Veterinarian Jeff Tharp helped deliver a six-legged calf earlier this year. The calf is just fine, and they’ve decided to leave the extra limbs.
For those who’ve seen it all . . . the Calving Season Hall of Fame
Work with cattle long enough, and you’re bound to accumulate a few calving season stories that would make the likes of Lee Pitts and Baxter Black proud. From angry mamas to strange abnormalities, calves can sure keep things interesting on the ranch.
Local ranchers and vets in the Holyoke area have had their own share of calving excitement over the years. This attempt to capture the best of the best and the weirdest of the weird is just a small sample for this Calving Season Hall of Fame.
It was the 1980s when the Ron Mari Ranch welcomed a rather unusual addition to the herd. A live calf was born with one head, but two faces.
An ordinary calf up to the ears, the young steer had four eyes (with the outside two still functional), two sets of jaws and two noses. “It could suck out of either mouth,” said Mari, “but you had to tilt its head so milk didn’t run out of the other mouth.”
Believe it or not, the condition is not unheard of. “Craniofacial duplication” is the technical term for the abnormality, and having two completely separate heads is called polycephaly. While extremely rare, either condition can occur in many species. A similar calf born in Kentucky in 2016 is said to be the longest-surviving calf known with craniofacial duplication, living to be 108 days old.
Mari’s calf lived for about a month.
A mole removal to remember
A veterinarian’s child is never short of show-and-tell material. Jeff Tharp, 31 years a vet with 18 of those years in Holyoke, told a story from when his son Dillan was in high school, assisting his dad with a cow having trouble calving.
The calf was extracted, and Tharp checked the cow to be sure everything was as it should be inside. That’s when he felt something strange.
“It’s called a hydatid mole,” explained Tharp, referring to the round mass of tissue he pulled out after the calf’s birth. A developmental abnormality in which a chunk of the embryo separates from the rest, but is still attached to the uterine blood supply and continues to grow, the vet had seen this before.
What he hadn’t seen was one covered in black and white fur.
“Dillan washed it and let it dry, and when you held it just right and bounced a little, it looked like a little puppy,” said Tharp.
After taking it home to excite his mother about an adorable new puppy before dropping a hydatid mole in her lap, Dillan then took his new “puppy” to school.
“It was a topic of discussion in the science department for a while before it became very odoriferous, and he was asked to remove it from the school,” said Tharp.
What seems to be the problem?
Tharp told another delivery story from years ago during his days as a vet in Limon. A rancher had brought in a cow experiencing a precalving prolapse, so Tharp put things right and sewed it up with a suture to keep everything in place until calving.
Naturally, a stitch in this area requires a rancher to be present to snip the suture at the time the cow gives birth, as “keeping everything in place” keeps a calf in place as well. Evidently, the rancher failed to communicate this detail as he left his herd in a neighbor’s care while on an overnight trip.
Tharp received a 2 a.m. phone call from the frantic neighbor. “Nothing’s coming out! I don’t know what’s going on — I can’t even get my hand in!” said the neighbor.
Still in a groggy state, Tharp didn’t connect the dots until the neighbor was already en route with the cow in labor.
“Vets like to look like heroes,” said Tharp. “We like to give the impression that we know what’s going on.”
As the neighbor backed up the trailer to the chute, Tharp was already out to meet him, and opened the slide gate before the neighbor was out of the pickup. With the cow conveniently laying down with her rear to the gate, the vet made one snip, pulled the suture, and the calf was on the ground.
The bewildered neighbor came behind the trailer to find the calf already born. “I don’t know what your problem was,” said Tharp. “He came right out!”
Tharp said he didn’t tell the poor man what really happened for a whole week.
Quit while you’re ahead
A favorite calving story of Gale Haynes of Haynes Cattle Company started St. Patrick’s Day 1977, when a lucky Hereford he and his brother owned delivered a set of triplets. All three were healthy and being well cared for by the mother when the brothers found them.
Incredibly, the same cow had another set of triplets the following year — but all three were stillborn. “At that point, we were still ahead of the game — three calves in two years,” said Haynes.
The following year, the same cow came in open. “She went to market, and we averaged one calf per year for three years,” said Haynes. “If there’s a moral to the story — it’s okay to quit while you’re ahead!”
Well, it was here a minute ago . . .
Darrell Tomky has been a vet for 34 years, and has seen his own share of ectopic pregnancies, inside-out calves (a condition in which the fetal body wall fails to close) and even had his own experience delivering a two-headed calf.
However, there is a more benign story that seems to happen almost every season at the Holyoke Vet Clinic.
“A number of guys have brought in cows that they think are about ready to calve,” said Tomky, “but then I find that she’s already had the calf. The guy will get a really confused look on his face and say, ‘well, I guess I better go home and look for it!’”
The calf that broke the mold
Brent Vieselmeyer of Vision Angus told a story about Zach Brookman, their current cattle herdsman. It was a few years ago, and Brookman was calving a set of heifers at another ranch. He had pinched his hand between a gate and a post, breaking a couple of bones in his hand just before calving season — not an ideal time to be wearing a cast.
Sure enough, an evening came that a heifer was having difficulty calving. Brookman called his wife to come help him, but the two of them were not going to get the calf to come out with Brookman’s right-hand handicap.