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Sadly, Princess delivered stillborn twin bull calves at midnight.
Sad for many reasons. It’s heartbreaking seeing a perfect baby calf being born dead, let alone two. It’s heartbreaking listening to a freshly-calved cow lowing softly as she licks and nudges her new calf with a rapturous expression, waiting expectantly for that slappy-wet shake of the head, that sneeze and the responding ‘merrr’ …which doesn’t come. I never get used to it.
But for Princess it’s more tragic – you see this was her last chance.
Princess was born to Severn one autumn six years ago. Out of kilter with my spring-calving pattern she was the only baby calf in the herd. As a result she was indulged and spoilt by cows and humans alike. Hence her name Princess!
It was because of Princess I changed the way and time I wean calves. Due to her October birth she was impossible to wean because the herd was outside during the summer and no field barrier would be enough to keep mother and daughter apart. In the end I left them to it. Hoping as Severn came nearer and nearer to calving that she would exercise some control on her precocious milk-hungry daughter. Amazingly she did, and in just four weeks. By the time Severn calved – with her daughter close by her side throughout the labour and birth – Princess was weaned and never attempted to suckle again. She happily took up duties as chief babysitter to her little brother while her mother went off to graze. I now try to mimic this pattern as best I can within the confines of winter housing.
But unfortunately both Severn and Princess inherited genetic fertility problems. Princess has reared two healthy calves. But she persists in calving out of sync and repeatedly returning to service. She hasn’t calved in almost two years.
On Sunday she lay down and strained, just the once, but nothing came of it. I kept a close eye on her. She began calving last night. Though she wasn’t showing signs of undue stress I was a little concerned. The sack, when it appeared, was a thick opaque white double balloon with ribbons of membrane. Then it was all over. She pushed out the twins and placenta in record time, but to no avail.
Now it’s time to start preparations for calving which begins mid February. I need to wean the remaining calves (bar two) and also reintroduce a group of in-calf heifers back into the main herd. When the cows were housed back in October I separated off these heifers to give the cows with calves at foot enough space. However, I know the reintroduction will cause a ruckus – there will be a good deal of fighting, hierarchical testing and displaying. The cows are heavily pregnant and the yard’s very slippy due to the icy conditions, I want to avoid stressing the animals.
I came up with a plan. I would send the whole herd out for the day onto our frozen wastes, giving them plenty of room and better footing for any fighting. The herd would be full of beans at the general brouhaha, and, having got rid of their pent up energy and resolved hierarchical disputes they’d return safe in the evening. They would also be tired and hungry, which together with the break in routine, would make it easier for them to accept that their calves had been weaned.
Sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men do work out – to a tee!
A bawling explosive laval flow erupted from the cow palace and surged in a red steaming flood down the lane practically engulfing Robert, who was trying to instil some kind of control at the forefront. In case he failed and was trampled underfoot we had strategically placed the tractor, topper and gate across the lane to avoid any unstoppable charge down to the River Meadows – luckily this was restraint enough and they poured into Cow Moor kicking, bucking, snorting and farting for England. After a quick gallivant and recky of the field they became aware that there were a good deal more of them than they thought. Let battle commence…I’ll let the photos do the telling!
Interestingly Jennifer, the herd matriarch, took absolutely no notice of the confrontations and battles happening around her. If she sauntered passed a tussling pair they would break off and back away submissively. The senior cows in her governing council, however, did test each other, though this was more of a ritualistic display.
The weaning also went without a hitch, there’s scarcely been a squeak out of the calves or cows.
I have been away for a few days; a flying weekend visit to Marseille to catch up with my son, Ben, his partner Berengere and little Camille (their daughter). They’ve recently started new jobs, found a flat to rent and settled Camille into childcare. I haven’t seen them since May; it’s been far too long.
In brilliant blue skies and unexpected freezing mistral winds we bundled up in coats, hats, scarves and gloves and set off to shop the colourful seasonal markets. Occasionally we took refuge in a hostelry where we could warm ourselves by a roaring fire, eat steaming platters of warming daubes or nurse mugs of rich thick hot chocolate before facing the elements again. We visited the ancient ochre-yellow hilltop towns of the Luberon and explored the extraordinary Village des Bories. Camille, a tiny Nordic ice-princess, with white blond hair, milky skin and the bluest eyes, was at home in the unusual icy conditions, laughing and running excitedly in the wild bitter winds. At home we caught up on six months of news, chatter and plans over long suppers and wine. It was over too quickly.
Robert and Olly were holding the fort at Locks Park and hoping to press on with the next stage in our fabulous polytunnel construction; the digging of sixteen deep holes (no mean feat on this land) and the concreting in of sixteen poles (to within a millimetre or so accuracy), which will form the structure’s anchor as well as becoming fixings for the tunnel’s huge metal hoops. They, the holes and posts, need to be deep, very strong and precise. With conditions such as they are it’s a tall order.
Earlier last week we were busy getting a former cattle shed ready to wean half a dozen or so large calves; they’d been preventing some of the smaller calves from feeding in the creep area we have sectioned off in the main cow palace. They are only nine months old but they’re big, very big – almost as hefty as some of my 18 month olds. As they were eating well I thought they would be easy to wean and happy at having a large, roomy space and more food all to themselves. How wrong was I! The poor little buggers have taken it hard with non-stop bawling and bellowing; if they hadn’t lost their voices I reckon there would still be a deafening cacophony instead of heartrending pathetic squeaky squeals. Their dams, after an initial twenty-four hour shout, have luckily settled down with contented sighs of relief at not being biffed by their overlarge offspring; they were, interestingly, my senior high-ranking cows.
I always try to avoid any unnecessary stress to my cattle and have over the years adopted a policy of weaning at the latest conceivable moment, encouraging as natural a weaning process as possible. It’s a delicate balance between cow and calf. I try to ensure the cow isn’t too exhausted and depleted before her next calving and that her calf won’t suffer any growth checks and is ready to exchange milk for cereal protein and good quality forage.
It’s interesting that my huge hulks may have looked ready in body but certainly weren’t ready psychologically to cut the cord. Though I’m pleased to report that now I’m back they’ve switched allegiance; every time they hear my voice or catch a glimpse of me around the farmyard strange strangled whistles and wheezes fill the air. And their mothers ? They look at me with knowing glances, as if to say “Well, m’dear, you’re welcome to them!”