Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Business of March

We’ve had rain and snow and wind. The feed truck got stuck three days in a row.

We love the moisture, but know that too much wet on baby calves makes them susceptible to disease. Mark has our hay tested and provides supplementation to ensure a healthy diet for the cows, the first order for strong calves. We put out straw to give them a dry place to lay and provide sandhills and windbreaks for protection. Still, in the middle of the night when the wind howls and we hear the smattering of drops against the house, we worry.

Today there’s a brisk wind, but the rain has held off all morning and the sand is drying out. It’s challenging to raise crops in sand but our farm is wonderful this time of year for cattle.

It was calm last evening. I walked into the yard and told Anna I was going to sit on the porch and listen to the robins go to bed. She grabbed a big quilt and joined me. Within ten minutes the red-breasted party quieted down until the last robin gave one last chirp . . .  and then silence. A couple of owls, perched in the willows, their silhouettes against what was left of the day, hooted their ghostly goodnight.

It is familiar - this wet, windy, sloppy March. The killdeers are flirting; well, doing more than flirting I suppose. There’s a green pop in the meadow. No serious growing yet, just a “heads up” awakening.

Every year in March the water meetings commence. I keep books for a couple of canals and each year we meet to discuss the upcoming irrigation season. What condition is the ditch in? How much excavation work should we budget for? Who’s paid up and who’s behind? Snowpack levels are discussed and board members elected. Large farmers and backyard irrigators rub shoulders and hope for full ditches.  

We’ve had a string of fetal mal-presentations in the cow herd. The most unusual is the “backwards, standing up” position. The calf attempts to come out butt first, pretty much impossible without assistance. One spring a few years ago, we had several and Mark got very good at spotting them. So good in fact that when driving to town one day, he spied a cow in a pasture along the road and knew she was in peril from just such a birth complication. He crossed the fence, walked her behind a gate, pushed the calf back inside far enough to get hold of the legs and pulled it out. He was too late to save the calf but the cow survived. He said about the cow’s owner, “I don’t think he ever knew who stopped and pulled that calf!”

I’m sure when Mark closes his eyes at night he sees pregnant cows in varying stages of labor and calves, calves, calves.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

But Can He Suckle a Calf?

I can’t think of a better measure of a man than how he acts in the barn.

It’s delicate business, this handling of animals in close quarters. It’s stressful for cattle to be indoors; we speak in hushed tones and move slowly and methodically to keep them as calm as possible.  

Cows are really good at being cows - and they have all day to do it in. Have a million chores to do? Tired and hungry and ready for supper? Never mind . . . this may take a while. And the harder you try to hurry, the less likely your chances of success.

The biggest test of patience and resolve is suckling calves. Once in a while a baby needs assistance. Their strong urge to stand and suck is actually quite fragile if compromised for some reason. A few days ago a calf was born prematurely, as doughy as an underdone cookie. His skin sagged around his neck and his toes were soft and spongy. He could suck good, but needed a couple of days on the bottle before he tried his mom’s udder. 

Calves are wobbly. Holding them in the proper position to access the udder as they attempt to fall sideways or rear back, whilst also guiding the mouth to the teat can be exhausting. Sometimes the instinct to suck needs to be stimulated by squeezing a few squirts of milk into their mouth. One's patience is tested as you're bent over, crouched, contorted.  I had a stiff neck for days after a recent session.

You’re lucky if the cow stands obediently in the head catch. Usually she steps ahead and back, up and back, switching her tail and straining against the stanchion. Sometimes the mother kicks and a leg needs to be tied up. 

But, oh, that glorious sound of a calf taking hold of the teat, the methodical thurp-thurp (or however you would spell that), the tail wagging in pleasure. And as the calf figures it out, he presses his muzzle up, searching, then stands squarely on all four feet, moving from teat to teat until all four quarters are emptied.

It’s good, this ancient mammalian ritual, when life outside the womb means the suckling of young. Whether human, wild animal or domesticated livestock, it is nature at her purest, her sweetest.