Cow Palace

I learned what compassion for cattle looked like in Cow Palace. California natives might be thinking about the Cow Palace down near San Francisco that housed innumerable concerts, sporting events, livestock shows, and more. What I am actually referring to though is the heifer barn at the ranch, where a sign reading “Cow Palace” hangs above the door. 

At the ranch, there are typically 400-500 first calf-heifers to calve out each year. That means that the cowboy crew and my great uncles all take turns taking a night shift after work, going through the heifers every couple of hours to make sure nobody needs assistance. It was one of my most favorite things from when I was little to the time that I was working full time on the ranch.

When I was younger, I would stay with my grandparents for a week or a long weekend, and the nights my grandpa was on heifer watch I would be sure to sleep on the couch near his recliner for the night. I’d tell him to wake me up whenever he went out to check heifers. He’d nudge me and say, “Hey Gab, we’ve got a heifer to take to the heifer barn, you want to come?” He would let me sleep until he knew he had something to tend to. Before he could finish his sentence I was sleep-walking my way to the back porch to get my clothes changed and hop into the pick-up. We’d drive back to the field where the heifers calve, spotlighting our way through the field we would see that heifer standing off by herself. They often give you that, “I need some help” look. The two front hooves are just barely sticking out of the heifer, which front hooves are a good sign. After a couple of hours with little to no progress though, it’s safest for momma and baby if we intervene and help bring the calf into the world. 

In the corner of this field, we have a small “trap” set up, which is a little alley made of panels that leads into the ambulance. Before you think there is a legitimate animal hospital emergency service vehicle out there that you’ve never seen going down the road with lights flashing, let me rephrase, it’s a 1976 blue Ford flatbed pickup that has a tree limb mounted to the hood with the antennae wrapped around it. The flatbed pickup is hooked up to the retired gooseneck trailer. Now that you have a better picture of what this ambulance looks like, let’s get back to the heifer. 

We slowly creep our way to the panels, driving alongside the heifer, keep in mind it is the middle of the night, no light, and somewhere near 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The heifer eventually makes her way into the panels, we shut a gate or two behind her, walk her down, she hops up into the trailer, and we’ve got our patient loaded and ready to head to Cow Palace. 

When we arrive at the Cow Palace we push the large sliding door open on the barn, back the trailer up flush to the opening, and get the lights turned on and our gates all set up. You don’t want to be doing that when you unload the heifer because she is probably already extra irritable, hot and bothered. I follow my grandpa’s instructions and get behind the trailer door after opening it. My grandpa hides behind a particular gate so that when she walks into a specific corner of the barn, he can slowly follow her with a panel that will keep her body in one direction while we assist her.

Once she is confined, it is time to put one more safety measure in place, placing a halter over her head and placing the rope attached to it around the railroad tie that is directly in front of her. 

Now, we are ready to get hands-on. I see my grandpa grab a small chain and create a loop with it at each end by feeding the chain back through itself. He carefully slides the chains up the front legs of the calf. As he reaches inside of the heifer he is able to continue moving the chains up past the knees of the calf. As the heifer contracts, he meets her with steady pressure pulling that calf outward. Sometimes you might be able to pull a calf by hand, but more than likely, a jack will be needed. 

I see my grandpa grab for the jack, placing the chain over the tail head of the heifer, securing the chain connected to the calf around a hook on the jack. My grandpa reminds me that I always want to make sure my fingers are not in the way of the piece of the jack that you are ratcheting backward. He mentions in his library-whispering voice of a time when he ran over his own hand with it…ouch! 

As the heifer continues to contract, you ratchet the jack and when she pushes, you push the handle of the jack towards the ground to encourage that calf to make his way out. After the mid-section of the calf clears, he is free sailing down onto the ground. The calf is doing well, but my grandpa encourages me to grab a piece of straw and tickle his nose to make him cough. We stimulate the calf by rubbing vigorously with our hands up and down his ribs. Next, my grandpa always told me the best thing to do is to just let them be. 

We place the calf in a green, plastic snow sled and give him a quick ride into a stall in the barn with fluffy, clean bedding. We hustle our way back to the heifer, gently remove her halter, open the wood panel gate up so that she is able to walk out into the barn. As she wanders into the barn in search of her darling firstborn we peek through the fence boards watching her every move in hopes of capturing a glimpse of her maternal instincts. She steps into the stall and begins sniffing her calf. She continues to draw near and begins licking the calf off.  We quickly and quietly slip out of the Cow Palace and head back home to catch a few winks before the next round of checking begins. I lay my head down on the couch with a heart so full of joy for that time with my grandpa, learning from him, and knowing that my 10-year-old heart most definitely loves cows more than life itself.

  1. Claudia Mackintosh says:

    Great posts Gabby! Love the history and the stories. All of us grew up so similar! I gave many memories of our cookhouse and helping my dad calve. Many nights bottle feeding babies etc

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