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165 Cows, 1 Deer

A Washington farmer has an unusual addition to her cattle herd.

It was an ordinary November day when Kari McKay went to check the cows on her farm in eastern Washington. What she found when she got to the pasture was anything but ordinary.

She had just weaned calves a few days before but noticed a small animal in with the cattle. It wasn’t a calf that had snuck back in with its mama. It was a young deer, and he was getting a lot of attention and licks on the nose from one cow, in particular. “I think someone might be missing her baby, and someone else lost his mama,” McKay wrote on Facebook on November 11, 2016. “We could probably all learn something from these two right about now.”

She thought the deer’s appearance in her pasture was just a fluke, but when he was still around a week later, she decided to give him a name: Li’l Johnny Deere. “I got pretty close to him today, until he got a sniff of me and went out with the cows,” she wrote on November 15. “He looks like he’s maybe a yearling and must have just gotten weaned from his mama.” McKay started bringing her camera along to capture this story as it unfolded.

Browse a slideshow of photos of Li'l Johnny Deere!

A cold snap hit after that, and Johnny continued to find refuge with the cows. “It has been cold and windy the past couple of days here, but he’s pretty content with his herd and runs right to them if he feels threatened in any way,” McKay wrote on November 18.

On November 22, Johnny met McKay’s dogs. They usually stay in the truck while she checks cows, but when they saw the deer, they both took off after him. One came back when he was called, but the other chased after Johnny. After she got her dog back, McKay went to water the cattle and figured the deer was scared away for good. “As I was putting water in the trough, all of the cows were migrating towards me,” she wrote. “I looked back behind them and here came Li’l Johnny Deere on the run right back to his cows. There is no way he’s going to stay out in that field all alone without his cows.”

Winter Comes to Washington

December brought with it snow and cold, and a sign that the cows were enjoying Johnny’s company as much as he was enjoying theirs. When McKay went to check the cows on December 2, they all came running and bucking in excitement toward her pickup, thinking that snow on the ground meant they would get some extra feed. “I wondered if Li’l Johnny, who is usually hanging out just on the outside of the electric fence from the cows, would notice that they had all left him,” she wrote. “I looked off into the distance and saw one cow straggling back, and there was Li’l Johnny Deere running right with her. It was pretty cute!”

An Arctic front rolled through eastern Washington, bringing more snow and single-digit temperatures. Johnny stayed with his cows, but McKay thought their time together was nearly at an end. “Tomorrow is the day to bring cows off the hay circle and home for the winter,” she wrote on December 9. “I will be curious to see if Li’l Johnny makes the 4-mile trek down the road with his cows or not. I can’t imagine him staying out in that field by himself all winter with nothing for shelter and no other deer to pal around with. Let’s cross our fingers and pray that he follows them home to their winter pasture; otherwise, it might be an awfully lonely winter without his girls.”

Cattle-moving day came, and McKay said Johnny’s situation was questionable at first. “He wasn’t quite sure that he wanted to leave the pasture that he was comfortable being in, but after he realized that the cows weren’t coming back, he decided to run and catch up with them and tag along.”

By this time, Li’l Johnny Deere was becoming quite the Internet sensation, with his posts garnering nearly 5,000 Facebook likes. “I've never experienced anything like this before in my 47 years,” McKay wrote on December 11. “Most of the deer in our area head for the breaks of the river this time of year before the heavy winter months come. Li’l Johnny has obviously lost his deer friends, but has made his home in the comfort of my cows. He made it to the winter pasture ground bucking and playing part of the way, where there is plenty to eat and drink and lots of shelter to get himself out of the blustery cold of winter. He loves these cows and feels safe with them. He’s a wild animal and is free to leave and go live his life at any time, but I’m hoping he’s here to stay for the winter.”

Some of the people following Johnny’s story on Facebook wondered if he posed a disease risk to the cattle. “I have contacted a few veterinarians to ask if this would be an issue,” McKay says. “WSU and others said there have been no known cases of diseases spreading from deer to cows in the state of Washington, and that I shouldn’t need to worry.”

Sharing Her Story

After graduating from high school in a class of seven kids, McKay went to community college and eventually Eastern Washington University. She became an elite marathon runner and ran in the 2000 and 2004 Olympic trials. “I had a scholarship for running in college, so I used some of the money that was set aside for me to go to college to buy some cows to help support my running habit,” she says. “My father was very supportive, and I would go back to the farm to help when needed. When he decided to retire from farming in 2004 and after I had run my last race, I felt like I hade lived my dream for a while and felt it was only fair to him to move back to the farm. I’m a single woman and am not really interested in the wheat part of farming, so we turned that part over to my brother-in-law. I kept my cows and bought out my father’s cows.”

McKay enjoys telling her story through photography and social media. “It is so rural here that I started taking pictures just for something to do and posted them on Facebook,” she says. “Eventually, people started asking me if I could take their family pictures and senior pictures, so photography has become a second gig for me. It doesn't pay much, but it's fun. For the most part, I think people enjoy my pictures and my posts. I try to share my life on Facebook because I don't think most people understand what really goes into farming and ranching. I hope to teach others that our food doesn't just come from the grocery store.”

Many people have encouraged McKay to write a children’s book about Johnny. “I will write a book eventually and will use my own pictures, but I can’t write a book when the story has only just started,” she says. “The best part of the story is yet to come in February if he chooses to stick around, when the calves start hitting the ground. I’m as excited as everyone else is to see how this whole story pans out.” Meanwhile, his story will continue to be told on the Facebook page McKay created for Li'l Johnny. 

“I didn't realize this little guy would become such an inspiration to so many,” McKay says. “This little button buck came along during a time when the world seemed so negative. Having something positive to look forward to everyday not only made my day, but also made most of yours!”

No matter what happens with Johnny, McKay and the thousands of people following her story on Facebook have been touched by his relationship with the cows. “Animals can be different from one another but accepted and loved just the same,” she says. “Just like the rest of us who are looking for a safe place to land in life, Li’l Johnny has found his place for now: with a herd of cows.”

See more of McKay's photos of the deer with the cows here: Meet Li'l Johnny Deere.

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