Gwen Shepperson was raised in the Midwest near St. Louis and Chicago and has always been a horse-crazy girl. After various jobs with horses lead her out West to Wyoming, she met her husband Reno, and after day working for area ranches before they were married, they now live on one of the family ranches with their two children, daughter Kiley, 13 and son Kody, 11, where they raise commercial Angus cattle. Their place, the Buffalo Creek Ranch, is the seed stock operation for all the other ranches in the family partnership. It is located in remote central WY, at the southern end of the Big Horn Mountains, near the Hole-in-the-Wall, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had their famous hideout. She also raises/trains Australian Cattle Dogs, and is an avid photographer of life on the ranch. Occasionally, she puts her BA college English degree to good use by writing for magazines, websites and blogs.
If Mother Nature had had her way last March during calving season, I wouldn’t even be writing this article. My husband, Reno, and I were putting out supplement tubs in the calving pasture, which is all on the East facing foothill mountain slopes of our Wyoming ranch. Cattle are scattered over tens of thousands of acres, in draws and canyons, behind buck brush and hillsides, all looking for that perfect, isolated spot to have their calves in peace. It was easily below zero that day, paired with a fresh few inches of snow and a biting Wyoming wind– not the nicest calving weather for even the most seasoned of mother cows.
On our way back down the rocky slope, I spotted a cow on the leeward side of a hill about a mile away who had obviously just dropped her calf. She was just getting to her feet and turning around to have a look at her new baby. Having seen many calves from that far away over the years, this one looked very, very small. And not moving. At all. Red flags and alarm bells started going off in my head and Reno headed the truck down to investigate.
Driving on rocky mountain slopes across rangeland is not something you can do in anything but first gear, no matter how much of a hurry you would like to be in, and by the time we reached Mama and calf, it had been a good fifteen minutes. She was easily the smallest calf I had ever seen alive, she looked like a black baby antelope instead of a calf, painfully tiny, probably a month premature and felt like air when I picked her up. She was wet, frigid, and quickly losing against the day Mother Nature had put forth. I scooped her up, and told Reno to crank up the heater and head home as fast as the truck could manage. I spent the entire drive drying and rubbing her with my coat, trying to generate some warmth to keep her alive. Her mouth was like ice and she was so cold she wouldn’t even shiver.
Once in the house, my kids got her dried with a hair dryer and under blankets warmed in the dryer. She was so small that a normal sized tube feeder for calves would not fit down her throat, and there was no way she was strong enough to suck a bottle. We had to make her a custom sized tube feeder out of a flexible plastic hose and plastic water bottle, and her stomach was so small, we could only feed her about a cup at a time. Once she had a belly full of milk, Reno set out horseback to bring her mother in, hoping the cow would still claim the calf once she was strong enough to be out with her mother. I had also posted her picture and story on Facebook, and by the end of the day, this calf had quite the fan club! They have continued to follow her story throughout the past year.
In the coming days, “Tiny Tina” passed the time being carefully watched over by the cow dogs and the kids. After a day and a half, she finally could get to her feet and stand for a few minutes with help from us. By four days old, she could walk all over the house and enjoyed following my son Kody wherever he went (including to watch TV in the living room!). She learned to suck a lamb bottle, because a calf bottle was still far too big for her. Whatever she did, Tina always tried so hard and had a great attitude and such a zest for life, there was no bringing her down.
We’d been milking out her Mama for colostrum and by a week old, we decided Tina needed to go out and meet her Mama. Well, Miss 030, her mother, was having none of that. She had had a week to get over being separated from her newborn calf and had decided that this was certainly NOT her calf. Tina was so small that even a glancing kick from a cow would likely kill her, and after several days of trying to convince Mom to mother her calf, it just wasn’t going to happen. So back to being a bum calf Tina went, which of course, was fine with her! By this time she was filled out enough to stay out in the barn instead of the house, sporting a nice, warm, blue, dog blanket to help keep her warm. Six, a “normal” sized calf that was born about the same time as Tina, was her best playmate and buddy. She would also follow me all over doing chores, and her 4 cow dog “nannies” continued to follow her around in vigil as well—we looked like quite the procession wherever we went!
About 10 days later, a first calf heifer had a still born calf and we thought this was a great chance for Tina to finally get a new mother. “Kitten”, the heifer, was naturally very gentle and a pet cow of my son’s, so she was great to work with and very willing to have a new calf just to be able to mother something. Tina, on the other hand, was so used to her original mother refusing her to nurse that she was very wary at first. One flinch from Kitten would send her to the opposite corner of the stall in a hurry. Reno began to call her “Simon Burch” because of her grand over reactions, and despite the fact that the name sure didn’t fit a heifer calf, it ended up sticking, and pretty soon, Kitten and Simon were a happily matched pair.
That didn’t mean that Simon forgot all about her human buddies once she had a mother. Even after the pair was turned out with the rest of the first calf heifer herd, Simon would always come running when she saw us—in the feed truck, horseback or on foot. She always wanted her head scratched just like when she was a calf in the house and to visit with us, talking and mooing to us constantly. When we trailed cattle herds up to summer mountain pastures, if Simon got separated from her mother, she would come back to find us to make it right. She did grow, but being so premature, it was clear she wasn’t going to be shipped to our buyer with the “normal” calves, she would stay here even after weaning.
Once she was weaned from her mother, Simon went into the corrals at the calving barn with the kids’ 4-H calves, one of which was Six, her calf buddy from the barn. Since Simon’s favorite part of the day has always been breakfast, lunch and dinner, preferably in the barn, this arrangement suited her just fine! She would follow the kids with their steers on walks and if the barn door was open, you could bet Simon would be the first one in!
Simon had her first birthday beginning of March and got a new home as a present—she is now pet calf to 3 yr old Kamryn, daughter of our vet, along with being the official sidekick to Billy Bob, the family’s pony. Its awful quiet around our barn without Simon’s mooing constant reminders about breakfast, lunch and dinner! She is nothing spectacular to look at, most definitely not the prettiest cow we have ever raised, but, with all her try, zest for life and great attitude, Simon made it, and with just about all the odds stacked against her. We have raised a lot of bum calves over the years, but those like Simon sure have a way of sneaking just a little deeper into your heart.
I’ve invited Gwen to be a regular contributor to this blog, and I certainly hope you’ll be back to hear about her ranching tales from the wilds of Wyoming! Be sure and leave her some love in the comment section below!