Saturday, May 20, 2006

An Iffy Calf

About a dozen cows have yet to calve. They are in the field close to the house so we can keep an eye on them. A large black cow has been showing the early signs of calving, and Morris and I are on maternity duty. On my morning walk, she had been in the early stages, but later as we are hurrying along the farm road around the field, I see something that suggests her time has come. Although we are late, Morris backs the car up and one look with his experienced eye says yes, the calf is on its way right now. He will take me into town and come back and look in on her.

By the time he is back, the calf is here. An easy birth is good news all around, but later we discover that the calf has not sucked. It seems such a simple thing for a calf to suck. The instinct is there, and mother and calf are both healthy and fond of each other, but the topography of her udder apparently makes it difficult for the little calf, so we have to fill in for the two of them. I think perhaps I can handle this on my own, so I set out for the paddock with bottles of the mother's own milk and teat in a pan of hot water to keep the milk warm.

Even a small cow is large, and Momma is a big cow. She is agitated as I get near to her calf. I try getting the bottle into the calf's mouth while looking over my shoulder at Momma. How angry is she? How long will it take me to get to the gate from here? I step away to think about it and Momma comes up to the calf and licks it harder and rougher than I have seen. Is she agitated enough to do harm to the calf?

I walk through the paddock to open the gate into the larger field to get Momma out of the way, but I have lost the nerve to get the right body language and tone of voice to move a massive animal away from her calf. I trudge as quickly as I can in Morris's boots back to the house for reinforcements.

"Something's not right," I say vaguely but quickly.
He has read my voice and is already putting on his work clothes. Morris and I both know that the something not right could be me, but he is too patient or too polite to say it. He asks matter of factly, "Is his mouth warm?"
Having had my hands in the calf's mouth, I can say yes to that one. "The milk is going down but he is sucking very weakly."
"Did he have any milk in him?"
"Not when I first went out. I got about half the Diet Coke bottle down him, but he wasn't sucking and the mother was agitated. She seemed too rough with the calf so I was afraid something was wrong."
"You know they get agitated."

I don't need to reply. I do know mothers get agitated but I don't know what it means. Even an intensive course on animal husbandry is not enough in 18 months to have developed that kind of judgment. Between that small bit of information and the complexity of a large, upset mother and a reluctant calf lies a gap in which any or all of our lives are in jeopardy. I had worn Morris's boots out to the steading because they are easier to put on or so I had told myself but also in some vague hope that it would give me the courage or the knowledge to feed this one little calf by myself.

The cow has moved herself into the larger field but starts moving back to the paddock and her calf quickly when she sees us coming. With Morris by my side I find the right tone to shoo her back into the field and close the gate. She paces on the other side of the wall as we go toward the calf. When we move the little calf to the flagstone wall to try to get him to take the bottle, we are so close to the mother that I can feel her breath on me. Her eyes are opened wide enough to show the white rims so she reminds me of the statue of a fierce warrior in a temple in Hong Kong. But this one is real with her breath steaming in the cool evening air.

Despite the nearness of the mother, I try to concentrate on the calf wriggling and folding back upon itself accordion fashion. And then as if exhausted by the effort, the calf drops on all fours on the grass. He takes more milk but still does not suck well on his own. "He is not as lively as one might like," Morris says simply. His understatement both reassures me that there was something not quite right but it also makes my heart sink.

The next two days are spent in variations on the attempt to feed the calf and then to get her to suck. We seem close on several occasions. If he does not manage to suck, then perhaps we can put him with another cow or feed him, but he is an iffy calf. Morris does not need to explain the word. The calf's rough-tongued mother with all her own massive sturdiness exhorts the calf to be more lively because she, too, knows how hard the world is on calves who cannot suck.

When the calf manages to suck on his own, we are all relieved. Momma has put away her warrior persona. Instead she and her calf sit comfortably side by side in the sun in the paddock in a pastoral madonna and child. It is just one iffy calf, but it feels like a triumph.


At 8:04 PM, Blogger ZACL said...

I gave an audible sigh of relief.

At 10:26 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

On behalf of the little red calf and her momma,thanks.


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