The first calf I ever raised with a bottle was a little heifer. I was about nine or so and we were driving some cattle back to the corrals. As I recall, I was riding in the drags (that’s at the back of the herd) with Dad and there was this little red calf with a white face, only a few days old and all wobbly on her skinny little legs. It was obvious that she was orphaned, a “dogie” in cowboy parlance. The other little calves were all chasing after their mothers and this little girl had no one. She was trying her best to find a new mom, running after cows and trying to nurse whenever they slowed down, but every time they drove her off and it was clear she wouldn’t make it all the way to the corrals. She was getting weaker and weaker, even to the point where she had quit bawling for the mother that was never coming back.
I asked Dad if I could have her and he said okay. He got down and picked the little girl up and put her across the saddle in front of me. She struggled a bit at the change of scenery but soon gave up and just lay there while I petted her and generally forgot all about the job I was supposed to be doing.
Once the cows were in the corral I got help getting her down off my horse and I put her in a little pen by herself and went to get her a bottle. We had to hand-raise orphaned calves from time to time and there was a whole big sack of powdered milk formula in the feed room in the barn, along with a couple of quart plastic bottles with nipples.
I wasn’t sure she would eat. Some calves wouldn’t, especially when they were already pretty weak and she didn’t even stand up when I put her in there. I ran to get that bottle and shook it up while I ran back to the pen.
Then I sat there on the ground and took her head in my lap and started trying to get her to eat. At first I couldn’t even get the nipple in her mouth—this was a scary new experience for her—and I had to kind of pry her jaws open. Then she didn’t want to drink so I stroked under her chin while talking to her gently, telling her she had to eat or she’d die and I didn’t want her to die.
It seemed like a miracle when she took that first suck. She only drank a little bit of it—I’m sure it didn’t taste very good compared to mama’s milk—but at least she got a little in her stomach.
As soon as I was free of working in the corrals I ran back to her pen and managed to get a little bit more down her. It was a couple of days before she really started to get the hang of it and I didn’t have to coax her. A couple days where I was really worried about her. I’d brought in baby chicks that fell out of the nest and even a baby rabbit one time, tried to feed them with an eye dropper, and every one of them died after a couple days. Burying them was hard and I didn’t want to have to bury her.
But finally she started to drink and to thrive. I named her Short Stuff and taking her that bottle every morning and every night was the highlight of my day. I got really attached to her.
After a month or so she was big enough where I could let her out of the pen and she could wander around the ranch headquarters and drink out of the creek. All I had to do when I wanted to give her her bottle was go out, cross the cattle guard that separated the yard from the rest of the place, and yell her name. Wherever she was, she’d come running pell mell as fast as she could for that bottle. She’d just about knock me down, butting against that bottle in her eagerness to drink. The milk never came fast enough and I finally cut off the end of the nipple to speed it up and she could drain that thing in less than a minute. Then keep sucking until I wrenched it away from her. It was the neatest thing. I didn’t have a very happy childhood and she was a real bright spot for me.
In due time she grew up and got bigger than me and I had to quit with the milk. I gave her water in the bottle sometimes just for the fun of watching how excited she’d get running for it, but she always looked at me as if she was a little annoyed at being tricked like that.
Finally it was time to put her out to pasture. When the next roundup came I called her into the big pen with the other cows. Her name was sure appropriate because she was definitely a runt compared to the others, only about two-thirds their size. But she did have one advantage: horns.
Back then we cut off their little horn nubbins when we branded them as little calves. Then we’d put a hot iron on the spot to keep them from growing back. It made our lives a little easier in the corral, knowing they didn’t have horns to stick us with.
But Short Stuff never got her horns cut off. I had to brand her so no one could steal her (I paid for and got my own brand, registered with the state in my name) but that was all.
Over the years that followed I saw her use those horns a number of times. Being small, the other cows would shove her around, especially when we tossed hay out into the corrals when we had to keep them in overnight during roundup. When that happened she’d just hook them in the ribs—her horns were sharp—and they’d back right off.
The next year at roundup Short Stuff showed up with a calf of her own, the spitting image of her, though her calf grew to be bigger than her. I branded that calf and because she was a heifer I didn’t send her to the sale when she was a yearling but kept her as a cow. I had my own little herd going.
Short Stuff got older and I got older. She became a cow and not my pet any longer and I went to middle school and started thinking about motorcycles a lot. But she never forgot me completely. I could always go out to the corrals and yell, “Short Stuff!” and she’d turn and look. I usually brought her a flake of hay and I’d watch her eat it and back the other cows off with her horns.
The time came when she didn’t turn up in a roundup and I never saw her again. Maybe she got sick, maybe she broke a leg and starved. I’ll never know but I’ll never forget her.
My little Short Stuff.