From the farm: The mysterious death of Maybelle the cow
|Published: 01-21-2024 9:00 AM
Pregnant Maybelle stood at the 500-pound hay bale, swinging her wide Highland horns at any 15 weaning calves who got too close to her feast. When we set out the calves’ grain, she hung back, but when we opened the gate, Maybelle moved in to clean up any leftovers. Expecting Maybelle to give birth in October, I’d put her in with the weanling calves.
After eating for two, she got bigger and bigger. October moved to November, and Maybelle got bigger. In December, the vet said, “Yep, there’s a very active calf in there, probably two weeks away from being born.”
Christmas came and went. New Year’s Day floated by, and still no calf. Active and alert, Maybelle seemed fine. Farm friends asked after Maybelle’s calf as we waited to welcome Maybelle’s bundle of joy to the herd.
Scottish Highland cows can be “dual-purpose” animals. They are used for meat or milk, and while they don’t provide as much milk as a dairy cow, a Highland cow can provide enough milk for a family of four. Back in September, I had promised to sell Maybelle to a woman named Tess, who lives in Ohio. She wanted to buy Maybelle immediately, but we decided to wait until the calf was born because, in my words, “Anything can happen, and we might lose the mom and calf.” Tess wanted to give Maybelle a forever home.
Some deaths are inevitable on a farm whose primary income is from selling beef, but I’d prefer to re-home my cows when it’s possible. So, I was delighted that Maybelle would be a backyard milking cow for years to come.
In January, I decided Maybelle had shoved Peaches, a 10-month-old, blind-in-one-eye calf, once too often. Maybelle would join the seven other pregnant cows in a nearby field, away from the weanlings but close enough that, after the calf was born, it would be easy to move mother and baby to the protection of the holding pen.
That afternoon, I rubbed Maybelle’s face, put a halter on her head, and led her into the new field. She followed along like a well-trained dog.
When I put Maybelle in with the others, Kavi, one of the seven cows in the field, challenged Maybelle with a head butt. After that brief skirmish, the cows settled, and later in the day, Maybelle was lying in a soft depression near the road. All seemed well.
The following day, I found Maybelle, in that same depression, on her back, foam frozen on her face, dead. Hope, a silver cow, wouldn’t move from Maybelle’s side. At first, I thought Hope had pushed Maybelle over, but then I realized Hope didn’t want to leave her side. Cows build bonds with each other, and these two had been buddies.
What caused her death? I wanted to know, but autopsies are an unaffordable luxury. The death had been so unexpected, and quick there was no chance to even think about calling a vet. But I still wonder: What if I had left Maybelle with the weanlings? Would she be alive today? Did something in her new surroundings cause her death? My brain said, “Yes, your decision killed her. Shame on you.”
Maybe I wasn’t to blame. Was it “hardware disease”? Cows can eat bits of metal when they graze. Possibly, one of those fragments had caused her death. She hadn’t died in labor, so maybe the calf had died first, and that had destroyed her health.
I will never know, but I do miss my cow friend and mourn for her unborn calf.
Cow Coach Carole: You can choose to forgive yourself for yesterday’s mistakes. Forgiveness, for yourself and others, is always an option.
Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm (milessmithfarm.com), where she raises and sells beef, pork, eggs, and other local products. She can be reached at email@example.com. Carole also coaches humans, helping them achieve the impossible a little at a time.