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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!

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.....

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.

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!

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.

Poor Princess.

Princess's last calf 5 July 2007

Princess's last calf 5 July 2007

Woom! Bang-Boom! Smash! Splinter, crack, shatter.  Debris crashes around me in a confusion of noise.  The bobcat seesaws violently and comes to rest as another spear-sharp section of concrete roof panelling hits, exploding into razor shards. I freeze. Heart stopping shocked.  For a moment I have no idea what’s happened.

Everyone’s away this weekend. Robert’s on a hoverfly identification course near Shrewsbury and Olly at some friends’ house-warming party.

I check on the cows at around eleven-thirty yesterday evening. Desiree is restless and her udder is full.  I decide to pen her in case she calves. Desiree is the only one of my cows who is unpredictable and protective  at calving. I  make sure everything is as safe as possible in case I have to intervene.  I check on her again in the early hours of the morning. Nothing doing – though by the time I go out to do the morning chores she is well into labour.

Feeling very pleased she chosen such a sensible time I get on with mucking out, scraping down and feeding the main herd. As I’m scraping a large heap of dung breaks away and deposits itself outside Desiree’s pen. I make a mental note to miss it when I reverse back in.

Reversing back up into the cow palace I turn to avoid the dumped heap, and  out of the corner of my eye see Desiree beginning to heave. For a split second my attention slips, the bobcat hits the pile of dung; it’s thrown off balance, pitches forward and lurches backwards, my foot instinctively slams down (but bobcats don’t have breaks, they have hydraulic control pedals), the hydraulic arms and scraper fly into the air catching the high door lintel, with another violent seesaw the arms break down through the lintel and smash up through the roof. The whole incident is over in seconds.

a day in the life...wrecked cow palace!

a day in the life...wrecked cow palace!

Eventually the bobcat stabilises. I get out shakily and survey the wreckage. I feel weak. Miraculously Olly arrives on queue – he’s come home to give me a hand with the animals. No one has ever been more welcome!

oh deary, deary me

oh deary, deary me

Despite the noise, chaos and ruins, Desiree quietly and purposefully carried on giving birth to a large healthy bull calf – with brains. Just as well, as after my debacle I sure didn’t feel like risking life and limb getting a calf onto the teat of a volatile cow!

I am hopelessly behind. I know I have a legitimate excuse but the things-that-must-be-done mound doesn’t get smaller – it just keeps growing!

The leaver is pulled, my head spins wildly like a fruit machine, then slows to a juddering stop. And the jackpot? Three Cherries? Three Lemons? Three Oranges?  No, and no spewing waterfall of bounty either.  My fruits are Mucking Out Cow Palace, Lambing Preparations,  Straw Delivery,  Soil Association Inspection or yet another TB Test.   (We are contiguous with infected herds, they say, and must now be tested every six months – but we have been contiguous, no, cirtiguous for ages, and this test will be right in the middle of calving…)

mucking out the cow palace

mucking out the cow palace

After landing three Straw Delivery fruits on Thursday, on Friday  I pulled the jackpot of Cow Palace Mucking Out .  So it was all hands on deck to get the job done and dusted by the afternoon, so cows could be returned to a sparkly clean and carpeted palace in time for imminent calving.

These are savvy cows. Instead of the usual thunderous explosion out of the cow palace, a decorous bunch of gigantic pregnant galleons swayed rhythmically down the lane. Memories of deep frozen wastes still fresh in their minds, they were not too sure if they wanted to spend another day banished to hostile lands without food or water. They need not have worried: temporary accommodation was available in Silage barn with all basic mod cons laid on.

Meanwhile back at the ranch all was a hive of activity and in record time we’d mucked out, hosed down, scraped and swept up, re-hung gates, bedded down and fed up.

making the muck heap

making the muck heap

On their return, no longer worried about possible banishment, they took time to take in and consider the state of the surrounding countryside, adjust their rather uncomfy corsets, pull  nonchalantly at hedgerow ferns or straying binds of ivy and discuss the merits of employing full-time staff 24/7 365 days a year.

After a cursory look at their gleaming accommodation and dragging a haughty hoof along the feed barrier to check for clinging grunge they got down to the all important task of eating, belching, breaking wind and dunging…just to give it back that lived-in appeal!

building sand castles?

building sand castles?

The next day my lucky strike was Lambing Shed preparations…

Locks Park Farm

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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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