Delicate but Laborious Matters
The weather this year has been mild so far to say the least. Last night thunderstorms and hail moved through and tornadoes an hour or so northwest of us. It’s March 1st and I’m not sure what “normal” is anymore. The old farmers tell me the weather acts different than it did when they were growing up, but we’ve gotten use to the unpredictability I think.
All of this nice weather has brought sunshine and the perfect conditions for working with the cattle. The oldest daughter has been preparing her heifer, Dolly, for the spring shows – leading her by the halter, washing/conditioning/drying her hair, and trying to come to some understanding about who is in charge. She’s feisty so it’s been a bit of a challenge and there have been some bruised egos. Our very tame mama cow, meanwhile, was ready to calve mid February and ushered in an exciting milestone.
The fact that we weren’t facing sub-zero temps was a definite advantage – for us and the animals alike. Being our first delivery here on our little farm, after I put the youngest to bed I headed out to the barn and joined the girls and their dad to keep tabs on how things were going. It had been a few hours since she started pushing and we could see the hooves but nothing else, so eventually the old farmer I was in touch with (my dad), suggested we help her along. A decent length of baling twine was procured. Brad tied it around the feet and when she pushed he pulled.
It’s a delicate but laborious matter, trying to let nature take its course but inserting yourself to avoid calamity. The twine didn’t want to stay on and the question of how involved one should get hung in the air. When we saw a nose, the head looked big and Brad worried more. Sophie, the one whose passion for cows got us here, stood close by enthusiastic but brutally aware of all that could go wrong. After a few more of these deliveries, she could be the one helping in the pen. Her dad would gladly hand over the responsibility and her natural ability and love for the animals has already proven her potential to become a skillful herdsman.
Eventually the stars aligned and the pulling and the pushing converged to deliver a healthy, curly haired mess of a calf about the perfect size. As we carefully studied him lying there surrounded by the birth fluids, a conflation of all things disgusting and miraculous, the 9-year-old exclaimed that “everyone says birth is beautiful but it is really gross!” Indeed it is somehow so many things at once.
The calf’s breathing became stronger and life seemed to emerge. We watched at his mama’s instincts set in and she began snorting dramatically over his head, rubbing her own head on his neck and body, and licking him clean. First things first, she was inhaling his scent so she would know her baby from any others. The grunting and blowing and breathing lasted several minutes and it was so intense I worried for the sake of his neck and body that she might get too rough. I had to hold back my own instincts to protect him while nature indeed took its course.
Within hours he was up discovering mobility, finding his feet, and studying the world. The morning sun drew him to what quickly became a favorite spot in the doorway to curl up and sleep – the business of being born taking so much out of him. We were wringing our hands for two days over whether he was finding the teats and the priceless colostrum his mother was producing in those first days. I would get him up out of his favorite sunny spot, onto his feet and lead him over to her, attempting to direct his mouth to the source of nourishment. He was stubborn and it may be because he had just eaten when we weren’t around, but her udder was so full who could tell? He would suck on my finger so I knew he was capable. A squeeze and a pull and her milk was readily available, so all systems should be go. But had he discovered it on his own or not? When we finally got him to cooperate, he would eat but not for long. It was less of a meal and more of a small snack. At times like this it’s handy to have old farmers around. They reassured us if we had seen him eat at all, there was nothing to worry about.
Of course they were right. He’s grown like a weed in the 16 days since his birth. The younger of the girls gets to show him, with his mama cow, at the fair this summer so she was given the honor of naming him. “Raisin” is thriving and we are all getting far too attached, attempting to keep in mind he is not a pet but failing at least some of the time. If he wasn’t so cute maybe it would be easier, but his black curly hair is soft and inviting and he loves to be rubbed on.
Brad and I were both raised on farms with cute baby calves and touch-and-go moments between life and death. We are grateful our kids get to experience this too, despite the heartbreak that is in store when the calf fulfills his purpose. But whether he stays a bull and lives a long life with a herd or is groomed for sale, there is no doubt he will be treated well in the meantime.
As a friend and fellow producer recently said, “We always remind our kids of the good life their animals live. They are well taken care of and loved. We all live our lives, serve our purpose, and then move on.” It might sound cold but I believe raising children to understand the natural cycle of life, produces balanced and insightful adults who value living things and can endure the harsh realities we all face. Thankfully our current reality is to spoil and enjoy the spirited animals we own and keep learning, along with our children, what it means to take care of them.