Most of the Angus beef El Dorado Hills firefighters encounter is on a plate. But on New Year’s Eve Battalion Chief John Niehues’ crew encountered some on the hoof, delivering a healthy bull-calf in a pasture off Bass Lake Road.
The crew was headed to Station 86 for a training drill when an EID employee reported a smallish black Angus heifer lying in a pasture off Hollow Oak Drive, in labor, seemingly struggling. Her calf’s two front hooves protruded out her backside, but the birthing appeared to have stopped there.
Niehues grew up in a cattle ranching family and has witnessed the birthing processes many times, he said, but admits that not until the last day of 2010 had he ever been the one calling the shots.
“My first reaction was that this is probably just some flatlander that doesn’t know about the bovine birthing process,” he said.
The crew nonetheless responded and found a lone cow in a pasture off Hollow Oaks Drive in the process of becoming a mother.
They contacted Margie Yowell, who owns the pasture, and confirmed the situation. The cow is owned by Yowell’s daughter and son-in-law, Karen and Stephen Marsh, who live in the adjacent property. Both were at work. Stephen is a San Jose firefighter. Karen works in Sacramento, and was on her way home. The veterinarian was unavailable due to the holiday.
The family had no idea the heifer was pregnant. A young bull had previously shared the pasture before getting mean and making the one-way trip from pasture to freezer roughly nine months ago.
The heifer was a first time mom, but seemed stable. Niehues knew from his days on the ranch that first time cattle births often require assistance.
The day had already contained an unusual mix of animal calls. Two dog-bitten residents drove up while the crew was trying to initiate their training. Paramedics treated the injuries and released them. The crew next had a loose horse on Bass Lake Road. During the roundup they got the heifer report.
The crew consulted with Yowell, a former horse breeder with some experience in these matters, and decided to give nature a little more time to take its course.
They retreated to Station 86 on Bass Lake Road to prepare for their training, but before they could get started, Yowell called them back. Her daughter had arrived but the heifer wasn’t making any progress, and she didn’t think the two of them could handle the birth.
The crew, including Capt. Jon Zellhoffer, firefighter Mike Lovinger and firefighter James Sommercamp returned. Niehues called his brother, an experienced dairyman, who encouraged them to extract the calf.
Lovinger donned sanitary gloves and a “Personal Protective Equipment” (PPE) Gown normally reserved for human subjects. Let the extraction begin.
The calf, however, wasn’t quite ready. The product of a big bull and a small heifer, he was clearly stuck. His slippery front hooves offered no grip for the gloved firefighter/veterinary obstetrician. A webbed hose strap was deployed, but slipped off the hooves repeatedly.
Undeterred, they attached an emergency rope to the hooves with a lark’s foot knot normally used to hoist tools onto rooftops. Niehues and Lovenger pulled with all their might, timing their efforts to the heifer’s contractions, monitored by Sommercamp.
“It was a hard pull,” said Niehues. “She wouldn’t have been able to do it herself.”
That’s how the first ever El Dorado Hills Fire Department calf entered the world. He appeared healthy, if exhausted, and soon lifted his head and began discovering the world. Mom began cleaning her firstborn while Lovenger wondered if he had to fill out a Patient Care Report.
Ranch families rarely name their cattle, not wanting to get too close to something that will eventually end up on a dinner plate. But the Marshs made an exception this time. The family considered naming the baby bull Niehues, but thought the recognition might be awkward when it came time for the bull to become a steer.
With that thought in mind they simply named him “Chief.”
Margie Yowell, an active senior who sits on the El Dorado Hills Senior Council, gushed with gratitude on Monday. “These guys were right there for us. They were very good Samaritans.”
Stephen Marsh, who tried to coach his wife through the process over the phone before the fire crew arrived the second time, returned home on Sunday and got the full story. He also had one of his own to tell.
During the course of several calls on Friday, some of Marsh’s fellow firefighters got the mistaken idea that it was his wife, not his cow that was giving birth.
“I’m saying things like ‘I can’t believe that cow’s pregnant,’ and ‘Why do you keep calling me, just let nature take its course,’ ‘Don’t just go in there and pull it out’ and stuff like that,” providing firehouse humor for Station 29 in San Jose for years to come.
Village Life arranged a meeting between a grateful Stephen Marsh, Niehues and little “Chief” on Monday. At three-days-old the calf was already taller than 2 feet, bouncing around, energetically pestering his mother.
Marsh was surprised the El Dorado Hills Fire Department was willing to help out in something so far afield from their primary responsibilities. “It just shows how much a fire department can do for the community,” he said.
Niehues replied “You’ve be surprised all the stuff we do in El Dorado Hills.”
What will become of young Chief? Like his father he was originally destined for the freezer, but with the media attention, “We may just keep him around as a pet,” said Marsh.