There’s a big old water oak down by the east end of the lake. It’s massive with resurrection fern decorating almost every branch and for the last 3 months under that curled and dried up fern and full-of leaves branches, our summer calves have been born and then congregated and then rested under it. I call it the nursery tree. While their mammas soak their heat-holding black hides in record breaking triple digit temperatures in the muddy waters of the lake, their babies lay safe and protected, just feet from them. There mammas go drippin’ to them, smelling kind of fishy, when it’s nursing time. In the evening, they amble about, nipping tiny blades of grass or waddle up to the round bale we have waiting for them. And then it’s back down to the nursery tree by the next morning.
I watched this past Saturday as the newest calf, a boy, had just begun to recover from birth long enough to do that crazy jump that new calves do. He’d found his way to the nursery tree in one of his fits of ambulatory experimentation. A calf’s first attempts to maneuver are spastic at best. They spend a lot of time on the ground looking all long legged, white rimmed eyed, and helpless when all of a sudden a million motor neurons fire in their head, all out of order, creating a flurry of upright motion that is part jerk, jump and jolt. Amazingly, it vectors toward a destination, which when reached, the calf abruptly stops, drops to the ground and lays once again helpless and wide eyed. This is practice which allows the calves to very soon make consistent nursing contact with their momma and her huge udders. It’s amazing.
So this past weekend, watching that little one lay under the nursery tree, I thought to myself, I think I’ll castrate him.
This is not nearly as random as it might first appear.
The fact is that managing a cattle farm means there are certain decisions that have to be made. Hard decisions, but responsible ones, if the genetics of a herd meant for beef production are to be maintained healthily. All mating activities must be sanctioned by the higher ups and to enforce that, males born to the herd bull, are destined to become steers. (i.e. their testicles must be rendered inoperative.)
I went to cow school to learn how to do this.
There are two basic ways for an amateur farmer to castrate a calf. At cow school they demonstrated the cut-the-sack method. Basically you identify the testicular sack that holds the testicles and with a pair of sharp kitchen shears, you feel for the two little marble like objects, holding them up and in one hand while snipping across the sack as if it was a package of shredded cheese that you were wary of destroying the re-sealable area. Then, letting the little marble objects fall exposed, you shred them from the connecting objects that hold them to the upper part of said sack, discarding them, and voila, the newly born steer walks off into the field, oblivious to what has just happened. (In the demonstration, the new steer was clearly walking somewhere, although I am not certain it had any idea where.)
Okay. So I have never had a hankering to cut directly into live skin of any kind, let alone a male testicle sack of a vertebrate, my choice then was relegated to the innocuous sounding second option, the ‘banding’ procedure. I think this method of castration falls into the category of slow and steady amputation.
Having chosen my method and a nod to Silent Bob in case he wanted to offer any input, I headed off to the Nursery tree.
There 725 lay, all milk drunk and dozey. At a little bit more than a week old, I was certain I could take him. In all of my description so far, I have yet to describe a key element of either of the procedures above and that would be the castrator’s ability to hold the animal while he is castrated it. Figuring 725 to be about 50 pounds, I was all sheer confidence in my ability to manhandle the situation.
I yelled at Silent Bob from the cart to get me the banding pliers as he walked towards the barn while I scoped out the situation. I sent a telepathic message for him to just offer up how the things worked because I didn’t think it was a good time to admit that I had no idea how they worked. To my mind, this wasn’t going to be rocket science nor is it brain surgery so winging would be okay if my telepathy didn’t work… well, it is sort of is brain surgery, since once I do this, 725 will never be flooded with mind altering testosterone.
725 lay about 3 yards from me, the whites of his eyes wider every time I moved a bit. He looked docile, but watching for about 5 minutes, he had definitely lost that ungaininglyness that hallmarked his ambulatory acumen the few days post birth. And I appeared that he might be a tad over 50 pounds now.
I might need to rethink this.
Silent Bob delivered the calf pliers, silently.
First he did this:
And then he did this:
As he returned to a vantage point at which he could see the disaster about to ensue, I thought to fool 725 and act like his momma. Imitation has never been my strong suit, but I tried mooing to him, similar in tone to the way I had heard his momma do. At once the herd turned from their brown water bath and looked my direction. 725’s momma (cows are excellent mommas, protective and constant) looked hard, assessed the situation, and turned back, concentrating on her spa moment.
I moved stealthily towards 725, mooing, with pliers expanded.
For the next 15 minutes I flailed after him, grasping at legs and at one point, my arthritic fingers firmly around his back left angle, he dragged me a bit. There is a reason only young people enter calf scrambles at rodeos. It took me 30 minutes to find the pliers. Damn the rubberband, those things a dime a zillion.
Exhausted and near heat stroke I watched as the calf, whose neuronal path’s clearly way past spastic movement, trot off to the nursery tree, his itty bitty testical sack swinging fully vascularized between his legs.
I did something I almost never do. I gave up.
Okay, I didn’t. I’m getting a lasso. Roping can’t be that hard.
And just so you know. I don’t believe cows have souls and I don’t think they can laugh in derision either.