When one decides to farm for a living, they are faced with the numbers on spreadsheets of the amount of feed an animal consumes in a year. It's hard to ignore a non-producing yard ornament, especially when their annual consumption exceeds three figures.
Everyone here at Painted Hand Farm has a job, even the critters one may consider 'pets'. The Great Pyrenees are livestock guardian dogs keeping the stock safe from predators, the cats keep down the rodent population and the horse--well, let's just say she's a lot less expensive than a therapist.
When the last of my original herd of goats passed away, I swore that from here on out all the breeding stock, no matter how beloved, would be sent over the mountain on the sausage wagon when they no longer produced. Similarly, laying hens became stewing hens when the egg production slowed to where they were no longer earning their keep.
So after two years of failed artificial insemination attempts on Emma, the ex-4-H dairy show cow turned two-teated backyard milker, I told her I was giving her one last chance as I dropped her off at neighboring grass-based farm down the road for a conjugal visit with their Red Devon.
"If an Amish bull can't get her pregnant, nothing will," he said winking at me as the dark brown Jersey girl sauntered across the pasture in search of affection. She hung out for a month before coming home to gestate throughout the fall, over the winter and into the spring.
Her pendulous udder swelled to huge proportions so much it looked as if she was going to explode. This being her third calf, maybe cows just spread out more after a few babies as many of my girlfriends have complained similarly over the years.
Emma must have taken my sausage wagon threat seriously because she blessed me with a strapping set of twins who graciously filled my veal customers' bellies and put Emma's upkeep in the black once again. Not wanting to take her away from nursing her twins, I opted to not breed her back immediately as it would also make for a calf's arrival in winter and when the goats were also kidding. There's only so much space for maternity wards and there would certainly be no pasture at that time of year.
The twins were harvested in mid-November, but another pair of calves quickly took over on the teats as she continued to lactate as a mild winter extended the grazing season well into the new year. When the next two had reached their harvest weight and the spring thaw's muck drove me to the brink of madness, I happily loaded them on the sausage wagon along with does who had failed to reproduce and those who reproduced, but where bad mothers. Doing the numbers, Emma was well ahead on her numbers enough to take a year off.
I contemplated getting her another set of calves to nurse, but the demand on the open market was so high at that time, even the scrawny little buck-toothed Jersey calves were bringing outrageous prices at the local livestock auctions. It was a matter of economics, supply, demand, risk and business. I knew eventually the price would correct itself and the bull calves would once again become by-product, not worth the dairyman's time to transport them to the sale barns and the calls would come in for me to pick them up while still paying a fair, but predetermined price for the calf.
I don't know if it was just that she missed her calves or the onset of spring hormones, but I know that cow prowled the perimeter of the fence lines for a solid week almost non-stop bellowing as loudly as she could, much to the ire of my non-farming neighbors. She didn't care if it was one in the afternoon or one in the morning, her thunderous roaring reverberated through every surface it encountered, including my own bedroom windows.
During my morning chores I notices a foot-long string of mucus hanging from the agitated cow's vulva. She was, indeed, a victim of hormones and I knew how to get it to stop.
I dialed my neighbor, George, from whom I purchased my winter hay and who had a sweet little herd of beef cattle, including one big, black bull in his front pasture.
"George, this is Sandy. You still got that black bull?"
"Yes, why? Are you lonely?"
"I'm fine, but my milk cow could use a visit. Can I bring her over today?"
"Is that her that's been hollering?"
"Well, sounds like she's ready. Bring her on over."
Heading outside to hook up the stock trailer, I remembered that I had stowed all the old black irrigation hose and other assorted stuff that was slated to go to the bulky waste and recycling day at the landfill that weekend in the trailer. Not wanting to unload and then have to put it all back in, I opted for something a little more enjoyable--a walk.
Cows don't get any more tame than Emma. She's walked down the road just as casual as she had in the show ring many times over the years. In addition to being laid back, she also has quite a personality such as wearing a hat soaked in fly spray in the summer. Getting scratched under her neck is her favorite thing and she'll point her nose in the air with her floppy dewlap pressed into your hands just like a dog nudging your had with its nose demanding attention. One night after a summer thunderstorm that had blown down the temporary fence where I had her spot grazing, she came up and "knocked" on the front door to alert me she was loose. Nothing like opening your front door to a strange noise only to have a 900-pound animal greet you up close and personal.
George's farm was less than a quarter mile away and it was a gorgeous early spring day.
Since we were going to see the bull, I did her the favor of pulling out her nice leather show halter, the one with the flashy silver buckles and chin chain. No frayed nylon rope halter for you today, my dear.
The air was crisp and we headed down the hill drinking in the sunshine no differently than had I been taking a dog for a morning walk. As we neared the edge of George's property, I could see his herd in the front pasture all lift their heads practically in unison to see who this strange cow was coming up the road. As if on cue, they all began to run toward the fence line to get a better look.
"Hey there, it's me from across the street," she seemed to say, "I'm coming over for a visit," Emma seemed to say.
There was no out-of-control behavior as both my and George's cattle headed up toward the main gate. At first, we put her in the shed area and tried to coax the bull to go in with her, but his entourage insisted on following him everywhere. Instead, we turned her out with the entire herd in the corn field among the stubble.
For the next half hour, we just sort of stood there watching the herd sniff, snort, run and jump around not much differently than had someone just put on a James Brown record at a party and everyone began grooving to the music. No one was rough, but eventually they all tired and began milling about. As if a pair of lovers sneaking away from the crowd, Emma and the bull split off from the main herd, hustling through the gate and over to the privacy of the shed together. Shutting the door behind them, George said, "Now he can get 'er done. Let me give you a ride home."
"No, I can walk," I countered, but remembered in this neighborhood it was considered bad manners to turn down a ride.
"Tell you what, how about delivering a round bale and letting me ride along on the tractor?"
"Well, sure. Let me get it loaded."
For years, his lumbering four-wheel drive German tractor had chugged up the hill to my farm regularly during the winter delivering half-ton bales at least once a week. I climbed up on the side of the wheel well along with his little scruffy Toto-like dog that was always at his side. The cool air braced my face as I held fast on to my hat as we motored along. At that moment, my world couldn't have been any more perfect.
Later that afternoon, George called, "I think you're cow's bred."
Again I walked down the road and back the lane to his house where Emma stood quietly as I affixed the halter to her over those big fuzzy ears that were the color of dark chocolate on the outside and peanut butter on the inside.
In a reverse send-off as the morning's welcome, George's herd skirted the edge of the pasture walking us out to the edge of the property and offering a few lows, some barely perceptible to the human ear, but I could feel their vibration penetrate deep into my auditory cortex. It was a slower walk home, as she sashayed back to her own farm bow-legged and sloppy from her amorous afternoon with a real hunk of meat.
Back in her own paddock, I went about my afternoon feeding and chores with good intentions of flipping forward on the calendar to pencil in the prospective due date, but for some reason only got as far as writing "Emma visits the bull" on the block for that day.
As summer rolled around, there were occasional bouts of bellowing and walking the fence line--a sure sign of a cow in heat.
"Damn," I thought to myself questioning if I should just make an appointment and get the inevitable over with while market season was still strong and the demand for steaks and burgers was high.
Fall rolled around and I had still not followed through on my threat for the sausage wagon. Was I a bad farmer? Is this why the dairy farmers who sold her in the first place refuse to eat their own cows? I would have the vet check her after the holidays to verify she's not bred prior to doing the deed.
But I never got the opportunity....
In my mind as I have always bred for a spring calf, I still had time. Her saggy udder began filling in, but no where like it had with her previous lactation.
Mom and Dad had come early for breakfast and to drop off some fresh venison from Dad's deer for me and the bones for the Pyrenees. When it comes to letting nothing go to waste, I was well-taught.
Heading out to the barn, the cacophony of impatience was of no surprise as everyone lined up waiting to be fed...except for Emma. There she was in the farthest corner of the barnyard, her head hanging low. "It never fails," I thought to myself recalling all the animal issues that seemed to have always arisen with the arrival of the first snow. Figuring on getting everyone fed before investigating why my cow who is always first in line for food now had no interest, to the point she didn't even respond to being called.
The glare of the sun on snow was blinding as I headed over to the opposite side of the barnyard to feed the pigs. Emma had now moved from the corner to below the rise where the cluster of locust trees stood in the center of the large winter sacrifice paddock and she was inspecting something dark laying in the snow. No, wait...she was licking it. And that's when it hit me: Emma had calved.
"Shit! Shit! Shit!" I kept saying to myself as I began hustling and thinking to myself I wasn't prepared. Wait, yes I was. I'm always prepared. Anyone who has known me any length of time knows I'm always prepared for whatever life tosses my way unexpectedly.
Fresh straw for the stall--check.
Clean, large water bucket for stall--check.
Calcium chloride gel--check.
Getting mother and baby from the paddock to the stall, that was going to be a challenge.
Although calves are hardy critters at birth, landing in the snow had me worried. Still wet from birth, I attempted to pick up the little dark heifer and carry her back to the barn. I pride myself on being able to pick up an 80-pound sack of feed and carry it into the barn, why shouldn't this calf be any different, but it was. It was much heavier and wasn't budging. Should I just leave her lay and hope for the best? No, the wind was picking up and there was no wind block. Who could I call on a Wednesday morning the week before Christmas who was home or wouldn't be busy? And suddenly it hit me.Snow sled--check.
Rolling the calf on to the red plastic sled was easy, pulling it up the hill to the barn--not so easy as Emma nervously followed and I was afraid she was going to step on either the calf or me, but for a 900-pound animal, she's quite agile. She'd been through the routine with her previous calves, the first being born in a rain storm a week early despite the prepared maternity ward, the following ones in the well-bedded and dry stall. Entering the stall ahead of me and the calf, she stood at the rear once in as if to give us plenty of room as I maneuvered lifting the calf up the step into the stall, first the front half and then the back half.
Once nestled into a pillow of straw, the calf heaved a sigh of relief and napped while Emma continued to clean it's dark, thick fur with her raspy tongue. I named her Georgia.
If it is one thing I've learned over the years is that being born is an exhausting adventure for not just the mother, but the offspring. How many panicked farmers (and human mothers) have fretted when newborns fail to immediately latch on and begin nursing? My advice is to leave them alone and listen.
There is nothing more unique than the sounds a mother makes to her fresh calf or kid or lamb in the first few hours after giving birth. Again, it is that low-frequency communication you feel more than you hear. And when that baby finally does find it appetite, it will also discover its voice--another sound. The cries of a hungry newborn can not be mistaken and will alert one quickly to any lactation issues.
By nightfall, little Georgia was standing on her wobbly legs, dry and nosing all about Emma's perimeter in search of the teat as her dam nudged her in the general direction. Come morning, the fluffy calf had a tell-tale milk mustache she was successfully suckling.
I called George and told him that my Christmas present had been delivered a week early and the holiday was exactly one week away. Despite grand plans to go out into my pines, cut down a tree and decorate the house, instead, I spent most of the days that followed just being present in the barn, busying myself with chores that allowed me to watch and listen to yet another miracle of life that I am continually blessed with through farming.