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Thursday
Feb172011

Shirley's First Calf Arrives (17 February 11)

Like clockwork, right on her due date, our Guernsey heifer started showing signs of early labor. Perfect, I thought to myself, this is the weekend, so my better half can take care of the baby while I tend to the new calf and milk Shirley the cow for the first time. But Shirley was operating on her own schedule and there was no calf by bedtime. There was no calf the next morning or the next night. 

Borrowing an idea from the racehorse industry, which has all modern conveniences installed for the birth of foals, I plugged in the baby monitor, with its camera pointed at my cows. Instead of watching a calf being born, all that we saw was Shirley doing her best to bust down the barn to get outside. Apparently, she did not share my opinion that the pasture, with its snow-covered ground and 15F temperatures, was a poor place for a calf to be born. Fortunately, my chainsaw-wielding husband and our friends had done a good job building the barn a few months earlier and Shirley stayed contained inside the warm barn with its deep bed of straw. 

By the third night of intermittent signs of early labor and still no calf, my impatience was replaced with concern. What if the calf was dead? What if it was stuck? What if it was in a bad position? What if it was still alive but was about to die if it didn't get born soon? I called my sister, the real dairy farmer, with over a hundred head of Holstein cows, a whole complex of barns, and a giant tank that holds thousands of pounds of milk. She was happy to suggest a few more things that might have gone wrong, or that might be about to go wrong...a twisted uterus, milk fever, twins, entangled twins. "If there is still no calf, call the vet first thing in the morning!" she admonished. 

Morning came. No calf. I respect the natural processes of birth and the ability of mothers to birth and care for their babies themselves, but there is a place for modern medicine too. I was worried about my cow and decided to call the vet, but my phone was nowhere to be found. Even the toddler, who always knows where everything is and can find any misplaced item within minutes, could not locate my phone. (We use cell phones instead of a landline.) Apparently, in his haste to catch the train, Kevin had taken not only his own phone but mine as well. 

Bracing myself against the brutal 35 mph winds screaming out of the icy north, I bundled up myself and the two kids for the short drive to our dear friends who restore antique telephones and thus have plenty of phones available at all times. It was the vet's day off, but he comes from a dairy farming background himself and understands cow emergencies. He said he'd be right over. 

Declaring both calf and cow to be fine, he recommended some drugs to speed the process along. After a fleeting thought of using more natural methods to augment labor, such as calling my chiropractor who specializes in pregnancy or trying to find out if castor oil works on cows, I took the vet's advice. He cheerily left, saying that we'd have a calf within 28 hours. 

Warm and cozy in the house, we watched on the baby monitor. Sure enough, in a few hours, there were feet. Then a nose. We rushed down to the barn so that we wouldn't miss the calf's grand entrance. The feet and legs were enormous, and the nose looked big too. Unfortunately, Shirley was not making any more progress pushing the calf out. After watching and waiting, I decided I'd have to pull the calf. I do most of my farming activities with the two kids in tow, and this event would be no exception. With the infant tucked snugly inside the baby carrier and happily nursing, and the toddler at my side, I found ropes, attached them to the calf's feet, and waited for the next contraction. I pulled with each contraction for a few minutes and then--hurray!--the calf was out. Sure enough, it was a giant bull calf, just as expected for a cow that is overdue and has a long labor. 

 

Like a typical calf from a modern dairy breed, the bull calf was too weak to stand up at first and appeared to have no chance of standing up and nursing. I milked some colostrum from Shirley and fed the cold, wimpy calf a bottle. I had to bottle feed him for about 48 hours before he finally managed to stand up and nurse. This gives me yet another reason to appreciate the heritage breed milking Devon cows, who commonly easily give birth to rambunctious calves who leap to their feet and nurse within an hour of birth. Hopefully the Guernsey milk, renowned for its abundant golden cream, will be worth the trouble! 

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