Cattle can get into all kinds of trouble without even trying. Many years ago we had a cow named Star Bright (daughter of Starlight, who was a daughter of Starface — all of our cows are named!) who got her foot caught in a neighbor’s homemade cattle guard.

He had some welded-together iron rails set on the ground at the entrance to his driveway, in lieu of a gate that he’d have to open and close when cattle were on the range pasture that included the country road. Cattle often tried to go across his cattle guard, enticed by green pasture on the other side. Several walked across it, but Star Bright got her hind foot caught. In her struggles to get loose, she ripped the shell off one toe, breaking and dislocating the bone, leaving a bloody stub.

We found her hobbling along the road, and brought her and her calf slowly home to our corral. In the squeeze chute, we washed up the dirty stub, applied antibiotic ointment and bandaged the foot to keep it clean. We put Star Bright and her calf in our back yard (clean and grassy), so she wouldn’t get the bandage dirty. We took her back to the squeeze chute and changed the bandage every few days for several weeks, and the bone healed. She grew new hoof horn on the toe.

A couple years later a calf named Lucy got a toe caught in our calf tilt-table when we were branding and vaccinating calves that spring. When we let her out of it after branding, her toe got caught, slicing off the horn shell on that side. We put her and her mama in my horse pasture for a few weeks instead of putting them out on the range with the rest of the herd, and we didn’t have to bandage the foot. It grew a new horn shell.

The most recent foot disaster — and one we are still dealing with — happened in mid-June this year when our yearling heifers were grazing our empty stack-yard for a week, to eat down the tall grass before we stacked our new crop of hay in there.

There’s old machinery parked along one fence, and other odds and ends; this has been a place to store many things out of the way. Our heifers have safely grazed that area before, but this time one of them got into trouble.

One morning when I hiked over there to check on them, Lida Rose was up at the top end by herself, lying down. When I went toward her, she got up, but didn’t want to put any weight on her right front foot. I assumed she had foot rot. She’d been fine the day before, but the pain and inflammation of foot rot can appear quickly.

When our daughter Andrea came down to our place after morning irrigating, I got the heifers into the corral next to the stack-yard, and we prepared to sort off Lida Rose and put her down the chute to give antibiotic injections. At that point, we got a closer look at her foot and realized it wasn’t foot rot. She had torn off most of the inside claw of the foot. It was a bloody stump with the tip of the bone showing. She probably caught that foot in some of the old machinery parked in the stack-yard, and cut or tore off that toe.

She may have run through something in the dark; Andrea’s dogs at her house were barking ferociously during the night, like they do when a predator comes around. If a wolf or cougar went through the stack-yard, the heifers may have spooked and run blindly through some of the obstacles they would have avoided during daylight, but we’ll never know what actually happened that night.

After seeing the extent of injury, realizing the risk for bone infection, and how long it would take to regrow new hoof horn, we probably should have butchered her instead of trying to treat the injury, but we didn’t even think about that. We are always focused on treating and saving every animal that has a problem, so we went ahead and put her down the chute to doctor the foot. The next installment will tell how we treated and bandaged that foot all summer to enable her to grow a new toe.

This is the first installment of a two-part series.

Heather Smith Thomas and her husband raise beef cattle and horses on a ranch in the mountains near Salmon. To contact her or order her books — which include “Horse Tales,” “Cow Tales” and “Ranch Tales” — call 208-756-2841 or email hsmiththomas@centurytel.net.