• John Hogeland

Design Flaws, Even in Nature

It happened on Tuesday morning while I prepared to roll out a couple of bales for my herd of cows. The tractor suddenly died, just quit with no warning. I tried to start it and while the engine would turn over, it just wouldn't catch. I didn't know that this would be just the beginning.


I went over all of the things that I could think of, checking if there was fuel, checking that the fuel was getting to the filter, checking the solenoid -- all was fine as far as I could tell. I called the implement dealership and talked to a mechanic there, getting desperate...I can't afford another $700 bill to fix the tractor. The mechanic and I first went over what model tractor it was and what I had already done. He thought for a minute, "Did you check the wiring connection to the injector pump? Sometimes that model of tractor gives problems at the injector pump. Give it a wiggle." I wiggled the wire, got in the tractor and turned the key - it started immediately. I've got this, I thought. I fixed this myself.


At that point, I believe I hung up rather suddenly. I don't think I thanked the mechanic, not my usual modus operandi, but something else had grabbed my attention.


All of the cows and calves had crowded around the tractor while I was working on it, hoping to snag some hay. All the cows but one. One that lay on the hillside, feet splayed in the air, back pointed downhill, bloated and very obviously dead. It took me a minute to take in the situation. What could have happened? I take good care of my cows. All of them look great: thick coats, strong clean limbs, well-fed barrel bodies, and clear eyes. Cows like that don't just lay down and die. I couldn't get my mind around it.


To give myself a moment, I unrolled the new bales for the cows and then shut off the tractor. I walked over to the dead cow - her year old calf next to her, back to back. He looked as confused as I was. As I studied her, I realized what had happened, something that my dad had told me about once, something that happens to cattle in rare circumstances.


Cows, by their nature, have a design flaw, one that they usually are careful to avoid. The problem is that, if they lay down on a slope with their backs downhill and their legs uphill, they have a hard time getting up. Their bodies weigh too much for them to lever themselves uphill onto their feet. To add to this issue, if the cow rolls too far onto their back, their rumen becomes blocked so that they can't burp to release gas pressure. That pressure builds up inside and pushes against their diaphragm, making it impossible for them to breathe. They suffocate.


For whatever reason, this cow, number 1912 -- one of my best cows -- laid down on the ground with her feet uphill, a fatal mistake. The ground was slick and wet, she couldn't get up and then she never did.

1912, center frame behind the bull, in better days.

I had congratulated myself when the tractor started up, design flaw overcome, disaster averted, or so I thought.


What you learn as a farmer, at least when raising animals, is that there are always disasters like this. It's life. The hardest part though is that, had I been there at the right time, a simple push from me would have saved that cow, just like wiggling that wire fixed the tractor.


But you can't always be there, you can't see every danger, anticipate every birth, occupy every space. Sometimes you just don't 'got this.' Sometimes there is just nothing that could have been done. All we can do is realize that life goes on after tragedy, even though that tragedy makes us feel terrible.


I saw 1912's calf today when I took the hay out. He ambled past me with a couple of his buddies on the way to the fresh hay, already moving on.

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