Bucket-Calf Childhoods

Growing up, my brother used to have bucket calves. (For those of you that didn’t grow up with cattle, a bucket calf is one that may have lost its mum, so you raise and feed it using bottles and powdered milk-replacement formula. These are generally ranch kids’ starter projects.) Morning and evenings, before and after school, there would be Matt, shaking warm water and powdered milk together, then hustling down the barn aisle to feed a very hungry calf. You don’t know fun until you’ve watched a calf head-butt your brother around a stall, hurrying him along with that bottle.

I seem to remember a LOT of very fat, very contented, very stationary barn cats during this era. If you think bucket calves like milk replacement, they’re nothing compared to a feline population. Rodentia numbers boomed.

Matt’s first experiment along these lines was Max, a Longhorn cross that sported a white coat with a sprinkling of black dots across his sides and nose. When Matt first got him, his horns were nonexistent, but by the time Max was big enough to join the rest of the steers out in the pasture, he had a rather impressive horns. Max had a playful side, however, and he never did quite understand that he was too big for us play with him. He’d attempt to play, butting you with his head, trying to upend you. As a calf, this was funny and adorable. As a yearling Longhorn cross–and all of the Longhorn in Max seemed to have come to the forefront and delivered a rather substantial rack of horns–this was a bit terrifying, for horse and rider alike. Riding out in the arena when Max was in went from practice to winner-take-all sport. Soon after that, we convinced Dad that it was time for Max to join the other cattle.

Next was Mildred, a rather typical black cow who went on to live a rather atypical life. She started life up in Montana, went down to join my grandfather’s herd in Colorado, and then returned to Montana. Unlike her wilder bovine sisters, Mildred always seemed to remember that she had once spent a lot of time waiting for kids to get home from school and hurry up with that bottle already, so she was a bit nicer and more approachable than most cows. When she reached the point of ancient, she and only she was brought into the barn at night, put into stall, and given grain. It then turned out that Mildred, whom we had all thought a bit too mature to have any more calves, was pregnant after all. Her final calf was a little girl that we named Madeline. Madeline was a bit premature, but by then Mildred pretty much lived in the barn anyways so keeping her there a while longer wasn’t too much of an issue. To help Madeline better withstand the Montana winter, we cut the sleeves off an old jacket and then snapped her in to help keep her warm.

My dad could never bear to let Mildred go, and so she was kept for years, far beyond what a traditional cow is kept. When she eventually did die, Dad used the Valdez to give her a Tibetan burial up on the dryhead. When mom and I go hiking, we often pass that area and think of it as “Mildred’s spot.” Much of the landscape of my life is marked by animals, where they are buried, the last walks we took with them, what rock they used to like to woof from. It may sound sad, but it’s not. Company and old friends surround you, even when you walk alone.

I’m generally discouraged from cattlework these days, although vet techs and veterinarians alike entertain themselves from time to time with the thought of sending me out on preg-checking runs. (Please note that I’m in Texas pretty much full time again, so you are safe from my “help.”) But I must confess that all of these newborn calves makes me wonder just a tiny bit about how my husband would feel about having a bucket calf in the backyard here in Texas.

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mmmmmm….Sandwich Bread, Beloved of Grown-Up Bucket Cows
–photo credit Gwynn Tobel

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