Norman – An Unlikely Cow
by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID
Some of the cattle we raise become such characters that we consider them part of the family. Norman was definitely in that category. She had a rough start in life but quickly became a sassy, independent critter that really didn’t consider herself a bovine.
We were calving out 33 heifers that year (1994), and half of them had already calved when Bohemian Barby went into labor. Barby was the daughter of Yugaslavian Yentl, granddaughter of German Ginger and great-granddaughter of Swiss Miss – and niece to French Francis, African Annie, Mexican Muchacha, Danish Duchess, Kenyan Kizzie and a bunch of other “country girls”. Yes, all our cows have names! We put Barby in the barn about noon, because the weather was cold that day, and by 1:30 the amniotic sac was emerging, along with part of the placenta. This looked like a problem (if the placenta was already detaching, the calf was in trouble), so we put a halter on her and tied her to the side of the stall to check her.
My husband Lynn reached in and felt very tiny feet, very limp and unmoving. It felt like a premature calf being aborted, except that Barby was on schedule according to her breeding date. The calf was so tiny that it was easy to pull out, and when it plopped out onto the straw we thought it was dead. The placenta came out also, right after the calf, and half of it was rotten. Perhaps there were supposed to be twins; Lynn felt an odd mass in the uterus when he first reached in to check Barby. Maybe it was a twin that had died early on and mummified.
Anyway, we thought this calf was a loss, until it wiggled its head. The tiny critter was alive! So we quickly helped it start breathing, and I ran to the house to get some towels to dry it. The temperature was cold that day, even in the barn. Barby sniffed the tiny baby and would have mothered it, but the calf was so tiny and frail it would never have been able to nurse. And the longer it stayed in the cold, the more risk that it would soon have pneumonia. So we whisked it into the house and continued drying it by the wood stove in the kitchen.
The little heifer was tiny, but had a tough attitude. She was soon on her feet and trying to walk around the house. I thawed some of our frozen colostrum (part of our emergency supply that we steal every year from some gentle old cows) and fed the calf with a bottle, then fixed a place for her in a cardboard box. She was so small she was able to live in a toilet paper box 14-by-24 inches, and stayed in it until someone was able to take time to drive to town and bring home a freezer box. She lived in that cut-down freezer box for 4 weeks in our kitchen.
We put towels in it for bedding, and changed them a couple times a day. She peed them regularly, but only pooped once every 24 hours, usually during the early night shift when our daughter Andrea and son-in-law Jim were checking cows and giving the calf her midnight bottle. She was so tiny we were giving her a pint bottle every 4 hours. Andrea would clean up the mess (guys seem to have a weak stomach) and feed her, then Jim would let the calf out of the box to gallop around the back room for exercise.
The calf was full of energy and loved her racing time. Lynn and I were supposedly asleep (so I could get up at 2 or 3 a.m. to take over the early morning calving shift) but I could often hear the clatter of little hoofs as Smidgeon (her first name) raced around the back room. She always wanted to get out into the main dining room area, but Jim (who was usually sitting in the doorway on a stool, reading a book between cow checks) would stick out his leg to stop her – and the calf would try to jump over his leg. They had fun together, and were soon best friends. Her first name just didn’t fit, so Jim named her Norman – like the calf in the western movie comedy City Slickers.
We were quite busy for the rest of calving season, and Norman didn’t get out of her box very much except during Jim’s night shift. But she entertained herself by chewing on her towels and shaking them, like a dog would. Even after she was living outside, she loved to chew on cloth – and would grab a person’s sleeve or pants leg in her mouth.
She got to live outside after she was a month old (and had grown from 34 pounds to 70). Another first calf heifer, Margot, had lost her 3-week-old calf to an acute gut infection (he was in shock by the time we found him, and though we treated him in the house for several hours and tried to give him I.V.s we could not save him). It looked like a chance to give Norman a real mother.
Margot wasn’t happy with the idea, but didn’t protest much. We put hobbles on her hind legs to keep her from kicking Norman, and let them live together in a small pen. Norman was so excited to have room to run. She was more interested in zooming around the pen than in her new mother; we had to teach Margot to nurse the cow. Margot finally accepted the substitute child, but Norman was always independent. She never did consider herself a cow. She’d rather associate with people. She was so independent, Margot had trouble keeping track of her, so we didn’t turn them out on the range that summer. They lived in a pasture here at home, with a couple of old cows.
Norman grew, but her legs didn’t. She was a deep, long, big-bodied heifer with short legs, and we called her our dachshund cow. Everyone who came to visit liked to pet Norman.
We usually gave Jim and Andrea a “bonus” heifer every year for all their good help, and Andrea always selected one of the best in the herd. But when we offered Jim his pick, he wanted Norman. We teased him about it at first, because she was such an odd heifer with her short legs. But he was serious; he liked her and had faith in her potential as a cow. So Norman stayed on the ranch and lived with the replacement heifers that winter – and went to the range the next spring. We weren’t sure how she’d do on the range (being a pasture baby), and we weren’t even sure she’d been bred. We have breeding dates on the heifers, but we hadn’t seen her bred. She did fine on the range, though she expected us to always get off our horses and scratch her under the chin whenever we saw her.
Jim worried about her when her time came to calve (yes she was pregnant), and though she calved on our early morning shift (6 days after her 2nd birthday), we had to get Jim up to be present at the birth (he’d made us promise!) because he was so concerned. But she had her calf ok – a nice little black bull calf that Jim named Harley – and Norman mothered her calf just fine. Her experience as a “people cow” had not dulled her motherly instincts.
Harley grew to be a very normal, nice calf, nearly as tall as his short-legged mama by the time he was sold with the calves in the fall. Norman had definitely vindicated Jim’s faith in her as a good cow. Her second calf – an even bigger steer named Chief – was as tall as his mama at weaning time. She had many more bull calves after that (and only two heifers), and stayed in the herd until she was 11 years old.
She was everyone’s pet – and loved to have her ears scratched. She tolerated the grandkids fussing over her (and even riding her!) and though she was a sassy clown, she was gentle with the kids. Her final summer on the ranch, she babysat a young bull we bought, and helped gentle him; after the breeding season he was not happy living by himself in a corral (and we didn’t want him to have to compete with the older bulls), so he lived at pasture with Norman.
Norman was special even though she was a funny-looking cow. She was part of the family. We all loved her and she expected us to; she was that kind of a critter. If there were any people around, she wanted to be scratched (especially on her neck and behind her ears, and she’d wiggle her ears with delight), and she didn’t mind having children – or even big people – sit on her back. All our grandkids “rode” her one day when the family was up on our high pasture in the fall cutting firewood, when Norman came sauntering up to the truck to check them out. In the years after that, some of the grandkids climbed onto her back on other occasions. She demanded our attention and enjoyed being fussed over, but she always loved Jim the best. I guess she knew she was his cow, or maybe it was the other way around.