Friday, May 12, 2006

How I Was Rescued by a Calf

Before I left Indiana, a friend asked with all the enthusiasm she felt about my new life, "What will you be doing? Tell me what your day will be like." And I was blank. I had no idea what a day would look like, and there were some days that emptiness weighed more heavily than others. By August when the last calf of the season slipped unceremoniously into the field, I had managed to help move cattle from one place to another and had watched them often at a distance or up close. I had not yet touched one.

New calves are the embodiment of hopefulness. With knobby knees, tiny tail and big eyes, they are literally and figuratively hungry for the things of this new world. By the time we meet the little red and black (red undertones from her mother's side of the family) and her mother, they are already fond of each other, but the calf looks hungry. We move the pair into the room of the barn that functions as nursery or delivery room for a closer look and we discover that the mother has no milk to offer her calf.

Morris shows me how to mix powdered milk in a former Diet Coke bottle with a leaky nipple and I hand the bottle to him. He gets Little red and black to take the bottle apparently effortlessly. I fill another bottle and we develop a relay replacing one bottle smoothly with another until red and black loses interest. We move the large, sober minded cow from the room in the barn into a grassy paddock opposite. She is a cow more familiar with the routines of the farm than I am, so she ambles complacently into the paddock, but with a watchful eye on her calf.

Little red and black, likewise, has her eye on her mother, but tired from her first hours of life, she folds her legs and tumbles onto the straw in the corner of the room. With the same patience as her mother, she is moved willingly but uneasily on her new legs into a grassy area above the paddock where her mother is. Mother and calf can see each other, but there is a gate between them. They both are quiet during the night.

First thing in the morning I look out the bedroom window to see the calf below staring through the gate as if she could will herself to the other side. She is hunched down standing in the cold rain. Her mother, at the far end of the paddock, shelters as best she can in the lee of the stone wall. By example or necessity, the calf backs into a flagstone as if the stone will open up and take her out of the rain. The stone does not yield. She turns parallel with the upright flagstone. Although this position provides some shelter from the wind, she no longer faces her mother. When I look again, the calf is curled into a ball with her nose to the edge of the gate.

I climb back into bed and try to get my feet warm. I read and doze and then I wake to hear the calf. She is hungry. I go back to reading until Morris comes in and suggests that I feed the calf. My farming skills and my confidence in those skills are both so limited that I think he is teasing me. He persists. I agree to go as long as he comes with me. "Wear the oil skins because if the calf gets her mouth on you, it's wet." "Everything about a calf is wet, " I reply. Especially one that has been out in the steady drizzle of today's rain.

Armed with three bottles of warm milk, we approach the calf. She tries even more earnestly to get to her mother as we approach, but with some effort and some calming from her mother, she gets wedged into a corner near the gate and the flagstone. Morris tells me to get in close to her to keep her still. I feel the warmth of her side against my legs through the oil skins. Morris explains about the location of teeth in her mouth; he urges me to put my fingers in her mouth and feel for myself. I decline.

Although she remembers the bottles from last night and is eager to drink, I do not have the same effortless touch to ease the nipple into her mouth. After several attempts that result only with milk on her nose, warm milk dribbling down my oilskins, and both my hands so sticky with milk that she tries to suck my fingers, I am near despair. Morris is patient and resolved. I know that none of us is getting out of this cold rain until the calf gets fed. By happy accident or the calf's persistence, we get the first bottle into her mouth.

She sucks eagerly and her tail moves rapidly side to side. Morris tells me that the speed of a calf's sucking is related to how fast its tail moves. I don't know if this farming wisdom or pulling the leg of the newcomer. Before I have a chance to ask, we need to switch to the second bottle. The relay is pretty smooth, thanks to the calf. She thumps my leg with her tail at a rate that suggests we might need a fourth bottle.

And so after that on the job training, I take up the job of feeding Lady Marmalade, as I dubbed her then, three times a day. She became my alarm clock and my reason to get out of bed in the morning. As she got older, she became my early morning exercise routine as well. After breakfast, she and I would run up and down the paddock. I could hear the milk gurgling and sloshing as she ran and leaped. I gained a great appreciation for four legs for cornering and speed over short distances.

When she was old enough to be moved in with the other calves, I was relieved. It had become very demanding even after she had gone to a bucket for feeding. But the first day in her new pen, I went to look after her and was worried that she was not fitting in well much the way a mother worries over her kindergarten child. Wee Calfie, as she had now come to be called, was smaller than all the others and was unused to being with other cattle. She called after me when I left, so I promoted myself with the support of Morris and David to foster mother to them all. Every morning and afternoon, I made a mix of barley and sugar beet--bovine granola-- and made sure they had lots of hay and fresh straw. And sometimes I sang to them.

Now they are all out in the field dreaming their own bovine dreams in the sun, listening to bird song, and dancing and chasing with each other. Wee Calfie will grow up to become a mother herself and I like to think she will be a good one.


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