The Skunk



It was February 12th, and sheets of rain pounded on the cabin walls as an unusually warm storm descended on us from the north. Out in the calving lot, the cows didn’t seem to mind as they munched on the day’s delivery of fresh hay. They were brought in earlier than anticipated after a calf was stillborn two weeks ahead of schedule. This was an unfortunate and rough start to calving season. We began the search for a replacement calf to graft onto the cow in order to increase the odds of her future reproductive success. It was early to be looking for extra calves. Phone calls and internet searches left us with one unlikely lead – the Mountain View Hutterite Colony in Broadview. As luck would have it, they had a few newborn Holstein bulls to sell since male milk cows aren’t too useful.

The next day, we headed to the Colony, a collection of immaculately clean and orderly buildings, surrounded by large productive gardens. There was a young boy hanging around the barn, wearing the traditional slacks, suspenders, and long-sleeved shirts of the Hutterites. He corralled the dogs in a Germanic language incomprehensible to me. The man with whom we did business, probably in his twenties or thirties, was dressed in a manner similar to the boy. No other people were in sight on this bright, warm afternoon. The man brought us into the barn to a series of pens, each only roughly 3×3 feet large and containing a young calf. He stood our calf up, who at just over 24 hours old was more limb than substance. He looked healthy enough, so Bart guided him out to the yard, and loaded him into the cab of the pickup.

Poor Doc reluctantly shared the back seat with the calf, who towered over him and occasionally trampled him. On the ride home, the calf tried to suck on everything – the walls of the cab, the seat belt, and Bart’s back – guided by his instinct to look for milk. Finally, the calf decided to relieve himself on the carpet, and Doc was thus relieved to move to the bed of the truck for the rest of the ride in order to avoid sitting in the cow paddy. It was a rather comical and stinky 25-minute ride home.

Back in the coulee, Bart took on the unpleasant task of skinning the stillborn calf so that we could “jacket” the new calf with the dead baby’s hide. Meanwhile, I fed the hungry calf a bottle to quiet him down. He stumbled around uncoordinated, not sure what or where to suck. With some persistence, I got the nipple in his mouth and he drained the bottle in no time. Bart then carefully tied the red hide onto the calf’s body with twine, and put him in the barn with the cow, hoping she would recognize the smell and take the baby as her own.

The first few hours with his new mom were a bit strained for the calf. She head-butted him once into the fence, and then ignored him. That evening, we put her in the head stall and fed her hay so that he could suckle. She put up a minor fuss and kicked him once unenthusiastically, mostly occupied with eating. We left them together in the barn for the night, hoping that time would work its magic. And truly it did. The next morning, the cow was vigorously protecting the calf, who appeared sated as he jumped around the barn all “nimbly bimbly”, as Bart reported to me while I cooked breakfast. I went out to get photos later in the morning, and with aggressive wagging of her head she let me know that I wasn’t allowed near her calf. They make a funny pair, the red Angus cow with a black and white spotted Holstein calf. I am grateful that she has accepted him as her own. We have affectionately named him the Skunk. He is growing tall and strong – in the afternoons he romps around with the other calves on the hillside. As I watch the calves frolicking in the sunshine, the lack of sleep that is inherent in calving season melts away into joy at the arrival of new life.

Published by Heather Bilden

I live in Montana with my husband Bart. I enjoy working in the garden, taking care of the animals, and exploring the prairie with my dogs, my binoculars, and a reverence for the natural world.

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