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Thursday, January 24, 2013

To Anastasia on her 21st birthday

Those last two snowfalls of 2012 left the barn buried and packed in ice. The Farmer spent most of one day clearing our long driveway, then he started creating pathways to the shed and outbuildings with the snowblower. When he got around to the far side of the barn, he got a big surprise. Just in front of him in the pure white snow, a little black head popped up and bobbed around before weakly settling back down. A new calf had been abandoned in the snow by its mother.

The dark brown calf had been licked clean, and any sign of the birthplace had been covered by the freshly fallen snow. Still, there was no telling how long it had been lying there alone in the cold, so my husband and son-in-law carried it to the lambing room of the barn. They set it up with a heat lamp and gave it a rub-down with a towel. Then they went out to search for its mother.

All of our cows were standing at the hay feeder, chowing down. Mocha and Ginger had already had their calves; this one belonged to Betty, Julie or the first-timer, Oreo. Everyone munched and stared as they were examined by the Farmer. He decided Oreo, who wouldn’t let him anywhere near her, was the culprit, as her sides appeared decidedly less inflated than in weeks past. I imagine he spoke to her for a moment about her calf and, still in shock by the event of her first birth, she just kept eating.

I was summoned to make a bottle from the bag of Mocha’s colostrum in the freezer. I dumped the cloudy yellow contents of the baggie into the blender and mixed it with some bottled water. Then I poured the mixture into a measuring cup and gently warmed it in the microwave before pouring it into the calf bottle and fitting on the large rubber nipple. Pulling on snowpants, boots and barn jacket, I trudged out through the snow to the lambing room.

I found the calf, curled up in the corner of the pen, its head at an awkwardly uncomfortable angle. I climbed into the pen and sat down beside the animal, which was about the size of my daughter’s Labrador Retriever. The Farmer pried its clamped jaw open with his fingers. So much about farming is about being gentle and strong at the same time. “It’s cold,” he announced. We pushed the nipple of the bottle into the calf’s mouth, and I stroked the newborn’s throat. After a minute or two he started making little chewing movements but no sucking was happening. I pulled the bottle out and saw the nipple was blocked. The Farmer took it from me and emptied half of it into a bowl before filling a large plastic syringe. Again he pried the animal’s jaw open, this time to fit the syringe in before pushing the plunger. I heard and saw swallowing. Yay.

Fill syringe, open mouth, repeat.

When the calf had a pint of the warm liquid gold in its belly, we let it rest. Already we could hear his mother bawling outside the door. Suddenly she remembered she had left something in the snow over by the gate…

A little while later the Farmer went back out to the barn and the calf was on its feet. My husband carried the calf outside and reunited it with its mother. The new little family wandered over to the sheltered area of the barn, and the calf started suckling.

I said we should call the calf “Lucky” but the Farmer has decided his name is “Snowball”. Oreo was our only heifer this year so hopefully the last cows-in-waiting won’t have any surprises for us.

Farming is more about crisis management and problem solving than planning, I’ve found, as any plans you make can be laughed away by a drought or a rainy season. Hopefully 2013 will be more temperate than 2012, with enough hay for every animal and less stress for every farmer.

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