The story of the calf that counted

BY Penny Porter

6th Feb 2024 Life

9 min read

The story of the calf that counted
The story of a calf called Buttercup and her special relationship with a girl named Becky. From the July 1994 edition in the Reader's Digest magazine archives
Our daughter loved numbers. But raising Buttercup taught her what really added up.

Bill and Becky

“Where were you?" Bill hung up his weathered Stetson and fixed his eyes on our 12-year-old daughter. Becky, deep in her algebra homework at the kitchen table, didn't look up. "I couldn't come out and help, Daddy," she said. "I get extra marks if I do these equations."
Her father ruffled her honey-blonde hair. "Well, we could have used an extra hand on the gate of the cattle pen. Then those cows wouldn't have broken through the fence."
His tone was gentle, but I knew he was concerned about Becky. She was too much like he used to be. Bill had been a maths whiz himself, earning an engineering degree and planning a lucrative career. But his time as a POW during the Second World War changed his thinking.
Back home, he chose to be an Arizona rancher. He could spend more time doing what he now considered important—drawing closer to his family and the land. In particular, Bill enjoyed animals and wanted his children to share that experience. Two of our older children, Bud and Scott, exhibited heifers at county fairs. Our youngest, Jaymee, could hardly wait to do the same.
A man scratches the nose of a bull in a pen
But Becky loved numbers. Bill, however, refused to give up. "Wouldn't you like to show your very own yearling heifer next year?", he asked Becky one day. "You could win a blue ribbon!"
"I'm too busy, Daddy. I've got tests coming up. And I help other children in maths", Becky said. "Come on, sweetheart. I'll give you the calf out of my best cow", Bill told her. "When it's ready to show, you can sell it and keep the money for university."
Reluctantly Becky followed Bill into his office. He sifted through pedigree notebooks that listed dozens of names, each identified with eight-digit numbers. "Here she is! Tag 333. Look at the bloodlines! Her baby will be a great calf!"
Becky looked, and a smile brightened her face. I understood; it was all those numbers beneath Tag 333's name and under the ancestors. "OK. I'll give it a try".

Preparing for a calf

In the following weeks, she started a journal of projected expenses—vaccinations, registration fees, vet bills, grain and hay." She's finally getting interested in cattle," Bill told me happily. I wasn't so sure. For Becky, the calf seemed more like a mathematical challenge than a living animal that would require care and love.
"For Becky, the calf seemed more like a mathematical challenge than a living animal that needed care"
Something else gnawed at me. Unlike most Herefords, Tag 333 was a crazy thing with wild eyes, flaring nostrils and horns like grappling hooks. She had a habit of soaring over fences into our neighbours' pastures then bolting off into the distance. "Aren't you worried that cow might reject her baby?" I asked Bill. “Her mother had six calves and no problems”, he replied. "It's all in the genes."
One February night, as we climbed into bed, Bill said, "Tag 333's due to calve any time now." "Well, let's hope she doesn't have it tonight," I replied. "It's supposed to get really cold."

Saving Buttercup

In the morning, Bill called, "Come and see this! I'll bet it's well below freezing out there." Winter had transformed our pastures into a wonderland. Icicles clung like festive lights along the irrigation pipes. Cattle huddled in bunches, steam rising from their broad backs. Calves shivered at their mothers' sides. Calves! My heart leapt.
"What about Tag 333?" I asked Bill. He frowned. "We can't find her. Scott's checking the other pastures." I lit the wood stove and woke Becky and Jaymee for school. They were eating breakfast when 22-year-old Scott burst in. "Can't locate that cow, Dad. But I saw her calf about two miles down. It's in bad shape. You'd better bring the pick-up."
Piling into the vehicle, we drove to where the newborn lay glazed in ice. Her eyelids were sealed by glittering frost. Scott began knocking away the icicles imprisoning the rigid body. "It's a little heifer," he murmured. "Is she dead?" Becky asked. Scott pressed his fingers against the calf's chest. "No heartbeat, Dad." "Let's get her to the barn—fast!"
A snowy field during sunrise, with bare trees covered in snow
Bill and Scott gripped her legs and prised the calf from the earth, swinging her into the pick-up. She struck the metal base like a slab of granite. "She's frozen solid!" gasped Scott, jumping in beside the calf.
To get her circulation going, he began rubbing her with a sack. "Oh no!" Becky cried. Ahead she saw brown and white chunks of fur where the calf had been. "We left pieces of her ears behind!" she wailed.
In the straw-filled stall, the calf lay still. Bill thumped and squeezed the calf as Scott searched for a vein to insert an intravenous drip. Becky watched. "What can I do, Daddy?" "Get some blankets to warm her." Scott gave a great shout: "We've got a heartbeat!"
I hurried to the house for colostrum—"first milk" that we keep for emergencies. A few drops in the calf's mouth and the tiny jaws moved slightly. Soon the tug on the bottle told me she was suckling. "You'll be all right," Becky whispered as she stroked the calf's cold face. But Bill, Scott and I knew the dangers, even if the calf survived: pneumonia, kidney damage, arthritis.

Becky names Buttercup

"Becky, if she doesn't make it," Bill said, "I'll help you pick another calf." "I don't want another one, Daddy. Besides, I've already named her—Buttercup." The unexpected emotion in Becky's voice startled us.
The calf was asleep. Scott hung the drip from a rafter. "Can I stay with her?" Becky asked. "She might wriggle out from the covers." When I checked later, Becky and Buttercup were both under the blankets.
After lunch, Scott removed the drip. The calf was shivering violently now, and Becky gave her a bottle. At the 4pm feed, the calf's eyes were bright with anticipation. "Look!" Becky said. "She knows me!"
"When I checked, Becky and Buttercup were both asleep under the blankets"
Eager to feed, the little creature struggled to stand, but her legs were still tucked beneath her. All she could do was flop around. Then she'd look at Becky and bawl.
The next morning, I found the calf buttoned into one of Bill's old sweaters—by Becky, I quickly realised. "How did you get her legs through those sleeves?" I asked. "She let me straighten them, and after a while they'll stay straight, Mama. I know they will."
But straw and blankets were tossed everywhere—evidence of the calf's all-night battle to stand. “Please”, I prayed, “don't let my daughter get too attached”.

Buttercup learns to walk

We were leaving for the school bus when Bill spoke softly to Scott. "We'll take care of that calf." Becky knew what that meant. But as I drove her to the bus stop, she said, "Daddy will think of something."
When I got home, Bill and Scott were heading towards the barn. I turned up the radio to drown out the crack of the rifle. After an hour I went to check. "Steady, girl," I heard Bill say. I looked into the stall. The calf's legs were wrapped in cotton batting and splints made from plastic pipe. Buttercup was standing!
By the end of the day, Buttercup was walking. After school, Becky put a halter on her, and they toured the farmyard. Two weeks later, Scott removed the splints. Although her knees still trembled and swelled, Buttercup continued to walk.
"Buttercup's legs were wrapped in cotton and splints made from plastic pipe: she was standing!"
But now her fight against respiratory illnesses began. Over the next three months, Becky's columns of medical expenses lengthened. Bill looked at her journal and groaned. But I knew he was pleased Becky seemed to care. “Does she really?”, I wondered.
Now and then, I began thinking so—until summer arrived, along with the chance to sleep late. But Becky had to care for Buttercup. "Why does she have to be fed at 6am, Mama?" she pleaded. "What's wrong with 8am? It's the holidays!"
There was no question at all about Buttercup's feelings towards Becky. While Bill and Scott struggled to halter-break young bulls and heifers, Buttercup now happily followed Becky around the ranch.

Buttercup grows

Autumn and winter slid into spring. At 13 months, Buttercup weighed close to 36st. She had huge brown eyes, four white socks and a coat that shone like mahogany. Tiny horns now jutted above her ragged ears, but she didn't show any of her mother's unwanted traits.
A Hereford calf with an identification tag in its ear stands next to an older cow
Becky was determined to win the blue ribbon at the county fair in September. "A show calf has to be perfect," Bill warned. But he hung the identification tag on the worst of Buttercup's ears, hoping to disguise the damage. Becky began brushing the ears. "Hair will cover the notches," she said. "She'll be almost perfect."

Pinkeye in July

July brought deadly heat, a profusion of flies and "pinkeye"—a blinding scourge of cattle. One morning, six weeks before the fair, Becky found Buttercup's face stained with tears. A closer look revealed the swollen lids and white, unseeing eyes of the disease. Even with antibiotics, recovery could take up to two months.
"Daddy," Becky pleaded, "can, you make her well in time?" "We'll have to try." Together, Bill and Becky prepared the medicine, and Bill glued black patches over the heifer's eyes to protect them from glare, flies and dirt.
"The brown's come back in her eyes! She can see!"
A week before the show, the patches were removed. We held our breath as Becky crouched in front of Buttercup. "The brown's come back in her eyes," she cried. "She can see!"

County fair day

Flags, musicians, shouting children and bawling cattle added to the excitement at the county fair. Judging day for cattle was Saturday. Buttercup was groomed and ready. So was Becky.
A Hereford cow grazes on some grass
At 3pm she and the other contestants were waiting in line to show their heifers. Horns were polished, hoofs varnished. Tails were teased and sprayed. "She looks great, honey," Bill said. "Now, don't forget—buyers are in the crowd. If she wins, you'll get an offer, and she'll be gone"—he snapped his fingers—"just like that."
Bill was surprised Becky didn't show more excitement. Wasn't this the big moment she'd been working for? The gate opened, and Buttercup's competition entered the ring: five magnificent, big-boned, long-legged heifers. "They make Buttercup look so small", I whispered to Bill.
"For three minutes, Becky recited the names and numbers she'd memorised"
The judge, a rangy Texan, began checking each heifer carefully, then questioned its young owner. Most children talked about feeding schedules and weight gain. Becky's turn came last.
"Tell me about your heifer, young lady," he said. "This is Buttercup," Becky began, "and she's got the best pedigree in Arizona. She's by our KC Battle Prince 74 bull who was by W Battle Prince 10-12960305, who was by Domino Prince M194-11116795 . . . "
The judge tipped his hat to the back of his head and smiled. For three minutes, Becky recited the names and dozens of numbers she had so eagerly memorised. When she finished, the judge reached for the microphone.
"Six fine heifers, ladies and gentlemen. But my choice for first place is this one." He pointed to Buttercup. "She'll be a strong addition to anyone's herd."

Buttercup's potential buyer

Becky had won her blue ribbon. By the time Bill and I pushed our way through the crowd, a buyer was already running his hand over Buttercup's hips. "Your dad around, miss?" "Right here," Bill said. "Glad you like the heifer, but my daughter's the one who can tell you about her."
As Becky looked at the buyer, tears welled. "She was the best calf we ever had," she began. "But her knees swell up." Her lips trembled now. "She was frozen when she was born so she gets ill easily. She needs somebody to love her all the time."
"Well, now," the buyer said, winking at Bill and me. "How about I look at some of your other heifers?" Bill gave a knowing smile. "Fine."
On the way home, Bill said, "Becky, let's turn Buttercup out to pasture rather than selling her. With the bloodlines she's got, she'll have a terrific calf, don't you think?" Becky nodded and hugged her dad.

Becky goes to university

Four years later, Becky was ready for university. Before she left, we crossed the field to admire Buttercup's third calf. "Best calf of the year," Bill said. Becky grinned. "Daddy, you always did say, 'It's all in the genes.'"
I looked at my husband and then at our daughter. She was still the maths genius, but now she was also a lover of animals and nature. It is in the genes, I thought. They are so alike.
A Hereford cow with identification tags lies in a field and looks at the camera
"Hi, Butter," Becky murmured, as we reached the herd. The cow, with her calf at her side, ambled up and lowered her head to be scratched. "She never forgets me, does she?"
I smiled. I knew Becky would never forget her either, and one day she'd understand that Buttercup had helped her see what's truly important in life. Through Buttercup, my daughter had learned about the feelings that make us who we are—even if they don't always add up like a nice column of numbers.
This article is part of our archival collection and was originally published in July 1994. While we strive to present historical content accurately, please note that circumstances and information may have changed since the article's original publication. Some individuals mentioned in the article may no longer be alive, and events or details may have evolved. We encourage readers to consider the context of the original publication and to verify any current information independently.
Read more from the archives: From darkness to light: The ultimate forgiveness 
Read more from the archives: How a man survived 12 hours overboard
Banner photo: The story of Buttercup, the Hereford calf that counted (credit: Allison M. (Unsplash))
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