Calving during a winter storm is dangerous under normal circumstances. It is easy for a calf to get chilled when it is wet from birthing. The only way to prevent chilled-calf-syndrome is to get the calf warm and dry as soon as possible.
New Mexico normally has mild winters, though there can be occasional cold snaps. Extreme cold is very rare and -22 degrees Fahrenheit is unheard of in this part of the country. When you have a small herd of livestock, you tend to know them better than when you have a large herd. I had noticed that Goofy was close to calving. Her udders were filled out and her tailbones had shifted into the classical pre-birth position about a week before the worst storm of the century as it has been billed. I made it a point to check on her whenever I was outside.
With 18 inches of snow on the ground and three to five foot drifts everywhere, I was hoping Goofy would hold off having her calf until the weather was better. Goofy was 6 years old and this would be her forth calf, so she was experienced to say the least. I was concerned about the fact she was the only cow with horns that was still on the ranch. If I was going to have to rescue the calf to keep it from freezing, she might think I was a threat and charge. She had earned her name, “Goofy” for a reason. She was the most unpredictable cow on the place.
The well house had frozen, so there was no running water on the ranch. I was working on collecting snow to melt so that I could flush the toilets when I heard a familiar sound from the corrals. When a cow is in labor, she will moo to it softly. It is like she is talking to her soon-to-be-born calf. I glanced to the corrals, and sure enough, I could see the pre-birth fluids seeping from beneath her tail.
It was 2:00 in the afternoon and the temperature was around 20 degrees. At 20 degrees, a new born calf might be okay, but then again, it might not. I figured I would be prepared for whatever was needed. That meant a stack of towels and a warm kitchen to dry the baby calf off as soon as possible to prevent hypothermia.
By 7:00 that afternoon, the calf had not put in an appearance. The temperature had dropped to 2 degrees. It was definitely changed into a rescue operation. I had managed to pen her up in a corral by herself. I parked my pickup so the headlights would shine in the corral settled into the warm pickup to wait. My daughter, Jeni, joined me in my vigil.
Goofy was restless and the contractions were close. She would lay down for a few minutes and push before standing and moving around to another part of the corral. At 7:15, the temperature had dropped to -1 and Goofy laid down directly in the headlights. One hard push later, and out slipped a squirming calf soaked in birthing fluids.
Jeni and I jumped out of the truck and I rushed into the pen. I grabbed the slick fluid covered front legs just above the knuckle joints and pulled the calf towards the gate. Goofy was on her feet, trailing after me and her new born baby. I moved as fast as I could in the snow, praying I could get the calf into the truck before it froze or Goofy decided I was a danger. Jeni shut the gate the moment I squeezed through it with the calf in tow, locking Goofy inside the pen.
Together, we lifted the calf into passenger floorboard of the truck and raced to the house. It took us about an hour to get the calf dry. The heifer calf was perfectly formed and hungry, so I made it a bottle and a place to sleep for the night. The temperatures were too low to return the calf to its mother for the night. “Negative 2” bedded down on the carpet in my living room. We made a make-shift corral by turning couches and chairs to form a small pen for her.
With things well settled, Jeni and I headed back out into the night to tend to Goofy and to take Jeni back to her grandmother’s. That is when trouble hit, a second calf, “Negative 4” was struggling to survive in the frigid night air and the ranch had its first twins in years.