Mar 17, 2011

Of dead calves and deadbeat farmers

Twice last week I proved I'm not yet a real farmer.

The exciting moment came when our neighbour boy excitedly announced that the baby calf had been born overnight. I had checked properly the night before (good farmer) and seen no sign of the mama about to birth (tail up, backside softening), but there was the little miracle laying down in the grass. On its side. Not moving.

We quickly called our partner-in-bovine Amy, grabbed the How to Raise Cattle book and ran back down. Following instructions, I stuck straw up the calf's nose to try to tickle it awake. Lifted the whole slimy body upside down to drain fluid. Felt for a heartbeat. Even prepared to give mouth-to-mouth, but it was obviously too late.

Sarah brought out her midwife scissors and cut the umbilical cord while mama cow ate the placenta, then I dragged the poor thing outside the fence and covered her with a tarp so mama cow wouldn't go too deep into mourning.

All that was good farmer (or, rather, rancher). I even thought to leave my slime-covered jeans and jacket unwashed incase we needed to spread that scent on an adopted calf to endear it to the mama. But then a busy work day beckoned, and the dead calf was left all day and overnight. Bad farmer, not taking care of the dead.

In the middle of the night I was awakened by neighbour Crystal saying that mama cow (Rosie) was mooing alot, was she OK? Good farmer again, I got dressed and went down to check her out. Aware that a cougar has been on our land alot lately, I brandished a shovel and bright spotlight to defend myself. It was a scary, exhilarating feeling to be out there knowing a cougar (aka panther, mountain lion) was likely watching, and likely lining up that baby calf for dinner. Mama was allright, so I re-covered the calf and hoisted a few tree limbs on top to keep the cougars and birds of prey at bay.

The next afternoon a friend and I dug a deep, below-the-water-table grave and took proper care of the poor calf. Good farmer. In the meantime, Amy secured two new baby calves. It turns out that basically all boy calves of dairy cattle are killed at birth since they'll never give milk and it's more cost-effective to raise proper meat-breed cattle for slaughter. So WildSide Farm has now become an orphange (for a year, anyways), rescuing atleast these two babies who had the misfortune to be born with the wrong equipment (which we've already "elastrated").

Amy started introducing them to mama. That means twice a day tying up Rosie so she'll stay still, hobbling her so she won't kick the babies, then helping the calves find and stay on the teats till they get the hang of it. She's definitely a good farmer.

One night she asked me to do it the next morning. But come morning, taking the boys to school then a yoga date with a friend was suddenly higher priority than taking care of these 1-week-old creatures. I did come home to do it, and do it surprisingly well, but a good two or three hours after they were ready for breakfast. Bad farmer.

I remember at a time when Rose and Blossom had started escaping, I threw them into the barn and went on a much-needed vacation. Joe's response - "I wouldn't be going right now." He was right, my automatic priority should be the living beings under my care. But twice this past week I still chose my needs over theirs.

I just went back and bolded all the judgment calls, and the "good farmers" have it over the "bads." So I guess I'm a decent and improving farmer, but still alot to learn about my animals, my stewardship, my place in the natural world.

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