t share with your children about your livelihood. As I was preparing this story I shared it with Luke to make sure I got the details of that evening correct. This happened over a year ago and sometimes it takes a year to soften losses. It would have felt odd to share any sooner but I think there is value in sharing the things ranchers don’t talk about.

Luke reminded me of the silver lining from that night. The mama who lost her calf became a mama to a twin that was born a couple of days earlier. They grafted together seamlessly and that is a win in the barn.

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