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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Calving 2012 A Huge Success

Calving season is always a little nerve-wracking for newbie cattlemen like ourselves. For months we watch as our cows get heftier and heftier, until they can barely fit through gates and shake the earth when they lie down with a thud. When the udders start to swell, we know the time is coming soon.


Attending a calf birth is quite an experience, but it’s an elusive one. Even when you know a cow is in labour, it’s difficult to predict exactly when the birth will happen, much like with a human birth, so if you leave to get a snack or go to the bathroom you are likely to miss it. I guess this is why many farmers will actually sleep on a cot in the barn during calving.

Our cows wait until we leave, then they give birth. We come back just moments after the fact, to find the mamas licking their babies clean and dry. This is good. I always have nightmares about the calf getting stuck and having to be pulled out. So far, we’ve been lucky. The mother’s licking stimulates the baby so it will get up and look for milk. Unfortunately, the Eastern Ontario landscape (or maybe just our 200 acres of it) is low on selenium. This mineral deficiency affects the calf’s ability or inclination to suckle. So they often just lie there, hungry, weak and tired and unsure of what to do next.

Sometimes we get lucky and the calf is up and nursing as intended within minutes of being born. But more typically, we have to intervene. And we now have a system. Get close to the mother while she is still docile from the birthing ordeal, and steal some of her valuable colostrum. None of our cows are particularly tame but the only one that has disallowed being milked after birth was Ginger. She’s mean.

Once the mama has been milked, the colostrum or first milk is fed to the calf with a huge plastic syringe. This warm liquid gold fills the belly and works like magic to energize and revitalize the newborn. Next, the Farmer gives the calf a shot of selenium, the mineral that is lacking from our soil and grasses. Literally within hours – and sometimes minutes – the calf develops the urge to suckle. Only once did we have to bottle feed a calf to maturity. It ain’t easy and it doesn’t make for a very big bull but it can be done.

So Julie was the last calf to give birth this year. Her big day kind of snuck up on us because she didn’t look particularly huge or uncomfortable with her swelling girth. The Farmer just went out to water the cows one night and didn’t come in for over an hour. Finally, “you have a little heifer out there. She is going to need some milk.” I mixed up a bottle of calf formula, grabbed a flashlight, pulled on snowpants, barn jacket and boots and headed out to the barn while my husband filled his hypodermic with selenium.

I could hear the cows mooing, so I went out to the main shelter where they sleep and hide from the wet snow. I saw all the adults, and four calves. Hmmm. I just catalogued the cows last week. Now who goes with whom? Ginger had the solid brown heifer. Betty had a white-faced heifer. Mocha, a solid brown heifer. And Oreo had our only bull-calf, rusty brown. I saw a big black cow standing over a tiny calf, so I pulled the calf up onto her feet, pinned her between my knees, pried her lips open and shoved the bottle nipple into her mouth. Betty immediately started bawling, and pushing at me with her huge head.

I quickly deduced it was her calf I was trying to force-feed. Just then the Farmer stuck his head out of the lambing room door at the other end of the barn. “What are you doing over there? The new calf is in here!” Well of course she is.

Julie allowed us to dry her babe with an old towel, and to feed it a bottle of milk. She just watched and made soft comments, her eyes shifting from the Farmer to me and back again. Trusting.

The next morning, the calf was under her mama, happily nursing. And that marks the end of calving season, 2012.

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