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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.

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!

herd management

herd management

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!

the battle of the bulge. I was told many , many years ago that fighting cows make for the milk vein with their horns

the battle of the bulge. I was told many, many years ago that fighting cows make for their opponent's milk vein with their horns, which you can see happening here, thankfully these are hornless and relatively harmless (to a degree).

the battle continues for a good half hour

this battle continued for a good half hour, each cow lifting and pushing the other with immense force.

the heifer Kate being taken on by last year's youngest member of the  herd Jemima

heifer Kate (the youngest and smallest to be reintroduced) being taken on by last year's youngest herd member, Jemima. See the steam?

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.

Desiree and Wildcat's ritualistic testing

Desiree and Wildcat's ritualistic testing

The weaning also went without a hitch,  there’s scarcely been a squeak  out of  the calves or cows.

Very satisfying.

eyeballing and steaming!

eyeballing and steaming!

Well, I’m speechless. Lost for words. Flabbergasted.

Severn, one of the sedate elders of the herd, came bulling.  Although she’s getting old and still has a large calf sucking, on Saturday morning she was in full flagrant heat and kicking up a rumpus in the cow palace.

As the cattle are inside Mr Big is no longer running with the cows and calves so I walked her round to his pen. He was delighted at this diversion, not having had any action for a month or more, and began his chat up line without a moment’s hesitation.  Sniffing, licking, snorting, nose crinkled up towards the heavens, nose ring practically touching his eyebrows in excitement and anticipation. Drooling and sweating, he gauged a couple of minutes to be enough foreplay and attempted to mount her.

She was having none of it. Tail clamped firmly down she shimmied and sashayed away from him at the crucial moment. Frustrated, but experienced, he resumed his advances. I left them to get their act together and got on with the chores.

After about an hour or so Mr Big was still having no success and his frustration and impatience was beginning to overspill into aggression.  So I decided to move Severn in with the new youngster, the toy boy.

I couldn’t believe my eyes… she she flashed him a long, smouldering, come-hither gaze as soon was she through the gate of his pen, and with barefaced brazen lust  presented him with a backside on fire and stood as firm as a rock as the show began. Rampant, raw, unrefined sex exploded throughout the cow palace. Mr Big howled with damaged pride at one end of the shed while the new ‘Mr Small’ roared in virile sexual frenzy at the other.   Severn, respectable Miss Marpleseque Severn, coudn’t get enough of it!

After a couple of hours of non stop activity the pair settled down to a late breakfast, exhausted and replete.  Her belly full and libido sated, Severn demanded to be returned to her calf; she swaggered back to the cows with this almost human smirk. And I swear the grin hasn’t left her face yet.

severn and her new 'toy' enjoy a late breakfast!

Severn and her new toy, Mr Small, enjoy a late breakfast! Now I understand it was not for nothing was she duped 'Seven of Nine' - of Voyager fame (see ear tag, and her name...)

We still have no grass. I’m waiting patiently for the current warm weather to have its magic stimulating effect on the recalcitrant stuff. The cattle are not! As I write this, the perfect, here-at-last, golden-green evening is reverberating with deafening booming bellows, bouncing and crashing up from the yard just metres below me. This noise thunders around my head, twangs and plunks every taut stretched fibre in my body with insistent persistent discord. Of course this is exactly what it is meant to do. I, as number one food provider, am failing at my duty. The unrelenting bawling coupled with the compelling force of combined herd psyche is designed to send me into a spin, in much the same way as the cry of a newborn.

I’ll explain. Last year’s wet summer and very late harvest meant the forage we made was not as nutritious as usual. In the winter, when the cows are in-calf, this is not a problem. But now they are coping with the demands of their fast growing calves with an ever increasing need for milk. My cows are telling me they need plenty of accessible protein, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins as well as roughage, and last year’s haylage is not delivering. Fresh grass would!

Trouble is, the cold wet spring over the last two months has meant the ground is still soggy and producing little forage. Coupled with this, our landlord on the ground we normally turn out onto – our best drained land – has entered into an Environmental Stewardship Scheme which prohibits the use of round feeders. So we can’t put the cattle out just yet. It’s been a long winter, very nearly six months of looking after the herd indoors. And they are not stupid – they know full well they should be out by now – it’s close to summer and they can smell what fresh grass there is: it’s time to be munching that first delicious bite. So the psychological warfare escalates….

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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