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the story of Marmite...and her unexpected confinement

Back in March 2008 we had a first for the farm. Gwen, a sweet cow, gave birth to twin heifer calves. They were lusty, tiny, pretty and quite adorable – we called them Marmite and Mustard-Seed.  For twins they did pretty well considering it was one of our sodden monsoon summers where all vestige of pasture/grass/herbage was swallowed up in a quagmire of soul-sucking mud.

Time moved on and I decided to keep Marmite as one of my replacement heifers. Though not as big as I would like, she, nevertheless, had a lovely temperament and reasonable conformation. Also I was rather curious as to how she would develop in the future.

During their second summer our youngsters are grazed on some rented land a couple of miles away. They do well on it, and it’s a safe environment for them have their silly season as adolescence before joining the main herd and taking on the full mantle of bovine responsibility.

One misty October morning, not long before they were due to return home for the winter, we were rather taken aback to find a monstrous and completely hideous Friesian bull standing possessively in the midst of our coy young virgins.

‘What the heck…!’ Robert exclaimed. Not only were we somewhat surprised as the land is well fenced, but somewhat wary too…Friesian bulls are not known for their docility.

18-month old heifers are unabashedly flagrant in their sexual desires; bawling outrageously, they pant, salivate and sweat in sexual fervour, mounting and pursuing their peers relentlessly – willing or unwilling – and so advertising their condition to all and sundry. Luckily this heightened state of oestrous only lasts twelve to twenty-four hours whereupon, with a flick of a switch, they morph back into the demure bovine maidens they were.

When we found them that morning there was no sign whatsoever of a rampant orgy having taken place. The heifers couldn’t have been more demure or uninterested…in fact it was more a case of them gathering around us, all sideways glances, breathy exclamations and outraged mutterings about ‘that awful disgusting, wicked BULL that was letching…yes, LETCHING at them’ and ‘could we possibly just, please, get rid of him…or move them immediately – NOW’ – which of course we did.

After having paid a visit to the neighbouring dairy farm to ask them to keep tighter control of their bull and to remove him from our land without delay, we went back to inspect the heifers. We looked under tails for signs of bulling, or worse, penetration; we looked along flanks for signs mounting; we looked at legs for signs of strains (large bulls can occasionally damage young, immature heifers’ hips and back legs – amongst other things!). Nothing, nada, nil, zilch.

‘Well, that’s a relief’ said Robert.

‘Don’t you believe it’ said I ‘No way would a bull have scaled field and fence for nothing!’

But as to who or which we were clueless and would only find out during the winter when we could keep a close eye on the heifers. Of course nowadays there are other implications of strange cattle getting into a closed herd – disease, bTB and the like, which can have lasting repercussions on the health status of one’s herd and potentially be far more damaging than an under-aged heifer becoming in-calf.

Unfortunately, yes, you’ve guessed, it was Marmite, by far the smallest and most immature of the group, who was the culprit.

I watched her anxiously through much of the winter, feeding her extra rations. I watched her anxiously during the spring as she began to swell with calf. I watched her anxiously as she neared her time, keeping her in a field close to the house so she could be checked frequently. I watched her anxiously as I was worried about an underage Ruby heifer calving a large Friesian cross.

She had us on our toes. Her udder swelled to huge proportions as did her teats…

the largest horsefly ever - tabanus sudeticus

‘It must be soon’ sighed Olly ‘Look at the size of her teats!’ and then found they were being bitten by the largest horseflies imaginable, causing Marmite considerable discomfort.

biting Marmite's teat

The waiting seemed interminable, forever, until one evening she was slow in coming for her food and was even slower the next morning. Within a couple of hours she was calving. Within minutes the sack was showing. Within seconds the calf was halfway out and completely trapped in a thick, bluish, membrane. I broke the membrane, got the calf breathing and went to pull the rest of it out. It was stuck…firm…! My hands, slippy and wet from membrane and birthing fluid, could not get a good grip….I shouted, screamed, hollered – but I was halfway down a field, out of earshot of the house and people. I bawled again…no one. There was nothing for it I would have to strip using my overalls as ropes. There I was – down to bare-nothings and pulling for victory when thankfully Olly appeared. Relief!  Together we pulled the m-o-n-s-t-e-r out…but wait…she wasn’t, she was beautiful, actually beautiful!

newborn

The colour of bitter chocolate with a black dorsal stripe and black fringing around her ears; her nose was slate blue-black and deep black kohl outlined her ridiculously long lashed eyes – she was a hybrid, a fusion,  a mix between calf, fawn and foal!

just 24 hours old

just 24 hours old

Mother and daughter continue doing well….

...happy result!

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the first 2010 set of twins

SBS, discombobulating knee or whatever…the show goes on. Nature waits for nothing; certainly no woman!

the first of twins born on Saturday

the first of twins born on Saturday

So in the cycle of things that are total certainties we began lambing on Saturday with calving hot on its heels. To say that I was dreadfully unsure as to how I’d manage this vital part of the farming calendar is an understatement – I’ve taken myself rather for granted over the years. But the human brain and body is nothing if not inventive. So with the stoic and long-suffering help of Olly and Robert there’s a new order emerging!

Lambing is not such a problem and can be approached sitting on the ground in a pair of thick waterproof trousers using a variety of interestingly contorted ‘yogic’ positions. Once the ewe and her brood are penned the same technique can be used for popping lambs onto the teat if the need arises – though Olly is proving a dab hand at this. Tagging, tailing and castrating? No probs – perch on the side of the pen/ask an Olly. Feet? An indispensible Olly is needed here as he is for post lambing drenching.

oh so sweet....

Calving is altogether a different kettle of fish, with absolutely no contorting-ground-sitting substitute sanctioned.

Last night our first calf was born – from a young first-calving heifer. Luckily there was no particular problem, she was just taking her time, so, I decided, she was an ideal candidate for ‘the boys’ to learn on.  Trying to explain how to attach calving ropes while standing outside the calving pen is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. It took every ounce of self-control not to vault the gates, get in there and show them!

You should have seen us! Me, with my face, hands and arms involuntarily mimicking vastly exaggerated actions of my explanations….‘That’s it, that’s it. Put your hand in…no, no right in, right in!’ (my arm snakes out) Yes that’s it…and feel, feel. Eyes shut, eyes shut! You can feel better.’ (my eyes squeeze tightly shut as my hand and fingers turn and feel the imaginary legs and head) ‘The second joint…you want to get the rope well over the second joint.’ (I slip the imaginary rope over the hoof and position it) ‘Don’t forget to check the head’s still lined up! (I twist my arm to feel over my holographic (I wish) head and second leg)  Yup, pull, gentle, gently’ and so on and so on.

Then there’s one rather shocked bloke trying to grab the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t-foot staring at me with bug-eyed concentration whilst the other bloke, equally mesmerised, holds desperately onto the heifer’s tail crooning, soothing and smoothing. It was quite the stuff of slapstick!

The heifer was extremely patient and tolerant with her learners seeing that this was the first time for her too, and in due course a beautiful heifer calf was born – bright, lusty and healthy.

first female calf born to heifer Lapis

We all went to bed happy and contented.

ahhhh.....

I haven’t dropped off the edge. I’m not shirking or dodging or avoiding. I’m not even suffering from virtual overload or writer’s block (in fact I’ve been itching to write). What I have been doing these last few weeks is getting ready; preparing.

This Wednesday I’m having my knee operated on – anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction – and I’ll be out of action…for some time…so they say. In my life there’s never, ever going to be a good time to be ‘legless’.

Over the last few weeks I’ve revelled, enjoyed, embraced, slogged, worn-out and appreciated the extraordinary aptitude and freedom (normally taken entirely for granted) my two legginess gives me. From the domesticity of making marmalade…

for the marmalade addict in our household...70 jars! (and I must be co-dependant)

…to the exhaustion of hedge laying;

Finished! the massive double hedge between Square Field and Out Across

in the summer we'll clean out the ditch and cast up the bank

from mucking out the cow palace…

cows in temporary accommodation during mucking out of the Cow Palace in preparation for calving

Cow Palace...clean, ready and waiting for the cows return

…and crutching the ewes prior to lambing to walking the dogs;

alert and ready

'Can you see a movement over there...?'

…driving the car (NO driving for SIX weeks!), handling the bobcat and the tractor…bringing in wood…gardening…doing housework…the cooking…going to work…! Even finding the first dump of frog spawn…

First frog spawn found 4th february

First frog spawn found 4th february

…and seeing pussy willow bursting its buds at the top of our lane..

Pussy willow peeping out...

I expect you’ll be hearing a lot from me in the coming weeks of my enforced incarceration!

Gwen with her new calf observing Ginny's behaviour. It's such a commical photo!

Gwen with her new calf observing Ginny's behaviour. It's such a commical photo!

As my son’s family turned up, jet-lagged and travel-worn from New Zealand with brand new baby Isla and electric three year old Theo, so did the broken-washing-machine-fix-it-man and, on cue, my last very expectant calving cow started bawling in the field. Though desperately wanting to drink in and savour every minute of their arrival the intensity of the moment was shoved to one side as we manhandled broken washing machine into the van (it wasn’t an easy mend) followed by a hasty kiss and hug and a sprint down the lane to bawling cow.

Bawling cow, Ginny, assured us she’d had her calf and it was now lost.

“That cow hasn’t calved” I said

“LOST,” she bellowed “lost.”

It’s in the brambles, over there! NO, no, no, in the ditch, drowning in the DITCH. GET IT OUT NOW! Silly, silly, it ‘s stuck in that rush clump. No not there, it had squiggled through the fencing and was bouncing about two fields away. GET MY CALF.

We searched, we waded, we crawled, we prodded, we poked. Just in case…

“That cow hasn’t calved” I said

“Yes I jolly well have” she shouted “AND I’ve lost it”

We eventually left her. We dashed back up the lane to fling arms around the travellers and to settle them into home. We answered a million and one questions about tractors, bobcats, diggers and chainsaws (Theo), welcomed gorgeous tiny baby Isla into the world and shared a garbled eighteen months of news and scandal with Joe and Jess. The cow continued irrepressibly in the background.

“I’ll go check on her quickly.” And off I trotted down the lane. She hadn’t progressed much and a small piece of deflated membrain hung limply from her vulva. I couldn’t feel what was going on so decided to move her up to the cow palace. Moving a cow out of a field and up a lane away from her group and her ‘new-born-calf’ (she was convinced) is not easy. But patience and coercion works in the end, if very slowly…

Little by little I cajoled her out of the field and up the lane to the shed where Robert helped me get her into a pen.

Now I had her in a small enough space to do an internal examination. I was expecting a malpresentation, a dead calf or something that was grossly deformed. Holding my breath I found a fore leg…and then another, groped around and felt the nose and mouth – all fine and dandy. It must be dead…I pinched the pastern…it moved!

I looked up at Robert “It’s alive!” I beamed “It’s alive, though quite a size.” Fiddling about inside I said “I’m going to put the ropes on. She’s not pushing very vigorously either. Let’s go for it. Get it out. It’s getting late too.”

I didn’t have too much trouble attaching the ropes as she wasn’t bearing down hard…and then we began pulling.

The stimulation started much better contraction too. She lay down and with every contraction we eased the calf forward. Luckily she’s an older cow with a roomy pelvic opening, this was one big fellow. We eased the head out and then with a final tremendous heave from Ginny the shoulders and body followed.

He was fine lad. Ginormous and perfect. I cleaned the mucus away from his airways and after a couple of laboured gulps he began a steady rhythmic breathing. Ginny was up within a couple of seconds licking him enthusiastically and lowing softly. After an hour or so I went to help him onto the teat so I would know he’d had a good belly full of colostrum before I went to bed.

Tomorrow I hoped for an uneventful, enjoyable, long awaited catch up day with my family. But….

..and Willow! Watching from a safe distance.

..and Willow! Watching from a safe distance.

hawthorn flowers, locks park

hawthorn flowers, locks park

“Oh hi. Simon, it’s Paula. Time to shear the sheep I think. I know. Yes, of course, yes, definitely…we’ll go after this band of rain? I would, please, yes. Before the weekend would be good. It’s coming right again Thursday, Friday. No, spring’s certainly later this year for sure. But the May’s well out now, the lanolin will have risen…! Excellent see you then. Byee.”

I put the phone down. Good another job ticked off the list

It’s interesting how, even in these days of uberfast-multisocial-technoinfo-popscience, we still (well, I, anyhow) rely on folklore and old sayings, sometimes without even knowing it.

The Hawthorn or May tree is seeped with them and is one of the most enchanted and sacred of our native trees. The flowers, known simply as May, have long been considered to mark the proper onset of spring and the renewal of life.  Spring often comes earlier these days, but in the past not until the May was in flower was it time to plough the land or shear the sheep: its arrival is deeply symbolic in the countryside. Hence my comment to Simon on the phone about the May blossoming and lanolin having risen in the sheep’s fleeces.

Still May Day is celebrated in places by collecting boughs of May blossom as part of the ceremonies and festivities.  Though the tree now flowers around the middle of the month, it flowered much nearer the beginning of the month, before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752. But take care before you bring it into the house! Using the blossoms for decorations outside was allowed, but there is a very strong taboo against bringing hawthorn into the home as it was believed illness and death would soon follow.

Botanists discovered that the chemical trimethylamine present in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue. In the past, when corpses were kept at home for several days before burial, people would have been very familiar with the smell of death so perhaps this is part of the reason why hawthorn indoors was banned.

But still the tender young shoots were eaten and referred to as bread and cheese.  My freshly calved cows will avariciously seek them out too – they are said to be beneficial for lactation and milk production. The blossom and berries are made into wines and jellies. Known as “valerian of the heart”, hawthorn is highly valued as a heart tonic across a range of cultures, and decoctions of the flowers and leaves are used to reduce blood pressure.

The strong, close-grained wood is used for carving, and for making tool handles and other small household items.  Also known as white thorn and quick thorn,  its spines and fast growth make it the ideal hedging shrub and it has been used very widely to this purpose.

But beware! Care should be taken before removing any of its branches.  Do not damage the tree in case the guardian spirit becomes angered! Any Hawthorn tree standing alone should be avoided, and only parts from trees forming hedges should be taken.  The Hawthorn is particularly sacred to the fairies, and in Ireland and Britain is part of the fairy-tree triad known as the “Oak, Ash and Thorn”, and where all three trees grow together it is said that one may see the fairies.  In which case our hedges should be full of them.  Perhaps they now appear as dormice.  Do faeries sleep a lot?

Enough, enough! There is a wealth of information to which I’ve given you the links. As soon as it’s stopped raining I’m off to collect May blossom petals which I’ll dry and use for confetti for my son’s wedding….

I’m sure this isn’t the only job where you flip from total elation to utter dejection in a bat of an eye but it must rank pretty high on the list.

I was feeling very optimistic about this year. After all it was a fine winter: frost, ice, bright cold days and even snow. I liked it, a proper season with humans, stock and nature responding accordingly. And spring? Spring’s been magnificent; full of sun and promise, smiley people and happy animals. The difficulties of the last two summers began fading into the distance. I’d even started to plan…

Then last week it began to rain (actually I don’t mind rain, it’d be a stupid place to live if I did). But this is not gentle rain or even just normal rain, rather the stair-rod kind we’ve experienced more and more over the last two years – monsoon rain.

no grass, just thousands of orchids and wild flowers thriving in Dillings, our hay meadow

no grass, just thousands of orchids and wild flowers thriving in waterlogged Dillings, our hay meadow

A blogging cyber-friend, Elizabethm, came for an ‘in-the-flesh’ visit the afternoon the rain started in earnest. After she left I had a long phone call with my son in France about wedding arrangements (he and Berengere are getting married next month in Marseille) so by the time I got out to check the calving cows it was almost dark and still pelting with rain. One of the cows, Hermione, looked pretty imminent. It was too dark to move her so I left hoping she would hang on till morning.

All night I listened to the sound of torrential downpours and the wind frenziedly whipping and slapping at the bedroom curtains. As soon as it was light enough to see I was up to check the cow and sure enough there, by her side, was a sodden shaking calf. At least she was alive, though being born in the worst of the wind and rain she had not managed to suck and was fast becoming hypothermic. As quick as I could I moved them into the shed, towelled the calf and began the long laborious job of trying to get a sucking reflex. Not as easy as a lamb, you can’t put a 40 kilo calf on your lap, open its mouth, clamp it onto the teat, hold it there, stimulate sucking whilst pinning its 600 kilo mother against the wall with your shoulder. You desperately need the cooperation (hollow laugh) of both cow and calf. Suffice to say after nearly four hours and on the point of giving up, I managed to get the calf on the teat whereupon she miraculously changed from a fading shadow into a lusty ravenous monster-calf!

hermione with her heifer calf sucking lustily

hermione with her heifer calf sucking lustily

During this palaver and one of my ‘it’s-never-going-to-suck’ exits we went to check the main herd. More drama! The river was in full spate separating a couple of cows and a group of calves from the rest of the herd. Both groups were bawling franticly at each other divided by a dangerously fast flowing torrent. In a situation like this it’s best to do nothing (the animals could panic and throw themselves into the river) and hope that both the rain and river will ease off, fairly fast!

hermione licking her calf

hermione blissfully licking her new calf

Luckily by the time I’d finished with the cow and calf the herd had reunited and we were able to move them back to the farm for safety.

So my optimism has taken a knock. Still the rain rains and it’s hard not to feel a little pessimistic about the outcome. We thought that building the polytunnel was a sure fired way of guaranteeing a hot summer and now we’re not so sure…but this morning there’s watery sunlight, no wind and a grin on my face!

Mary asked how I now managed to tweet. After all, she commented, you’re running a farm, a business, and holding a blog together. This week, Mary, believe me, it’s been challenging!

I returned from Marseille with a French cold – very different, my body maintained, from an English one – more refined, targeted, kind of specific.

And as I arrived home on Monday evening one of the cows, Wildcat, began to calve. It was a straight forward calving, with no problems, but it meant we didn’t get to bed until well after midnight.

I’ve also had a hot line to New Zealand. Joe, my son, and his partner Jess were waiting for their baby to be born – she was two weeks late. Jess, as you can imagine, was almost at her wits end. Every minute over one’s due date seems an eternity, so two weeks must seem interminable.

A small problem had arisen with Jemima’s calf (born whilst I was away) who developed an infected navel and needed daily treatment with antibiotics.

My last parcel of fat lambs had been procured by an organic co-operative and were due to go on either Tuesday or Wednesday. At present there’s a shortage of organic lamb, and prices are excellent, but selling this way when it is not my norm involves a fair amount of organisation – entailing paperwork, transport arrangements and bellying-out. This last involves shearing the tummy and crutch area – a doddle for an experienced shearer but a little more testing for a novice like me.

A group of friends – the erstwhile ‘Pie-nighters’ were convening here for a meal on Wednesday evening. It also happened to be the evening Jess at long last went into labour. Between absorbing and challenging debate and calls to the other side of the world I eventually got to bed in the small hours with the wonderful news that Jess had produced a beautiful baby girl !

Joe and Jess's baby daughter, my granddaughter, Islay, just minutes after her birth

Joe and Jess's beautiful baby daughter, my granddaughter, Islay, just minutes after her birth

The next day I had to be away early to complete the last legal rigmarole on my mother’s estate so probate could be granted.

This brought us to Friday and a household full of family for the Easter weekend. Our new puppy was due to arrive on Monday – but amid cries of ‘Oh, no. We won’t have time to get to know her. We’ve got to go back on Monday!’ I arranged to pick her up on Friday afternoon…little did I know that in true bank holiday style our kitchen tap would decide to give up the ghost and regurgitate a fountain of hot water and my trusted washing machine gasped its last breath…so Mary, you hit the nail on the head, this week’s been a bit of a struggle!

Puppy post tomorrow!

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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