Baby calf

Autumn is such a changeable season that it always seems to be full of surprises.

One recent autumn afternoon, I glanced out my office window to see a huge cloud of dust across from our barn. I was only puzzled briefly. When it’s early November and you see a cloud of dust accompanied by distant rumbling, almost any farmer can figure out that it means the late soybeans are being harvested.

I guess that really doesn’t qualify as a surprise — it’s something that happens every fall. What surprised me more that day was a message in my email’s inbox. It said Christmas was only 50 days away. How did the holidays sneak up on us so fast? But, here again, that really shouldn’t be very surprising. I’ve been watching reruns of Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel for several recent months, and now that network is starting to show new Christmas movies. That’s a sure sign Christmas is coming.

Other holiday reminders that weren’t exactly autumn surprises were the annual arrival of numerous catalogues in our mailbox, urging us to “order early.” I also received a welcome reminder in my inbox from Penn State’s Dairy Science Club: it’s time to order their holiday cheese boxes, which the club does as an annual fundraiser. It’s such a great idea, since they make a much-appreciated Christmas gift that can be delivered directly to the recipient’s door.

Perhaps our best autumn surprise started with a phone call from our good neighbor, Joe. He walks his dog along our pasture daily, always enjoying the view of our cattle grazing. In late October, Dennis received a phone message from Joe that there was a new calf in the pasture.

This was surprising news. We’d had a bevy of beef calvings during the spring and it didn’t seem like we had any potential moms with a fall due date. We always appreciate Joe’s vigilance, given that he has a view from the top of our large pasture, while we most often see it from the bottom. That said, Joe is a retiree who comes from a more urban background and sometimes his observations have not been quite accurate.

For instance, there was the time he left a phone message that “one of your cows is having a calf.” Dennis and I had raced to the pasture to look for the new addition. When Joe saw us, he came out to chat and we asked where he’d seen the new calf. That’s when he elaborated that he thought one of our cows was gaining in girth and he wanted us to know she looked pregnant.

Another time, Joe’s phone call got me out of bed one morning because he had spied a dead calf in the pasture.

“It’s laying there and there’s no movement, no movement at all,” he said.

I was home alone, so I hurriedly changed, jumped into the pickup truck and sped to the pasture.

It wasn’t hard to see the small unmoving form near the top center of the pasture hillside. When I got to the calf, I spoke loudly and even gave it a gentle shake, but got no response. I then stood in front of it as I tried raising its head. Suddenly, the “dead” calf sprang to life, jumped up and started rocketing away, leaving me seated atop its back, facing uphill as the revived calf raced downhill. Since my feet weren’t touching the ground, I had to hurl myself off to one side, and landed in a pile of fresh cow manure.

I was, of course, very glad the calf was alive. I wasn’t happy about my impromptu bareback ride and landing zone. And I was embarrassed when I realized Joe had seen the whole thing, as he called out to me, “Boy, I sure wish I had a video of that!”

However, this time Joe was right. Not only did we have a new calf, but Joe had even been able to read the new mother’s ear tag. It was Sukey, a winter 2019 heifer. Apparently our Hereford bull, Red Baron, had taken a liking to her behind our backs while they had still been in the barnyard.

Fortunately, Sukey and her little one were doing quite well. The calf had already found the faucets and was nursing heartily. In fact, they were doing so well that, when we approached them to spray the calf’s navel with iodine and give its neonatal vaccinations, the two of them took off through the pasture. It’s amazing how fast an hours-old calf can move.

We never did catch up with the calf. We don’t even know if it’s a “he” or a “she” yet. But either way, I think we’ll name it “Zeta,” for the remnants of the tropical storm that dumped over 2-1/2 inches of rain on this poor calf-and-cow duo for the next three days, followed by frosty temperatures.

Little Zeta turned out to be a nice autumn surprise. Now it will be our turn to surprise the calf. He or she won’t be roaming the hillsides much longer — a nice warm barn will be his or her winter home.

Sue Bowman is a freelance writer in southeastern Pennsylvania.


On Sept. 21, the USDA instituted a second round of funding, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program 2, to ease at least some of the pain and fiscal stress the crisis has caused farmers, ranchers and growers. Read more