Another spring, another calving. I mark the seasons differently now. It's not just the geography that differs, but the entire world in which I live. Spring is time for calving and lambing and balancing the barley and the silage against the hungry mouths as we wait for the return of the good rich grass. It is also time to complete the IACS--a complex form that I am only beginning to understand, and balance the expenses of fertilizer and equipment repairs and diesel fuel against the little bit of money that comes in at this time of year. I am learning about the business side, but just now that world is compressed into the tiny chin of a newborn calf cradled in my hand.
I hold the chin so that I can position the calf 's head so he can take the milk properly down his throat. It also helps me gauge how sturdy he is. His eyes are bright with Disney-like eyelashes looking almost coquettish on this young bullock. I try not to be distracted from the job of getting him to suck the bottle of his own mother's milk. David collected it earlier and left it in the fridge in the steading. Babies of any species operate on a different schedule, so calving is a time of long hours. The milk has been warmed in a hot water bath that has loosened but not yet dislodged the Irn Bru label. (Irn Bru being the Scottish equivalent of Mountain Dew.)
The calf turns his head trying to avoid the bottle because it is strange and my hand is strange. Not unpleasant but strange. Nothing in his young brain has told him how to deal with these things. I note that his head is strong. There have been calves who did not have the strength to hold up their heads. His resistance encourages me. I put a little milk on his lips and notice that he has tiny blue gray whiskers on his nose. His curly coat is a mixture of blue from his Belgian blue mother and black from his Aberdeen Angus father. His tongue comes out and licks the milk. That is another good sign. I give him time to think about it and then when the tongue emerges again, I put the nipple on his tongue. In an instant it is in his mouth and he begins to suck vigorously, another good sign.
Some farmers use a bag with a tube on the end and force milk into the calf's throat. This shortcut may be necessary sometimes, but if we have the luxury of extra hands and patience then the recycled bottles of Irn Bru with momma's milk delivered at the calf's pace are a better way of doing it.
He sucks well and takes an entire bottle. The effort exhausts him but he seems relatively content. He shivers slightly in the cool breeze through the open door into the old part of the barn. Morris moves the heat lamp a bit closer, and I slide an old piece of plywood across the front of the improvised neonatal unit--large flagstones on either side, plywood in front, heat lamp suspended from the old hay rack for the byre this part of the barn once was. Little Black and Blue nestles into his bed of straw and shivers a bit less as we watch him drop off to sleep.
I proclaim I can do the next feeding all on my own. I put on my husband's boots, telling myself they are easier to get into than my own, but it is the first step into the world of magical thinking. The sky is cloudless, so the stars dance and the air is sharply cold. The short walk across the drive from the house to the steading is a walk into a different world. Earlier that day in the safety of bright daylight I had seen my first rat. I know there are many of them in the dark, and I don't know if they will still remember that I am the dominant species. The rules often change in the dark.
I crank my wind up flashlight as if the sound alone will send the rats scurrying for cover, get to the sink, and feel the relief of the light dissipating the shadows at least in this small area. I get his momma's milk from the fridge and pour the hot water into the improvised container and look in on him while it warms--"blood warm" Morris says. I test it on the inside of my wrist. The comfortable warmth contrasts with the cold air around me. The calf is fine. He drinks well and makes a funny sound--more frog than calf.
In the larger part of the barn I hear an animal bellowing urgently. I think of the expectant cows and go to take a look, but as soon as I open the door, I hear nothing but the quiet breathing of the cattle and some rustling in the straw. I return to the calf and the sounds begin again. It is his mother calling out to him in the night. This, too, is a good sign. She misses him. He was born prematurely and sometimes a cow will just walk away--all the hormonal or instinctive bonding having failed, but Little Black and Blue has a momma, a large Belgian Blue, who wants him back. I promise her to do my best to get him back to her.
The next morning David has brought the calf out to see momma who has been given an injection of oxytocin to bring on her milk. The combination of her affection for the calf and the hormone works well and her milk is flowing. The calf sits where she can see him as David milks her. She is restrained comfortably in a pair of gates so that she can see her baby and not get hurt (or hurt us). As I approach the calf with the first bottle of her milk for him, she swings her massive head like the lethal weapon it can be. I duck for cover. David moves the calf so that we are in sight but out of range. She stamps and would charge if only she could. The calf sucks and I keep hoping that she will understand that we both have her calf's well being in mind.
After Little Black and Blue has three bottles, we put him and his momma into her straw filled byre. She licks him and sits close to him to give him her warmth. We hope that perhaps he will manage to stand on his own.
At noon, Little Black and Blue is sleeping fitfully by his momma, slightly shivery. David moves him back under the heat lamp so I can feed him. After the time with his mother, the calf seems limp and listless. It is more like pouring him out of his arms than putting him down. I manage to get less than half a bottle of warm milk into him. David, Ranald and I all look at him and Ranald says simply, "Poor little thing." "Oh, he's better than yesterday," I say, but I know it's not true and wonder what went wrong from this morning to now.
I walk into the house thinking I am being the good farm wife and knowing that we have done our best and that not all calves can make it and no sooner have I finished my brave talk than two giant tears leak out of my eyes and race down my cheeks. My husband sees them and in an instant we are back out to the calf. He sets the calf upright shaping it into more of a calf shape, adjusts the heat lamp and makes the improvised unit smaller. He gives it a bit more milk and some milk of magnesia. We all know we are definitely bucking the odds. The first 24 hours were a miracle and now we don't want to give up, but we don't see much hope.
I try to lose myself in a Hercule Poirot mystery. I want to see death defeated with style and wit in period costumes. Morris looks in on the calf and comes flying back--"Right, we're off to the vet, now." I scramble for shoes and look somewhat embarrassed at David as he loads the calf into the back of our Volvo country estate wagon. The calf moves a bit in the car--a good sign. Sunday afternoon and the only vet is the one who has looked after my cats. I hope he knows about cattle, too. In a cursory examination of the calf in the back of the car, the vet says the same kinds of things that Morris says, "The calf looks bright in the head." He also says that the calf is probably only about 10 days premature.
The vet takes the calf's temperature and then Morris and I move the calf into the vet's office, where the vet gives him an injection to loosen his stomach muscles. "Give him physiotherapy by standing him upright so that his brain gets the idea that he has legs," he says as Morris and I hold the calf in an imitation standing calf pose. It's not easy for us, but the calf seems to be getting the idea. He has up to now never gotten further than his knees. The vet gives the calf an enema and jokes, "If my friends could see me now," but we all know that excrement is important, so we study it with nearly the same intensity as ancient seers looking for omens. "Feed him often and little so as not to overload his system. It looks as if it is complete and intact."
Little Black and Blue is loaded back into the car and taken home. Morris and I struggle together to get him back to his neonatal unit. As we have to carry him upside down by his legs for the last little stretch, he calls out to his mother and she calls back. We position him carefully, optimistically, and give him a small bottle of milk. By late afternoon, he is alert, responsive, and begins sticking out his tongue as soon as we arrive in anticipation of the warm milk. After giving him another small bottle, Morris takes me to our regular, Halladale Inn, where I have 2 glasses of wine. I want to be sober enough to give the calf his milk but numb enough if he is not able to take the milk. The calf welcomes us with a bright eye and sucks vigorously. I go to sleep quickly and content.
At 1:51am I sit bolt upright in bed. "What if the calf is dehydrated? What if the heat lamp is too close and he stands up and hurts himself?" My husband is both patient and concerned enough that he is not at all surprised and simply chuckles and begins pulling on his own clothes. The calf is fine. He takes a bit more milk. Morris tells me that he'll take the early shift so I can sleep in.
When I wake Monday morning, Morris has already been out to the calf. "He was standing on his own."
"Did you help him up?"
"No. He did it all on his own."
"Will you be able to walk him back to his momma?"
I dressed and prepared for my other life out in the world content that Little Black and Blue was on his way now.