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. 


1 comment:

  1. Wendy,

    This is great! I especially love this: "Cows are really good at being cows - and they have all day to do it in." and the calf, " doughy as an underdone cookie."

    So sweet.