Life and Death on the Ranch


Photo by Nicolette Hahn Niman

We prefer focusing on the enjoyable parts of farming but there are tough days, too. Even painful ones. Like last Friday. The morning started well. We began our chores as the sun burned through early fog, and moisture wafted up from the earth. Then we found one of our best cows lying by the water trough. She looked peaceful, her legs folded beneath her and her head on the ground, as though she'd simply taken a drink and laid down to rest. But she wasn't sleeping; she was dead. She'd been struggling with an illness for several weeks and we had been desperately attempting to heal her. Her name was Eve and she will be deeply missed.

Eve's mother is Nicolette's favorite cow, a longtime resident of the ranch we call Girlfriend, a black cow with a white face and black band across her eyes. When Girlfriend was eight years old our vet told us that she was not pregnant that season. Cows have only one calf each year, so a ranch cannot afford to keep infertile cows. Normally, when an older cow comes up "open," she is sent to town. But because Girlfriend is such a gentle and beautiful animal, Nicolette had a special appreciation for her and pleaded the case for clemency. This happened again the following year and, for the second time, she was granted a reprieve. By this point, our ranching peers were saying that this cow would definitely never give birth to another calf.

But miracles have a way of happening on the farm. After two years of barrenness--and having reached the ripe age of ten--our vet announced that Girlfriend was pregnant. We were jubilant. A few months later she gave birth to a handsome red calf with a white patterned face. Like her previous calf, it was a male. That disappointed us a bit because we figured it would surely be Girlfriend's last calf, with no cattle on the ranch to carry forward her noble lineage.

It's probably hard for some people who haven't spent time on real farms to understand why both of us cried when we found Eve that morning.

Then Girlfriend amazed us by coming up pregnant again the following year. When she looked ready to calve, we kept her under close watch, checking her several times daily. One morning she had disappeared into the brush. She'd gone off to find a quiet, private place to give birth, something she knew well how to do. Nicolette put on a long sleeved shirt and anxiously began patrolling the large pasture, fighting her way through 10-feet-high patches of poison oak, worried that the old girl might have difficulty calving. But when she finally discovered the cow, she was calmly standing and chewing her cud, as is her habit. At her side was a beautiful calf who looked nearly identical to her, only in miniature. It was black-bodied with black and white markings like her mother's on her face. Nicolette cautiously approached and discovered, with great joy, that the calf was a female.

This pleased us enormously. Bill had recently left Niman Ranch, Inc. and, as part of the separation, had lost the cattle herd he'd spent decades developing. There were protracted negotiations to buy the herd back from the company, but they fell through. We ended up buying just two animals--Girlfriend and an orphan steer who had also made a special place in our hearts. In other words, two animals that were unlikely to ever have any offspring. So Eve was our great hope for the future. A healthy, beautiful calf, we saw her as the foundation of our new herd and our new life. It never occurred to us that just two years later she would predecease her aging mother.

Over those two years as we rebuilt our cattle herd to about one hundred cows, we watched Eve grow and mature. Like her mother, she was always strong, healthy, and had a remarkably calm and friendly demeanor. If you walked through a pasture that Eve was grazing as a calf, she never failed to trot over and nuzzle your hand to be petted. As she got a bit older she lost some of her friskiness but none of her sweetness. She'd amble over to get her face scratched whenever either of us were near. Eve was photographed for the New York Times and several other publications because she always made fast friends with visiting photographers. A few months ago, Bill remarked: "I think Eve is the sweetest cow we've ever had." In September, she gave birth, without difficulty, to her first calf. Like her mother, she took exceptionally good care of her young one. We took a special pleasure in knowing that this was Girlfriend's granddaughter, and we hoped she would inherit her mother and grandmother's many admirable qualities.

But then, a few weeks ago, Eve seemed listless. She was such a calm animal that at first we doubted what we were observing. Still, we didn't want to take any chances, so we brought her and her calf into a pen in the corrals, where we could keep them under close watch. They had a shed, where she could find shade and shelter from the wind, a water trough, and a salt lick, all close at hand. We consulted with our vet. All signs pointed to pneumonia. We administered an antibiotic that's highly effective against cattle pneumonia. At first Eve seemed to respond well to the medication and we relaxed a bit. For about a week, she seemed to improve daily. Then suddenly she seemed worse. Her head drooped and her movements were in slow motion. We decided to try another drug, but we worried that it wouldn't work. The next day we found her dead.

It's probably hard for some people who haven't spent time on real farms to understand why both of us cried when we found Eve that morning. After all, this cow was being raised for meat. How could we feel a genuine attachment for her? We can only say that we did. And that we think the world would be a better place if all farm animals were cared for by people who feel true sorrow when one dies prematurely. The way we felt for Eve is similar to the way many family farmers we know regard their animals. On just about every traditional farm or ranch we've visited there's an old steer or cow or an aging sow or an ancient turkey tom, animals that are long past their good breeding years. They're still there because something about them set them apart and the farmers just can't bring themselves to send them to the slaughterhouse.

We find comfort in knowing that Girlfriend is still here and doing well. A couple of weeks ago she had another calf, although this time it's a male. Last year, however, she had a nice calf named Iris, who is now a lovely yearling. As we looked at Iris the other day we exchanged a glance and we both smiled. She isn't Eve but she's a healthy, lovely animal. And then there's Eve's daughter, who we've named Annabelle. We'll have to raise her by hand. We look forward to her and Iris being here for years to come.