When we in the Ag staff are lucky, every now and again we get the chance to welcome a new baby into the world here at Conner Prairie. I am awed by the experience every time. I can’t help it! It’s fascinating! We get to hear those sounds that a new mother makes when talking to her baby for the first time. We get to see those first bounces that babies take as they become accustomed to their new legs. But an animal in labor is not all sunshine and rainbows. It’s kind of an untidy business, which doesn’t bother me, but I have to remind myself that as many times as I get to witness a birth, it’s something our guests almost never get to see, so they’re not exactly used to it. And so I offer it up as a disclaimer, watching an animal give birth is very messy. There. You’ve been warned.
Due to the nature of having babies, it’s not something you can plan to happen while we’re open to the public so folks can witness it. Every now and again, our guests get lucky and walk into Animal Encounters
at just the right time and get to see a lamb take its first breath or first wobbly steps to nurse from its mother. Mostly what will happen though is that our animals decide they are going to wait until we’ve closed to the public for the day. If we see that this might be the case, we continually check up on the expectant mothers as often as we can and make ourselves available to assist should anything go wrong in the birthing process. Though nature has made our animals perfectly capable of birthing without assistance, we love them so much we just like to make sure. So, a couple weeks ago, after all our guests had gone and Conner Prairie was calm and quiet, our English Longhorn heifer (a heifer being an immature female - she becomes a cow after she has her first calf), Mary, crossed into “cowhood” and became a mother.
Now, I can hear you asking your computer screen, “What’s so special about this? She didn’t even give birth so people could watch her. Where’s the pomp? Where’s the circumstance?!” Keep reading. I’ll explain, but first I need to give you a little background.
Here at Conner Prairie we have seven rare breeds of animals on the property. We pride ourselves in doing our part, not only at keeping these particular breeds in the public consciousness, but also as a living history site, at staying true to what was popular and common for our ancestors. If you were to look up these seven rare breeds from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
(ALBC), you would only be able to find six of them. The English Longhorn will not be there. The ALBC requires at least 20 breeding females in order to be considered a viable breed. In the whole United States there are only 15 females and Conner Prairie is the only place you can go to see the breed on display (the rest are on a private farm). That brings us back to Mary. On July 10, she gave birth to her first calf. It was a girl! And as we had begun naming the Longhorn heifers for English Queens, we thought giving her the name Elizabeth, or “Bess” for short, seemed appropriate.
Now, that in and of itself is pretty amazing, isn’t it? We’ve increased the numbers on a breed so rare that it’s not even on the rare breeds list AND it’s a girl! Exciting stuff right?! But wait! There’s more!
When folks started trying to bring back the English Longhorn in the mid 1990s, there were only two cows and they happen to be full sisters. With the options for breeding being so few, all the Longhorns that are in the United States today have descended from these two females and as a result are quite inbred. Not exactly the right foundation on which to rebuild a breed, eh? This is what makes Elizabeth extra special. We, the Ag staff, were able to import semen from England, where the breed is more established, to artificially inseminate Mary. This makes Bess the first outcross in the country! So, if you’re keeping score at home, Elizabeth’s birth has increased the numbers on a breed so rare they’re not even on the rare breeds list, she’s a heifer which means there’s one more future breeding female in the country, and she comes from a new set of genetics which means she’s the only English Longhorn in the country that’s not fully related to any of the others! She sure has accomplished a lot for only being a few weeks old.
As you can imagine, all of us are pretty excited to welcome Bess into the world and her life at Conner Prairie. Be sure to come on out to 1836 Prairietown to congratulate Mary on a job well done, I think she would appreciate it. And come take a peek at our latest addition, a true living and breathing piece of history.