The Mysterious Death of Scaredy
Turns out nothing brings a farming community together like the mysterious death of a calf.
On the morning of January 26th, I walked through our frost-laden field toward the cows’ new paddock - past ice crystals clinging to the thin twigs of blackthorn trees, among the remnants of thistles encased in ice, through a shallow stream bending fresh blades of grass toward the lake. I opened the gate, whistled, and soon our four heifers appeared and ushered themselves into the self-serve breakfast area.
The six boys are always slow to arrive, so nothing seemed out of order as I began walking into the wooded area where they often sleep, protected from the elements. Three boys found their own way while I conducted my search, but three others remained hidden. As I continued walking, I began to feel something wasn’t right. Two more calves appeared, and I led them to the new paddock. But Scaredy was missing.
Something was wrong. Goat Boy is our resident straggler, not Scaredy. They were both born on the same day, but Goat Boy got all the confidence: he goes where he wants when he wants and stays as long as he wants. He lets me know when he wants to be brushed, and he wiggles his bum when I pet his hips on both sides. But Scaredy has never let me touch him; he just can’t bring himself to be okay with it. And he is just not confident enough to be alone; he needs the comfort of the herd. So where was he?
I headed back into the woods, scanning the base of chestnuts and oaks, of bracken fern bunches and bramble bushes.
Then I saw it. I saw him, lying atop fallen leaves in the shelter of a holly tree. Don’t be dead, I commanded, as though I had control. Please don’t be dead.
But he was. As I got closer I saw a large section of his neck was missing. The skin and muscle were gone and his trachea was clearly visible against a backdrop of pale pink flesh bordered by thin, dark red lines glistening in the morning dew. I just stared for a while, uncertain what to think or do. His ear was missing, along with his ear tag. Did someone do this to you and take your tag so you can’t be identified? I lifted his limp head to check his other ear. It was still there, with the bright orange tag in place. Something ate your ear?
I knelt next to him and sighed. “Sorry, bud,” I told him. “Sorry this happened to you.”
I placed my hand on his side and pressed down a little: he was hard. Was it rigor because he’d been dead for a while or was he frozen? I usually see the cows each day but I don’t count them, and the temperature had dipped to -6 °C the night before. When did this happen? And what happened? Did he suffer?
I took a couple of photos and began thinking of the administrative and logistical steps to come. I needed to get him from the woods to the house and send paperwork to EDE (the Établissements d'Élevage), which tracks the movement of all cattle in France. And I needed to do this on my own, so Wendy would never see the body. Things like this are my job because for better or worse, I’m good at compartmentalizing. My feelings have learned to be patient - they know I’ll focus on them when I can.
My mind acknowledges the sadness during difficult moments, but it’s like a gentle whisper in the background while more practical matters occupy the foreground: Can I harvest his meat and organs for dog treats? There’s at least 100 lbs of meat here, plus his tongue, liver, kidney, heart, hooves, stomach lining. The chickens will eat what the dogs won’t, but what would I do with the “leftover” parts? Should I give his head to the chickens? Could I deal with seeing that every day as they worked their way toward finishing? Probably not. Should I crack his head open and just give them the brain? They’d finish that fast and it’d probably be good for them. How long would it take me to process him? Should I make leather from his hide? Could I figure it out as I go along or should I watch a YouTube video first? Is any of this even legal, or do I have to put the entire body under straw by the side of the road so it can be picked up for rendering? What a waste. I don’t want to waste him. I don’t want him to be dead but it makes it even worse if his whole body is wasted. I’m out 300 euros. Does my insurance cover predator losses?
I walked back up to the house and broke the news of Scaredy’s death to Wendy. She cried and asked if I was alright. “Yes,” I told her. “I’m sorry. I know you hate this kind of thing.”
“Yes, but so do you,” she answered.
She’s right. I took a moment, took a breath. “I need to go bring Scaredy’s body up then figure out who to contact,” I told her. “There are things I’m supposed to do but I don’t know what they are.”
I put the Traxter keys in my pocket, hitched the towable wheelbarrow, then drove down to the lake and backed up into the woods. I rolled the wheelbarrow as close to Scaredy as I could, then tipped the front against the ground to assist with loading. Scaredy was small but I knew he wouldn’t be light, and I wouldn’t be able to pick him up.
Scaredy’s body lay in a depression, so I grabbed his front hooves and began dragging him up a slight hill to the wheelbarrow. I had to stop a couple of times to regain my oomph, but eventually I got his forequarters into the wheelbarrow. Then I pushed him from behind, swinging his hindquarters toward the wheelbarrow to scrunch him in. Handling him that way felt disrespectful, but it was the only way I could get him in. I realized he was still flexible and could not have been dead long. It made me feel a little better as I forced his corpse into the wheelbarrow, his head flopping under his chest, his legs askew, to achieve a proper balance so I could tow the wheelbarrow behind the quad without him tumbling out.
I drove back up the field and stopped at the piggery - a small room connected to the large barn by the house. It’s designed to hold a hog for family consumption. It’s separated into two rooms - one with a sturdy interior door meant to hold the pig, and a narrow room accessible from the exterior door, designed for the homeowner to pour slop into an old sink via a hole in the wall so the human doesn’t have to enter the actual pig sty. We would never raise a pig in there - it’s small and damp, dimly-lit with a concrete floor and a combination of cinder block and stone walls. Instead, it’s where I process poultry because the low light is less stressful for the birds, there’s room for a small stainless steel table, and the floor is sloped to drain outside.
I unhitched the wheelbarrow, rolled it to the piggery door, tipped it down, dragged Scaredy through the exterior door, then arranged and rearranged his body to make the 90° turn through the sturdy door into the small, cold room. Then I closed the internal door, closed the external door, put the Traxter away, washed my hands in the kitchen sink, and sat down with a mug of coffee.
I sent a message to my insurance company inquiring about coverage. I called EDE but no one answered, so I called CDAAS (the Coopérative Départementale Agricole Action Sanitaire), which regulates things like mandatory vaccinations and testing. When someone answered, I explained that I’d found a dead calf for the first time on my farm. I was transferred to someone else, and I re-explained that I’d found a dead calf on my farm and wasn’t sure what steps to take next. The representative was very informative and patient with my French, and agreed to send me an e-mail outlining the procedure. Depending who I’m talking with and the subject matter, I generally understand 40% - 90% of the conversations I have in French. I’m fairly well versed in farm lingo and the woman spoke clearly and slowly, so I was pretty sure I understood what to do. But having it in writing lets me know for sure because I can use Google Translate and take my time reviewing the content.
When I started the farm business in January 2019, EDE sent me a packet of blank “movement documents” in carbon-copy format with perforated sides to assist with dot-matrix printing. I didn’t even know dot-matrix printers existed anymore, but apparently they’re still used for some administrative functions. Whenever a cow enters or exits our farm, I need to record a bunch of information on this form (the cow’s tag number, date of birth, parents, originating/destination farm, reasons for entry/exit) then keep a copy for myself and mail the original to EDE. I’ve done this many times. According to the e-mail from CDAAS, the first step was to fill out one of the movement documents and send it to EDE.
The second step was to place the calf under some straw near the driveway and arrange a pick-up with the servicing équirrissage company (Atemax) so the body could be sent to a rendering plant. At the time of pick-up, the company is supposed to take possession of the animal’s bovine passport - a document that accompanies the animal throughout its life, tracking its movements. Providing the passport to the équirrissage company closes the final administrative chapter in the animal’s life.
While on the phone, I asked the CDAAS representative if I could harvest the calf’s meat and organs to dehydrate them for my dogs. She seemed to find the question odd, and provided me with an equally-odd response: “I don’t know - maybe you should ask your veterinarian.” I wasn’t concerned about the safety of the meat, just whether harvesting it would be an administratively sound practice. After all, how would the State be certain the calf hadn’t entered the nation’s food supply if I “disposed” of the body myself? This is the minutia my French doesn’t permit me to explore.
Next, I sent an e-mail to EDE explaining I would work on sending the paperwork but my real question is whether I’m allowed to harvest the meat and organs for my dogs. The French Government hates waste; there are laws against it. So I invoked the theme of “gaspillage” in my message, hoping someone would get back to me while I still had time to save whatever was worth saving. I also sent a message to the équirrissage company, asking if they were able to recover part of a carcass, so I could reduce waste but still provide proof of the body.
I continued refreshing my e-mail every few minutes over the course of the next hour. Nothing.
I discovered Scaredy’s body at 8:30 on a Wednesday morning. By now it was 11 and the kids would be home by 12:30. Wednesdays are half-days at school and we were supposed to leave for Limoges around 2:30 so the kids could get their second round of Covid vaccinations. I envisioned myself disemboweling Scaredy in the piggery as the children walked by, wondering where I was and wanting to give me a cuddle. I imagined myself stressed, immersed in the dampness of stone and cinder block, compartmentalization in overdrive, unable to support my children during their final round of vaccinations. It’s a big deal and Darwin was looking forward to showing me how brave she is, how stoic when the needle goes in.
I decided to text Vanessa, our French neighbor who was raised in Folles and studied agriculture. Her husband Yohann is a prominent member of the chasse and used to work at the local abattoir. They both know a lot of things and a lot of people. (The chasse is a national hunting federation with local chapters in each French department.)
Vanessa texted me back right away and said Yohann would be home for lunch around noon, and she’d ask him then. I received a follow-up text from her around 12:20 saying he’d stop by around 1pm, after lunch was over.
When I received this text, I was busy cleaning and sharpening the knife I was using to process Kinky Boots, a rooster who was causing disharmony in the flock. The day before, I’d witnessed the first-ever real cock fight in our poultry enclosure. Kinky Boots was a Brahma - a very large breed that’s slow to mature. We had asked the breeder for a Brahma hen but we got what we got, and up until the cock fight Kinky had been a great rooster. He was non-aggressive and even ate from my hand. But when his hormones kicked in, he struggled to find his place in the flock and tried to push Blossom lower in the pecking order. (Blossom is a Limousin named by Darwin and was also supposed to be a hen.)
Blossom is a beautiful rooster. He’s slender and calm and seems perfectly content ranking below NayNay, the large Maran who we actually bought as a rooster. NayNay is big, Blossom is medium, and Jack (a mystery breed who was supposed to be a Maran hen) is small and tailless, readily accepts his place at the bottom of the pecking order, and hardly bothers crowing anymore. He’s also a bit of an asshole. But Kinky Boots, who had only just started crowing, was still searching for his place.
The battle between Kinky and Blossom was a spectacle of nature. The roosters jumped and flipped and crouched and displayed their hackles. Eventually Blossom jumped into a bush, submitting to Kinky Boots. I had hoped this was the end of it - that the pecking order had been reconfigured and peace could return to the flock.
But the next morning - the morning of January 26th, I noticed Blossom’s light gray chest feathers were tinged with red. He looked worse than he had the evening before. After feeding the flock, I stayed and watched for a while and saw Jack challenging him. My heart sank; I was going to have to intervene.
I was still pondering my options when I found Scaredy in the woods. My perspective shifted. It was already a bad day, a hard day, a day of death. So I decided to remove Kinky Boots from the flock. He was only going to continue growing and would eventually challenge NayNay. So after I had transported Scaredy’s body from the woods to the piggery, I sprinkled some cracked corn on the ground, captured Kinky Boots, brought him to the piggery, killed him, and began processing him into food for our family.
I was still working on Kinky when I received Vanessa’s text: Yohann would be at our house in about 40 minutes. I quickly placed about five pounds of chicken breasts and legs in a bowl of chilled water, then removed the rooster’s organs to dehydrate as dog treats. All the while Scaredy lay on the floor behind me. It was a bad day, a hard day. I gathered the remains of Kinky’s body and placed them in the buried bin where we compost poultry remains.
I washed the processing table, I washed my hands, and Yohann arrived. I thanked him for coming and he asked if he could see the body. There was blood splatter on the wall next to Scaredy’s head. “That’s from a rooster,” I explained, because for a moment I thought he might think I had killed the calf. Yohann gave a nod of acknowledgement and said “D’accord.”
Yohann stared silently at the body for a while, then spoke. “I don’t think it was a boar,” he said. “A boar eats everything… and I don’t think it was a fox - foxes attack from behind…. Not a badger - they’d eat the nose - they like cartilage.” He stared a while longer.
“Maybe a wolf?” I asked him. There have been reports of wolves attacking livestock about 100km away.
“Maybe…” he answered, nodding his head. “Or maybe a dog.” It’s hunting season and sometimes dogs get away from their owners. Scaredy was small, reaching only up to my waist. He was kind of like a sheep without all the wool. Many things could have killed him.
Yohann said he would let the chasse know what happened and see if anyone had anything to share. Then he mentioned the “No Hunting” (Chasse Interdit) sign we had erected near the road. Our property is part of a section of land protected from hunting to preserve the nation’s biodiversity. Last year I added a gate that provides easy access to our property from the road, so I included a “no hunting” sign to ensure no one would view that as a place to access our land more easily. In France, in general, members of the chasse are allowed to hunt on others’ property; there are just rules about which direction they’re allowed to shoot in and how close they’re allowed to hunt near people’s houses.
So when Yohann mentioned our “Chasse Interdit” sign, I couldn’t tell if he was saying it probably wasn’t a dog because hunters know not to come on our property, or if he was saying no one would admit to it because everyone knows they’re not supposed to come on our property. Or maybe he was saying no one will want to help us because we annoyed them with the sign.
I thanked Yohann for stopping by and asked if he knew whether I could salvage the meat and organs for the dogs. “I don’t know,” he said, “but I doubt it.”
“But it’s such a waste,” I told him.
“Yeah, it is,” he responded. “But when I worked at the abattoir, if a cow came in and didn’t have its paperwork in order, the whole thing would go to the rendering plant. There’s a lot of waste.”
I asked him how long he thought I could keep the body in the piggery while waiting for an answer from EDE. “Three, four days maybe?” he answered. I really hoped I wouldn’t have to wait that long.
As he opened his car door, Yohann either said he’d stop by later that evening or that he’d contact me with an update. I don’t know which and I didn’t need to know - Wendy and I have both gotten accustomed to not knowing exactly what’s going on. There was no real need to clarify: either Yohann would come by later or he wouldn’t, and either we’d hear from him or we wouldn’t.
I went in the house, gave the kids a welcome-home cuddle, and used the Food Saver to shrink-wrap Kinky’s breasts, legs, and thighs. Then I changed my clothes and prepared to drive to Limoges with my family.
Shortly before we left, my phone rang. It was Vanessa. She said a lot of words.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand,” I told her.
She said more, slightly-different words.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “It’s hard for me on the phone. I’m gonna get Wendy because her French is better.”
Vanessa laughed a little and tried again, this time with different words. And this time, I understood. “Don’t do anything with the body,” she said. “Leave it alone.” She went on to explain that Yohann had sent my photo to the French Biodiversity Agency (the OFB), and they said it could’ve been a wolf attack, so they want to come take a look. She added that a wolf can travel 200km in one night.
“I understand now, thank you,” I told her. “I will leave the body alone.”
“Yes, leave the body alone,” she repeated.
Now by this time, I had partially informed the kids of the day’s events. I was dealing with Kinky Boots when they arrived home from school, so they knew something was up. Normally I welcome them home with a kiss and a cuddle, and I wasn’t around to do that.
They knew Kinky and Blossom had fought, and I had told them I might need to cull Kinky. So they weren’t surprised or even particularly disappointed when they learned I couldn't do cuddles because I was busy processing him. In fact when Emerson saw pieces of chicken chilling in a bowl he said “Is that Kinky Boots?” I confirmed and he said “Okay!”
As the kids buckled their seatbelts, I told them Scaredy had been attacked by a predator. Emerson gasped. Darwin very calmly said “He must be scared of everything, with his name, Scaredy.” The fact that he had died didn’t phase her. I hadn’t planned to tell them at all; they didn’t know how many calves we had, and Scaredy wasn’t a favorite because he always stayed away from them. So they never would’ve missed him. But I had already told them “He wants to talk about something” when they asked why Yohann had come over. And now, someone from OFB was going to show up at the house to talk about it too. I decided it was better to let them know what was happening.
And I’m glad I did because it made the hours and days to follow much easier.
My phone rang as I was driving to Limoges. It was Yohann calling to re-confirm that someone from OFB was planning to stop by our house this evening to view Scaredy’s body. “Leave the calf alone,” he told me. It was as though the entirety of the neighbor’s household knew I had poor comprehension and was making a concerted effort to ensure I did-not-touch-the-body. I can just imagine the conversation between Vanessa and Yohann:
Yohann: Did you tell Donna the OFB is coming?
Vanessa: Yes, and I told her to leave the body alone.
Yohann: Did she understand you?
Vanessa: I think so but I don’t know for sure. I can never really tell.
Yohann: I’d better call her again.
Wendy and I continued driving to Limoges for the kids’ vaccination. The phone rang again. This time it was an OFB agent letting us know he was planning to come over to see the body. He asked if 4pm would work for us. We explained we probably wouldn’t be back from Limoges until 4:30 and asked if he could wait until then. He couldn’t, so we told him how to get to the piggery so he could do what he needed to do.
We arrived at the clinic around 3:30 and both children were fully vaccinated 20 minutes later. We rushed home in an effort to catch the OFB agent before he left. We really wanted to talk to him to get his opinion on what had killed Scaredy.
When we pulled into the driveway, we saw three agents dressed in gray crowded around the back end of a van with the tailgate open. I was the first one out of the car and as I approached, I saw Scaredy had been dragged back out of the piggery and onto the driveway. I immediately returned to the car and asked Wendy to bring the kids in through the barn so they wouldn’t see him. Knowing he had died is one thing; gazing at a gaping hole in the throat of a calf is another.
After Darwin and Emerson were safely inside, Wendy and I approached the OFB agents. They had already taken samples from the body and were working together to complete paperwork. As we stood waiting, we noticed they all carried pistols and handcuffs. They really are the biodiversity police. Although adorned in somewhat-imposing attire, they also wore smiles and were quite amicable.
One of the agents dragged Scaredy back into the piggery. Another proceeded to ask us questions about how old Scaredy was, how/when/where I found him, my business information, etc. Another stepped away from the crowd and looked out at our property. I approached him with my borderline-obsessive question regarding harvesting Scaredy’s meat and organs for the dogs. He seemed surprised but not disturbed by the question.
“What would you do with the body?” he asked.
“I don’t know, maybe bury it?” I responded. “I asked Atemax if they could pick up a partial carcass but they haven’t responded.”
The agent explained that by law, a person can only dispose of a carcass weighing less than 40kg. The OFB had estimated that Scaredy weighed 80kg (about 180 lbs).
“How much do you want to take from him?” the agent asked.
“All of it,” I responded. “Otherwise it’s a waste.”
He chuckled. Apparently he thought I just wanted to take a little meat for the dogs. Meanwhile, I couldn’t imagine suffering the horror of cutting into Scaredy’s bloating little body unless I was going to garner every last bit of usable material.
“If I remove the organs and meat,” I continued, feeling a little serial killerish, “he’ll weigh less than 40kg.”
The agent smiled and shrugged.
“If you think it’s best for me to just have him picked up by équirrissage, I’ll do that,” I told him. I have zero interest in breaking the law for dog treats. He told me he thought that would be best.
I walked back over to Wendy and the other agents. I signed a couple of papers and we asked what they thought had killed Scaredy.
“I don’t know,” one of the agents replied. “We just collect the information and pass it on, then the specialist makes a determination.” Turns out their supervisor usually conducts these types of investigations but he was home sick with Covid.
After all the questions had been asked and answered, it was time to bring the agents to the scene of the crime. Daylight was waning, so I offered to drive them down in the quad. “Nah, he’s scared of ATVs,” one of the agents said, nodding toward another. I explained that the Traxter is a side-by-side, more like a little car. I opened the root cellar door to show it to them and they immediately commented on how cool it was.
The two younger agents climbed in the bed of the Traxter and their colleague sat up front. “He’s fat,” one said, “so he gets the front to himself.” On the way down to the woods, the agent next to me said how great the Traxter would be for collecting wood and asked me how much it cost. “About 15,000€,” I told him, doing my best to remember how much I paid more than two years ago. The agent yelled the figure back to his colleagues.
I parked the Traxter down by the lake, then walked back into the woods where I had found Scaredy. The agents looked around and asked if the fence had been disturbed. I told them it hadn’t. They asked if I’d seen a badger burrow nearby. I asked what that looked like and then told them no, I hadn’t. They told me they didn’t see signs of a struggle, like drag marks or evidence of hoof action. One agent suggested that perhaps Scaredy had been killed, but it’s also possible that a scavenger began eating his throat after he had already died.
My stomach dropped. That had never even occurred to me. And if that was true, then it meant his death was my fault - that I had missed an illness or injury.
The agents set up a couple of trail cameras to surveil the area and said they’d be back to pick them up in a couple of weeks. Two agents piled back into the Traxter, while one walked ahead to take care of closing the gate - but not before snapping a couple pictures of the “fat guy” in the Traxter.
Wendy and I asked the agents when they thought we might receive the results of their investigation. Weeks? Months? They literally had no idea. It all depended on the supervisor’s workload and recovery from Covid.
I left Scaredy in the piggery that night, unsure what would become of him but pretty certain I’d end up loading him into the wheelbarrow again and placing him by the side of the road. I kept thinking about how and when he had died. I realized that I had dragged his body up a hill to get him to the wheelbarrow, but the OFB had not seen those drag marks. So perhaps something had dragged him the night he died. Perhaps there was a struggle but the ground was frozen so no hooves or paws had penetrated the earth.
I worried about the five remaining calves. If it was a predator, would it return? Goat Boy is even smaller than Scaredy, and presumably more vulnerable since he likes to venture off on his own. And what if Scaredy died because it was too cold outside? Would the calves be better off in the woods snuggled together? Or should I try to work in the dark to get the concrete building ready for them? Would they even be better off inside, with its masonry walls that radiate dampness and circulate stale air?
The concrete building is a somewhat-dilapidated structure near the house that’s split into two sections. One is a large sheltered space with part of the wall missing and a portion of the roof supported by an acrow prop. The other section housed chickens before we bought the property and has remained filled with poop, trash, and spiderwebs for the past three years.
I did not sleep well.
I fed the poultry at first light and checked on Blossom. He looked better, and I felt reassured that killing Kinky Boots had been the right thing to do. Then I took the Traxter down to the lake to check on the calves. As I walked up the hill to reach the wooded area where the herd sleeps, I saw Sweetie picking leaves from a bramble bush. I began counting cows, counting calves. I saw all the girls - they were okay, but I wasn’t worried about them anyway. They’re big and hardy.
But the boys? One was lying down. Right where I had found Scaredy. Two others stood near him, staring. Who is it? Don’t be dead. Don’t be dead. I rushed over. His body was intact. If he’s dead this was definitely all my fault, I thought. I knelt next to him. It was Uno, my favorite calf. His head was tucked back toward his chest. His left eye was open. I knelt next to him. Uno, don’t be dead! I urged silently as I cupped his chin with my hand and lifted his face toward mine.
I saw his ribs move. He was breathing. He was alive.
Uno…….. I breathed too. A long breath. I held his head, stroked his face. He was alive, but slow. The other boys were waiting for him to get up but he didn’t seem interested in moving. I stood up, rubbed the hair on his side, his hips, his neck. “Come on, get up Uno,” I encouraged. Eventually he decided to rise. I pet him and told him was a good boy. Then I looked around and found the other two calves standing nearby, on the other side of a bush. All of the boys were together and accounted for, and Uno was standing. Phew.
Then Uno lay down again.
That’s not normal. My heart sank again. Maybe it is too cold for them. Maybe they’re too small to be out here without a mother taking care of them.
I drove back to the house immediately and asked Wendy to come help me put Uno in the Traxter so we could bring him up to the concrete building. Darwin was home because of another Covid-related strike at her school. So she put on her boots and jacket and joined Wendy and me in the Traxter as we drove down to the lake again to retrieve Uno.
But when we arrived, the girls all ran to the fenceline. Ran. It was weird. Desperate. I couldn’t open the gate to drive the Traxter into the field because they were in the way. So I led the girls into their paddock and closed the gate. Then I walked into the woods to check on Uno… and he was up, browsing bramble leaves on his way out of the woods.
I was so relieved. Up and eating. It made me wonder if maybe he was fine and had just had a slow start to the morning. It was cold after all. Perhaps he just needed some time to wake up and get going.
While we were checking on Uno, Wendy remembered we needed milk. That meant we had to be at Patrick’s around 9am during milking. So I drove up to the house and Wendy grabbed the milk bottles while I closed gates. Then we all headed up to Patrick’s in the Traxter, with Darwin wearing her hat and gloves, and (as we learned later) four pair of socks.
After Patrick filled our milk bottles, I asked if he could sell a bale of hay to us. If Scaredy had died from the cold, maybe it’s because he was hungry. Maybe the girls were acting desperate because the paddock I moved them to yesterday didn’t have good enough quality forage. Maybe I was unwittingly starving our cows. Everyone seems to think it’s crazy not to feed hay; maybe I’d taken it too far this year and our herd just wasn’t getting enough nourishment. So I explained to Patrick that I think maybe our cows are hungry and would it be possible for him to drop one of those big bales of hay in our field?
He looked at me the way I look at people when I don’t understand what they just said. I tried again. And again, he had no idea what I wanted. I looked to Wendy, and Patrick tried to make me feel better by saying it’s hard to communicate with masks on.
“We had a calf die yesterday,” Wendy explained. “We don’t know if it’s maybe because the cows are hungry. Can we buy a bale of hay?” Patrick understood Wendy no problem and said of course he could deliver a bale later today. A small bale of hay from the local feed store costs five euros. A half-ton round bale from Patrick? Fifteen.
I tried to communicate again, explaining that we had found the calf without a throat and OFB wasn’t sure whether he had been attacked by a predator or had simply died on his own then been snacked on by a badger.
Patrick asked some follow-up questions and I showed him the photo I had taken. “No, no, no” he said. “A badger attacks from behind. There was something. My cows were scared two nights ago. I even called my wife and told her about it. There was something.” He seemed to think it may have been a wolf.
I instantly felt better. Maybe Scaredy’s death wasn’t my fault after all. Maybe I wasn’t a crap cow keeper.
When we got back to the house, I poured a cup of coffee and checked my e-mail. Still no response from EDE or Atemax. So I finished my drink, read the morning news, then drove up to the agri-tunnel to load the Traxter with a bale of hay we had purchased in preparation for a vet visit two years ago for our first-ever cows. I set the towable wheelbarrow near the piggery door and tipped it forward so the front rested on the ground. Then I dragged Scaredy from the piggery for the last time, dragged his body into the wheelbarrow, pushed his body in, tucked his head, arranged his legs… and finally got him stable enough to hitch the wheelbarrow to the Traxter and drive him to the top of the driveway.
Then I parked, unhitched the wheelbarrow, and tipped it out by the side of the road. I arranged him one last time, then covered him with the old bale of hay. That’s it, it’s over now. Sorry Scaredy.
I came back inside and made an online request to Atemax to come collect his body. No collection date or time was given, but the site confirmed my request and reminded me to have his bovine passport ready at the time of pickup.
Patrick had been so interested in the potential attack on our calf that I realized I should probably inform other local farmers. So I sent a text to Christophe, who raises Limousin calves and transported Brown Cow to the abattoir for us about a year-and-a-half ago. We laugh about the first time I ever talked to him when I saw him putting step-in posts on the border of our field near the agri-tunnel and stopped to ask him what he was doing. That was our property after all - why was some guy putting fence posts on it?
Darwin was in the Traxter and I asked her to translate. She was three. It didn’t work. So Christophe tried to communicate with me and I tried to communicate with him, asking him to speak into my phone so Google Translate would help me understand what he was saying. It was, as Christophe says, “catastrophique.” But he was patient and eventually I realized he was cordoning off our field so he could move his cows down the road. After that, we struck up a friendship of sorts.
I also texted Patrice, the farmer whose cows occupied the land in front of our house when we first moved in - the farmer whose hay rested in our agri-tunnel for more than a year while he built a new storage facility. Also the farmer who came over the same day I texted him when I was having a problem with the electric fence. The same farmer who drew a diagram for me to explain how the whole system worked so I could diagnose our low-voltage issue. He raises Limousin cows and I thought he might like to know, in case he needed to protect his own calves.
Patrick pulled up in his tractor around noon, with a bale of hay stuck on its forks. I quickly emptied the bucket of grass seed I’d been spreading on the ground where I’d recently removed brambles to improve the cows’ grazing area.
“Bonjour!” I called to him. “I’ll show you where it goes.”
I walked back up the driveway, back toward Patrick’s house. “Here,” I told him, pointing to a corner of a field near the road. Patrick set down the bale of hay, pulled a knife from his pocket, and cut the twine. “There will be a lot of waste,” he said, referring to the fact that the bale was simply placed on the grass and not in a feeder. Yes, I thought, thinking of Scaredy.
As I walked along the road back toward our house, I saw a familiar car coming my way. Christophe! I waved and he stopped. His customary smile had been replaced by a somber look. “Ça va?” I asked him.
“Non, ç’est horrible,” he answered. Christophe went on to explain that he had received my text but he had recently learned that the barn he was renting had burned down over the weekend, along with 29 of his cows. “It happened on Sunday and the firefighters didn’t tell me until Monday,” he said. “Did you see it?”
I had seen it. I drove toward the plume of smoke to investigate and found two fire trucks blocking the road. So I turned around and assumed the Fire Department was overseeing a controlled burn of brambles or something similar.
“Ç’est horrible,” Christophe repeated.
“I’m so sorry,” I told him. Here I was, consumed by the death of one animal, when he had just lost 29.
Despite his own loss, Christophe asked for details about mine. I explained how I had found Scaredy and what the OFB had said. “They always say that,” Christophe said, referring to the idea that Scaredy had already died before his throat went missing. “They don’t want to pay.”
If livestock is killed by a wolf, the government compensates the farmer. I don’t know to what extent and I expect I won’t find out.
“I hope it was a wolf,” I told Christophe. “If he died of natural causes I’ll be ashamed because that means I missed something.” I wanted to tell him I would feel bad, but I don’t know how to say that, so I opted for “j’ai honte,” which I’ve learned from watching French shows on Netflix.
“It happens to all of us,” Christophe consoled. I told him I had just bought hay from Patrick this morning in case the cows were hungry. “You don’t have to buy hay,” he told me. “I have a lot. I can give you some. Just let me know.” I wanted to express how nice it was of him to offer, particularly in light of the losses he was in the midst of managing, but I didn’t know how. So instead I told him that was nice, but not necessary.
“Do they have minerals?” he asked. I told him yes as he inspected our herd from his car. Most of the cows were gathered around the hay bale. The heifers were sticking their horns in it and flipping it on top of their heads, like they’d just found the best toy. But Uno was hanging back.
“That one,” Christophe said, pointing to Uno. “That one doesn’t seem right. They’re usually all together. He might be sick.” Then he motioned toward the “malherbe” in our field and suggested that maybe there was insufficient forage to stimulate his rumen. I had read about that possibility in a book called “Kick the Hay Habit.” The author mentioned that forage low in protein can prevent the rumen from functioning properly, which means the cattle won’t get the nutrients they require. His suggestion was to include some alfalfa pellets in the diet as needed to ensure the rumen would do its job. There is certainly a lot of old, brown, low-nutrient forage in our paddocks. But there’s also new green growth, which is full of protein. It’s shorter and hard to see from a vehicle.
I looked at Uno. Yes, maybe he was sick. Maybe I should isolate him and call the vet. But maybe he was waiting for everyone else to move because the bale was crowded. The hay had just arrived and he’s a patient boy.
I thanked Christophe and walked to the house. I needed to get back because Darwin was by herself. Shortly after Patrick pulled up with the hay, Wendy had to rush out to meet Emerson for lunch. Covid is currently raging at their school thanks to the Omicron variant, so we’re bringing lunch to the kids instead of having them eat with the other kids at the cantine. Darwin is six and can take care of herself pretty well, but I still don’t like her to be alone for too long.
I checked on Uno about half an hour later and by then he was helping himself to the bale. Relief washed over me. He’s okay. Everyone’s okay. I started supplementing their diet with alfalfa pellets anyway though, just in case.
I usually clean the upstairs bathroom and bedrooms every Wednesday because Darwin has a fairly-severe dust mite allergy. But I didn’t get around to it because of everything that happened with Scaredy and our trip to Limoges. So after checking on Uno, I focused on cleaning and was vacuuming the floor when Patrice called.
“Can I come over to talk about the calf?” he asked.
“Now?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m on my way,” he answered. Turns out Patrice is the lead point of contact for a local chapter of an organization that tracks predator attacks and plots the data to identify trends. I told him that OFB wasn’t sure if Scaredy had died and then had his throat eaten, or if he had been attacked by a predator.
He asked if he could view Scaredy’s body and I explained that he was currently under straw at the top of the driveway. Undeterred, Patrice pulled back the straw and examined Scaredy’s remains. He couldn’t see much, as the old hay stuck to Scaredy’s wound and obstructed the details.
I sent my photos to Patrice’s phone.
“No, this wasn’t a predator,” he told me. “I think he died first. See his eye? It’s sunken in. That indicates he was sick… But he died when? That could be because he’s been dead for a while.” He examined Scaredy’s nose and pulled back his lips to expose his teeth.
“The OFB said there weren’t any drag marks or signs of a struggle,” I told him, “but the ground was frozen.” Patrice nodded. “Also Patrick said he thinks he must not have been dead first because there was blood, and that wouldn’t be the case if he had died first.”
“A calf that size would have about two liters of blood,” Patrice responded. “Was there blood when you found him?”
“Just on his throat” I told him. Patrice looked at the photo again.
“No,” he said. “It was cold and the blood would have coagulated and we would see it. He was dead first.”
My heart sank again. Maybe he was right. Where was the puddle of blood?
I asked Patrice if he thought it was too cold for the calves to be outside. I explained that the big cows act like a separate herd and don’t take care of the small ones.
“No,” he said. “They’re fine in the cold. And it’s not like they’re out in the open - they have shelter. The only way the cold will kill them is if they’re already sick.”
This made me feel better and worse at the same time. I had not been neglectful expecting our motherless calves to live outdoors, and barring predator interference the boys should be fine through the winter. But if Scaredy had died of natural causes, then I had missed an illness, and that was on me.
I asked Patrice if he would mind taking a look at my cows to see if he thought they looked okay.
He agreed and we walked together through the fields he used to manage, toward the new herd on his old land. I wondered if he cringed at the brambles, the dried thistles, the brown clumps of rye grass, the tall stalks of wild carrot. He left his cows on this land for months, as one big paddock, until he had deemed the forage insufficient. He had left it all rather uniform, if less resilient to climate extremes.
As we approached the herd, the girls investigated his presence, sniffing his gloved hands. He walked calmly among them, scanning each in turn, looking for signs of health, of illness. “Did you give the calves dewormer?”
I told him I hadn’t - that I rotate pastures to avoid parasites.
“That’s not enough,” he said. “The little ones need at least one treatment at the start.”
Patrice paid special attention to the boys and singled out Uno and Goat Boy. He mentioned how Goat Boy’s ears flop forward, pointing out that’s not normal for a cow. “He’s always been like that,” I explained. His small, thin stature and ear position are why we call him Goat Boy.
Patrice continued discussing the two calves, saying they seemed depressed, slow. That in combination with the poop stuck to their tails led him to believe they were sick.
He then broadened his focus. “They all look thin to me,” he said, referring to both the boys and girls. “But then again I raise Limousins, so it’s probably best to ask Patrick.” In a community of beef farmers, Patrick runs the dairy. And I have the in-between cows that lead both parties to question my judgment.
As I walked back to the house with Patrice, I knew I wasn’t going to talk to Patrick about it. Instead, I was probably going to call the vet. I discussed it with Wendy and together, we decided on a way forward.
I sent an e-mail to the office of André, our vétérinaire sanitaire, asking if he could come take a look at two calves the next day. I explained we’d had a calf die the day before and were uncertain if it had been the result of an illness or predator attack. Within half an hour, we had an appointment scheduled for “the end of the day” on Friday. The secretary estimated André would arrive around 5pm, so we now knew our deadline for preparing the concrete building, isolating Goat Boy and Uno from the herd, and ensuring they were sufficiently contained so André could examine and treat them as needed.
We decided to leave the boys outside for one more night. The weather was good, with a low of 2° expected. I was extraordinarily relieved because I have complete confidence in André. Wendy and I were both scared of Brown Cow and he handled her like a boss. He calmly, slowly herded her in close quarters along with three other cows while talking on his cell phone. He was too experienced and well-informed to be scared.
But for the last two days, my own fear swirled in its closed compartment. I was scared of my own potential incompetence and uncertain how to proceed. I’d heard so many opinions and didn’t know what to believe. I couldn’t feel the best path forward.
I knew it would cost us money, and potentially blow our investment in the calves. Profit margins are slim and we haven’t even established a market yet. But at the same time, these boys are our responsibility. I don’t know if I’m a good farmer, but I know I’m a good person. So if my animals are suffering, I need to fix it. There is no other viable option.
So I went to bed, hoping the boys would survive the night.
I drove down to the lake at first light, walked into the woods, and… they were empty. I smiled with relief. No one had died in place, sick and cold. No one had been killed by a predator. Turns out they’d gotten up early, like it was the day after Christmas, and headed up to the hay bale. I drove there next and doled out the morning’s alfalfa pellets.
On my way back, I noticed Scaredy’s body had been removed from the straw. It was 9:30. Had Atemax come? No one asked me for the bovine passport. Or did something else remove his body? Patrice had expressed concern that a dog or fox would disturb the carcass if I left it by the side of the road. “But that’s what the online instructions say to do,” I told him. He acknowledged my comment and then reiterated his suggestion to load Scaredy back into the wheelbarrow and keep him inside for the weekend if Atemax didn’t come on Friday. He even offered to help me. I respect Patrice but no way in Hell was I gonna move that body again.
I spent the day clearing and cleaning the concrete building, adding straw to the floor, hay to the feeders, and water to a barrel. I erected a variety of temporary fencing to separate the girls from the boys, then Uno and Goat Boy from the other calves. I lured them away from the herd with alfalfa pellets, which are apparently like crack cocaine for cows.
I left Uno and Goat Boy at the bottom of the field in an alley that leads toward the concrete building. Normal cow behavior is to walk forward while grazing, so I figured they’d make their own way up in an hour or so. But they were both still at the bottom of the field hours later, so Wendy and the kids herded them toward a paddock attached to the concrete building. Eventually they made their own way into the paddock and I was able to close the gate behind them. Now all we had to do was wait for André to come and tell us what we should do.
I checked on the boys again shortly before 5pm. I needed them to be in the building when André arrived so he could sequester them as needed. But they made it easy for me - they had already entered the building and put themselves to bed. I pet each one in turn and told them help was on the way, that we’d know what to do soon.
Five o’clock came and went. Then 5:30. Appointment times are always an estimate. I assume it’s because he never knows for sure how long something is going to take. André never rushes us, so he probably doesn’t rush anyone else either. Plus, he was clearly squeezing us in at the end of the day.
He arrived shortly before 6:00. As he pulled in the driveway I saw he was wearing a mask. So I told him he could drive down to the concrete building if he wanted, then I grabbed a mask from the house and met him down there. I explained my concerns, particularly in light of Scaredy’s death, and told him I hadn’t administered a dewormer.
André examined the calves and took their temperature. “This one has a bit of a fever,” he said, referring to Uno. “They do seem depressed.” I told him Uno’s gut was making a lot of noise (think rumbly tummy), and that I had recently begun giving them alfalfa pellets to help ensure rumen activation. “That’s probably why,” André said. “It’s too much. Stop the pellets for a few days and then you can start again with a little.”
Dammit. I was trying to solve a problem, not create one. “Is hay sufficient to stimulate the rumen?” I asked. Andre confirmed. “Oui, c’est suffit.”
“Do they look thin to you?” I asked.
“No, their weight is normal,” he assured me.
I asked André what he thought the problem might be.
“They might have a parasite but I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s possible they have the flu.” There was no “Yes, they’re definitely sick” or “It’s a good thing you called.” But still, I was glad he had come. It made me feel better.
André gave Uno and Goat Boy a de-worming injection for good measure, along with an antibiotic and anti-inflammatory to help relieve the flu symptoms.
“Take their temperature again in three days and send a note to the office to let me know how they’re doing,” he advised. “Anything above 39.1°C is a fever.” I repeated the number back to him and he repeated it back to me. Got it. Even so, I knew I’d end up Googling “normal temperature for a cow” later anyway.
“If they’re better in 10 days I’ll come back and give them a flu vaccination,” Andre said. “If not, give them 5mL each of this anti-inflammatory subcutaneously.” He drew 10mL of a bright yellow liquid into a syringe. “Half each,” he said, “just squeeze the skin of their shoulder.”
“Can you show me?” I asked him. I wasn’t confident I’d do it right based only on a verbal description.
“Oui,” he answered, then walked over to Goat Boy, used all four of his fingers to pinch the loose skin of Goat Boy’s right shoulder against his thumb, then mimicked the action of inserting the needle down into the pinched skin. “Half the syringe.”
That’s not at all how I would’ve done it. I would’ve tried to slide the needle in an almost-parallel fashion under his skin to administer the shot. I was glad he showed me. And I hoped they would be better so I wouldn’t have to do that to them. I was already a bit concerned about holding them still while inserting a digital thermometer into their butt holes. André made it look easy, but he makes everything look easy.
He saw the binder I had left open on the tailgate of the Traxter and took it as his cue to complete and sign the carnet sanitaire - a log book of all vet visits and medication. Before he left, I inquired about the well-being of his family, particularly in light of the virus. “My daughter is at home with the virus right now,” he said.
“Is she alright?” I asked.
“Yes, she’s asymptomatic so everything’s fine,” he answered. I was extra glad I’d decided to grab my mask from the house when I saw him wearing his.
André pulled away as I closed the binder and the sky darkened. For the first time in three days, I was finally able to relax. I was not a crappy cow keeper. Their rumens had been fine, their forage was fine. My calves were not deathly ill. Even so, everyone now had abundant access to hay and our two potentially-sick calves had received medical attention. No one else should die.
Scaredy’s death is still a mystery. I’ve not heard back from OFB. Maybe he died from the flu and was snacked on by a badger the next morning. But if so, why did the badger start at his throat? Or maybe he was killed by a stray dog or a wolf, but if so, where did the blood go and why didn’t the predator consume its prey?
I suspect I’ll never know for sure. But what I do know, with absolute certainty, is that we have support in this community. Our problem became a shared problem. Despite my inexperience, my commitment to farming in a way that’s different from the norm, and our inability to communicate well, we’re accepted here. We’re not just foreigners anymore. We’re farmers.