Ranch families have great faith — in God, and each other — and a great sense of responsibility to the animals they take care of.

The needs of these animals are often put before their own. This was aptly illustrated by a Christmas Day tragedy on a Utah ranch several years ago, that turned into a miracle when family and neighbors worked together to save more than 20 yearlings that fell through the ice of a pond on Christmas morning.

Jim Keyes, a range and livestock specialist at Utah State University, relayed this story about a ranch family he knew in southeastern Utah and what happened that Christmas morning when two brothers, B.J. and Preston Grover, took what they thought would be a brief interlude from Christmas celebrations with their wives and children to go feed a group of replacement heifers and next year’s 4-H calves.

When the brothers drove down the dirt road to the feed ground, there were no cattle in sight, so they hiked down a ravine to a pond that had frozen over. There they found several yearlings bobbing up and down — after falling through the ice — frantically struggling to keep their heads above water. One of the brothers ran back to the truck to get a lariat and they roped the animals, pulling them close enough to shore to enable them to scramble up the bank and then stagger off into the brush. They found several more yearlings in the water, farther down the ravine, fighting to stay afloat.

At first, the brothers nearly gave up in despair, already tired from their efforts to save the ones they’d first encountered. Then they heard a tractor just over the hill, and ran down to the road to find their uncle grading the road. He was able to drive his tractor up through the brush and trees to a spot where he could help rescue the drowning cattle. These animals were so exhausted that they collapsed on the bank, freezing, after being pulled out of the water.

On down the ravine, 16 more yearlings were discovered in the ice-cold water. One of the brothers had used his cellphone to call for help and by that time, one of their neighbors and another brother had arrived; they all pitched in to keep roping the drowning cattle and pulling them to shore. Finally, the last heifer was retrieved from the icy water but none of these rescued yearlings had moved; they lay on the bank exhausted with ice freezing on their hair.

They would perish without help to get them warm and dry. So the ranchers began the next phase of the rescue, loading the animals one at a time into a stock trailer — using the tractor loader — carefully securing each one to the loader with ropes and chains. Lying on the floor, only six would fit. When the trailer was full, the pickup was driven to a neighbor’s new barn. Justin Ivins had just built a new calving barn with an enclosed area that could be heated. Each load of soaking-wet, freezing yearlings was quickly hauled to the barn and unloaded.

By then, all the cousins, nephews and nieces had come to help out, and as each freezing animal was unloaded, it was surrounded by young people of all ages wielding towels, rags and anything else that could be used for drying the wet cattle. Many hands massaged life back into animals that an hour earlier were on death’s door; friends and family worked through Christmas Day and into the night creating a miracle. More than 20 yearlings had fallen into the icy water and all but one survived, thanks to the ranchers’ dedication and commitment.

The families and their neighbors pulled off the impossible; the replacement heifers recovered and became cows, and the 4-H steers all made it to the county fair the next fall. This is the kind of special bond of care we find in rural families and communities, when common purpose and commitment unites us; when tragedy struck, a modern-day Christmas miracle evolved.

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.