Posted on Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Maybe it’s fitting that I became a cattleman of sorts about the same
time that President Bush dropped the cowboy act. As predicted here, Bush
confirmed that he and Laura will move to a posh Dallas neighborhood
after a relieved nation watches them leave the White House next January.
How long before the Crawford ranch, acquired in 1999 for transparently
political purposes, goes on the market? The correct answer: Who cares?
Besides, this column is about Layla, the Charolais wonder calf. I was
recently out for an afternoon ride on Rusty, my quarter horse, when we
came upon my neighbor, who rents my pasture for his cattle. One of his
cows had given birth to twin calves. Not good. They’re often premature,
undersized and weak. The mother’s likely to choose the stronger calf and
leave the other to die—bovine Darwinism. Paul was trying to coax the
little white heifer, all spindly legs and big brown eyes, to stand and
nurse from her mother’s teats. Without fresh mother’s milk, colostrum,
she wouldn’t get antibodies needed to survive. He wasn’t having much
luck. The heifer’s mother was already showing signs of ignoring her for
the stronger bull calf.
When I rode back later, the herd had moved on. The little heifer lay
alone under some trees. After sundown, she’d basically be coyote bait.
Rusty and I tried herding the mother back to her. Anxious to protect her
other calf, however, the mother cow—all 1500 pounds of her was spoiling
for a fight.
Rusty’s no cutting horse and I’m no cowboy, so I put him up, drove out
in my truck, picked the heifer up and tried setting her on her feet
among the herd. Her mother actually ran. Tottering along bawling, the
little heifer tried to nurse other cows, which kicked her.
I volunteered to bottle-feed her if Paul would teach me. He allowed as
how she’d be mine if I could keep her alive, which he doubted. He and
his wife came by to show me the ropes.
By morning, she was substantially weaker, unable to stand, barely able
to nurse a bottle. Paul showed me how to tube-feed, inserting a plastic
tube down her throat and pouring milk into a hotwater bottle hung from a
Like every cattleman I talked to, he was fatalistic.
“I don’t know if I’d fool with it,” he’d say. “It’s 90 percent she’ll be
dead by morning.”
Indeed, when I carried her into the stall we prepared for her, the
little heifer hung limp in my arms. She couldn’t stand. Yet when I’d
force the feeding tube into her esophagus, she’d struggle against the
insult. I felt she was a fighter. I felt she wanted to live.
On the third day, I drove off to fetch frozen colostrum on what I feared
was a fool’s errand. I half expected to find her dead when I returned.
Instead, she was standing, sniffing noses with Fred the basset hound.
“Ah like to cried,” country folks say, meaning they almost did. There
was no almost about it. The little white heifer with the knobby knees,
huge brown eyes, spoonlike ears and amazing vitality had entered my
heart. It was also a minor revelation seeing laconic cattlemen driving
all over three counties to fetch what I needed to keep her alive:
colostrum, antibiotics, vitamin B-12, steroids.
I named her Layla, after the Eric Clapton song. The extended melodic
piano and guitar ride at the end has often brought tears to my wife’s
eyes. Besides, Layla definitely had me on my knees, feeding her a
Next she went blind. It was probably congenital, possibly an auto-immune
reaction to foreign colostrum, veterinarians thought. Treating it was
probably hopeless. However, if I had a safe pasture where she wouldn’t
drown or walk off a cliff—I do—she and a companion calf might live 20
They tried steroids anyway. Over three days, the white cloud over her
eyes vanished. She began playing chase with the dogs, who somehow knew
not to nip her. The two Great Pyrenees are over the moon happy that
there’s finally something on this place that needs guarding—unlike the
horses, which mildly resent their efforts. They let Layla nurse at their
ears. At six weeks, Layla appears to think she’s a basset hound,
although she knows I’m her mother. She definitely knows where the milk’s
kept—inside the house—so she spends lots of time on the front porch,
snoozing with the dogs and mooing for supper. I’d been told that cows
had strongly marked personalities, but I had no clue. My own feelings
about this little calf, one among thousands in a county inhabited by far
more cows than people, have surprised me. Have I given up T-bones? Not
yet. Layla, however, will never enter the food chain.
—–––––•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.