Instincts, Rewards, and Survival on the Farm

The calf was born on the other side of the creek in a small pasture along a line of timber. He was healthy and found his mama’s teats within the first few hours. No farmers around to intervene, the initial instinct to bond came naturally and they both cooperated with it.  


Dad didn’t realize a new baby calf slept in the woods when he called the herd into the next pasture. Moving them every few days was best for the growth of new grasses and kept them from plowing thru fences when they decided they’d been in one place long enough (although that still happens occasionally). Fences divided 110 acres and a winding creek into 3 sections, and the herd was used to rotation. They know their farmer and the drill so when he starts calling or shows up on an ATV, they follow. In fact often they take the lead.

the girls

So when he showed up calling just several hours after the birth, the cows followed and the calf was left behind.

A couple days later dad stood on the back porch drinking his morning coffee, looking out at the herd when he saw 2 cows in something of a scuffle. They were competing for a calf, newborn that morning. Clearly something was amiss.

The mama’s calf left behind, she went looking for hers and found a new baby. Her motherly instincts still ablaze, she tried to claim the new heifer. But she had the wrong offspring.

It was a busy weekend at the farm. Family arrived and left. Reunions were attended. Rain fell.

Fast-forward to day 4: the mama stands at the creekbed bawling for her calf. Her instincts’ last desperate attempt to reunite with her baby.

cows in pasture

Dad couldn’t believe his eyes when a baby calf emerged from the treeline early that morning and tried to cross the creek. Somehow the baby calf (clearly a fighter) had survived, heard her cries, and found his way to the herd.

Unfortunately at this point the cow was so confused and it had been so long, her mothering instincts were working against her. Standing in the middle of the creekbed bawling for her baby, the calf half drowned while trying to find her udder (under water). She and the calf both made their way up onto dry land, but at this point she lost it. All of this had been too much and she stomped off. The baby calf went from mother to mother looking for the full udder he had been promised but cow after cow rejected him.

It took dad about an hour and a half to bring the herd up to the barn, sort thru them, and get the mama and her weak calf into a pen together. That’s when he called me for a little backup. “We’ve gotta get this mama to stand in one place so the calf can eat.” Dad could see now it had been at least 4 days since his birth and he was all but skin and bones.

baby calf

Tricking a cow into going into the chute can be done solo, but it’s not easy. The barn has to be set up just right, the cow has to be cooperating, and dad needs to be at least 5 years younger.

When I crawled into the pen the calf was lying way back in the corner and the cow was pacing. She’d had enough of all this and was going to put up a fight. I noted the similarity between parent and offspring considering the calf had made it this far. The odds were in our favor that this cow would eventually figure out what needed to be done.

Dad cajoled the calf into standing up and she went trotting out towards her mother who was very keen that we were up to something. We thought maybe if we got them close enough to each other, he would eat without help – he had to be starving! – but no such luck.

You can hold a cow in a chute a few different ways. But either way, her head comes thru the gate, you pull a latch, and the gate closes behind her head. Think of a child who somehow gets his head stuck between the stair rails at the family Christmas. Except in this case, you know how she got there and there’s a release so no Vaseline or crying is necessary.

The first time Dad sent her my way and I tried to shut the chute, I pulled down on the pipe with everything I had, but lack of understanding about all the idiosyncrasies of this ancient piece of equipment (many vital tools like the chute and the manure spreader are older than I am) and she managed to back out again.

You can imagine now she was really pleasant. I’m not sure how, but we managed to get her back in and properly secured in the chute. She was kicking, pushing around, and stomping. When we brought the calf over close to her udder, she kicked at us and him. No doubt she was still angry at the unfortunate turn of events that had thrown off the trajectory of how all of this was supposed to work.  She’d been a mother before and it hadn’t turned out like this at all.

A rope around her leg held tight by me safely outside the gate, quieted her down and made it safe for the calf to approach. Dad skillfully led the calf’s mouth up to the teat, full and perfectly – naturally – positioned waiting to fulfill its purpose. Now the calf’s intuition kicked in again and he eagerly grabbed on. What relief! What satisfaction! He slurped and sucked and drank to his heart’s desire. Happiness again! How gratifying to finally make it back to this place where he began.  

calf starting out

We watched in delight. That afternoon we came back and repeated the exercise, hoping by tomorrow the cow would catch on and claim her calf. She did and in a few more days she and her calf could rejoin the herd grazing nearby.  

calf eating

Challenges like these are bittersweet. No one wants to intentionally separate a calf and cow needlessly. Instincts are fascinating to watch and a drama-free delivery and bonding time are always preferred.

But when a farmer is useful for the remedy of complications, it’s nice to have one around with 50 years of experience. It’s fascinating to watch the patience and calm presence of a farmer who knows what needs to be done. It’s nice to part of the solution. It’s rewarding.

Exhausting, frustrating, dirty, and even risky at times.

But definitely rewarding.


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