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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…
‘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.
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!
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!
Mother and daughter continue doing well….
It’s done – they’re out! Well, bar a handful of dry cows that’ll stay in to finish the remains of opened haylage bales.
I expected the new bull might be tricky to move. Buying him when I did last autumn he didn’t have an opportunity to run with the herd and he isn’t familiar with our farm or boundaries. Apart from which frustration and hormonal overload could make him very unpredictable. Not counting his twelve hour steamy sexathon with Severn back last September he’s been denied sex and those tantalising teasing heifers have been keeping him on his toes!
He came out of his pen as if ignited by rocket fuel. The almost-tonne of him bucked, kicked and charged through the cow palace roaring like the minotaur himself. And those saucy heifers with their come-hither eyes? Not so quick to throw their knickers at him now – they backed into the furthest corner of their pen, huddled and quaking, refusing to budge and inch!
We eventually persuaded them out of their corner and into the yard to face their bête noir. We then brought the cows and new calves into the group and were ready for the off.
I shout from inside the cow palace “Okay, calves okay. Ready when you are. Stop if I shout…”
Robert and Olly yell above the incessant cacophony of calling cattle “We’re opening the top yard gate now. You ready?”
“Yes” I scream over the noise – and the jostling rolling tide of heaving motley-moulting red bodies surges forward leaving baby calves standing and stunned as their mothers disappear from sight.
It’s my job to keep the calves grouped and moving as best I can until they get the hang of running with the herd. All these calves have known is their secure cow palace world. One calf manages to slip through a gap by the cattle crush. I shriek “Hang on! Escapee, escapee. Hold the cattle!”
Olly and Robert do their best to steady and hold the stampede as I manoeuvre the calf back in with its herd. As I succeed the bull and a heifer break rank and steam off down the lane…we let them run holding back the cows; we know they won’t go too far (here’s praying) without the main herd. The herd strains and pushes forward eager to catch up with the disappearing pair though luckily Robert and Olly manage to control the pace.
We are prepared, the gate to Cow Moor is open and the rest of the lane blocked off, the bull and his consort swerve into the field, Robert and Olly step aside allowing the cattle to stream in after them. It’s done. The herd is safe and contained. We leave them in Cow Moor for the morning to let off steam, establish the pecking order and come to terms with the appearance of a new bull. After lunch, when they are hopefully calmer, we will walk them a mile or so down the road to the River Meadows.