Last week, we left our intrepid bovine, Polywog, lowing proudly to her new and very wet calf. We dried off the calf and stuck her underneath a pile of hay to keep warm. Momma got warm water (so as not to chill her) and endless second-cut hay. All was calm, all was well.
We always keep the cow in the barn for a day or two after calving just to keep an eye on her. Polywog seemed to be doing fine until late afternoon the following day when she wouldn’t get up. This is a classic sign of “milk fever” which is common in cows. It’s a misleading term as it has nothing to do with fever, but rather calcium.
Milk contains calcium, which is produced in the bones. Sometimes, though, a cow cannot produce calcium quickly enough with the sudden onset of lactation. The body’s solution is to pull it from another, readily available source: muscles. Unfortunately, you need calcium to control your muscles. Without it the animal cannot stand, curls up into a fetal position, systems shut down and the animal dies. It happens suddenly.
Thankfully, the solution can be just as dramatic -an IV of calcium straight to the bloodstream can bounce the cow back in minutes.
So we gave her a bottle, but instead of getting better she started to convulse. It’s cold in the barn and she was not maintaining body heat. We grab a (very nice!) wool blanket and toss it over her. It’s not enough.
Lisa races home and brings back a sleeping bag (MY sleeping bag; what about hers?) and we put that over Polywog too. Then Lisa and I basically sprawl over the cow trying to add our body heat while gently rocking her. A second bottle of calcium produces improvement, but it is short lived. We’re running out of options -and time.
I call the vet who suggests a third bottle of calcium, but ends with the caveat “It may also overwhelm her heart, but either way you’ll have done what you could.” This is not a choice I want to make. We’re about to lose this wonderful cow. So we compromise and give her half of the third bottle. Her shaking perceptibly slows and stops. All is calm. It worked! She’s pulled through!
Then without warning her head drops. She is completely still. I’m thinking “Oh, my God. She just died.” I pry open her eyelids and her eyes are rolled back. Nooooo! Damn, damn, damn. Anguish and guilt start to overwhelm me. What could we have done differently? How could we have saved her? Could we have caught it earlier? Why did it have to be so cold?
Through my grief I slowly realize I can feel air coming out her nostrils. Yes, her chest just heaved. My God, she’s still with us, though barely. We give her the rest of the third bottle and wait. Time has stopped, but we are deep into the evening. It’s cold, dark, and deathly quiet except for a weak, rasping breath. I’m grieving yet irrationally hoping. She stirs her head. That’s good! Will she eat anything?
We shove some molasses-drenched “medicinal” grain under her nose. She sniffs and starts to eat it! Yeah! After a few minutes she tries to get up, but cannot manage it. We wait another span of indeterminate time then try to get her up again. She won’t do it. I’m convinced that with the cold ambient temperature she will not make it through the night. We’ve got to get her up and moving around! But how?
Hold on. I know what will motivate her. We fetch the calf and put it next to her. Momma sees her baby, lows softly then more vigorously and starts to lick her. With a little encouragement, Polywog gets ups. She's unsteady, but tries to follow her calf, which is racing around. We catch the calf and guide her to Momma’s milk. At that moment, cow and calf both find what they are looking for. Each is alive because of the other.
Pollywog and her calf, Lillypad, the next morning.
Pollywog finally calved at around 8:15 last night. We had been watching the signs for a few days. She waited until her official due date -and then held off until we were done for the day and gone!
So Alice and I went back to the farm after dinner to check on her. Her water had broken. She was softly mooing. Then a hoof appeared. Several contractions later… still one hoof. This is not good, I thought. There should be two (front) hooves followed by a nose. We gave her more time, but still only one hoof. I took off about 7 layers, washed up my hand and arm and gently probed around. Yup. There it is, just in back of the first one. Good. I don’t really want to do a James Herriot in a cold barn. The calf is positioned correctly, thank God! We’ll wait some more.
These are longer contractions now. She’s pushing hard. Yes, here it comes! There’s the second hoof! Next time around a tongue appears briefly as if playing hide-n-seek. Here it is again -and a nose! Alice and I each hold a hoof, not so much to pull, but to prevent the calf from slipping back in. A few more pushes, the head comes out and is quickly followed by the rest.
We now have an extremely wet, slimy calf on the floor. As I wipe the gunk from its mouth, it shudders and magically starts breathing. How does it know? Alice, Momma and I wipe it down. After a few minutes it’s somewhat dry. I milk Pollywog and Alice gives her -yes, it’s a girl!- some warm Momma milk. Little Girl quickly figures out the whole bottle-thing and sucks down some essential colostrum.
We carry her to a prepared, dry pen, put a “calf” blanket on her and bury her under a pile of hay. It is a cold night after all and there is no heat in the barn. She looks out of her hay pile at us, not sure what just happened. It's suddenly a big, cold, strange world! Everything has changed. I don't understand anything. But I think I'll take a nap. It's been, after all, a busy day.
PS – both Little Girl and Momma are doing fine this morning.
A couple of the kids (a.k.a. interns) will be staying around for the upcoming holidays, so we decided to get a Christmas tree.
Alice, Zoe and I traipsed around the woods surrounding the house looking for a suitable Charlie Brown tree. They finally settled upon one and I gave Alice the saw to do the honors. Being a Brooklyn girl, this was her first time felling a Christmas tree! They took turns dragging it back. After a bit of pruning, the tree is now up and trimmed, if leaning slightly. The cats keep looking at it with suspicion.
Lisa and the girls also made giant paper snowflakes to hang in the farm store as well as ornaments representing each of the cows. Lisa got little elf ornaments with the kid’s names on them to add to our collection.
I keep thinking of the people in our lives during Christmas’ past. Some of them we still keep in touch with. Others, where are they now? What are they doing with their lives? Are they content? What remorse, pain, amazing and ordinary events make up their lives now? Whether our paths intersect again or not, they remain a part of my life. And this holiday season is about life, new beginnings, and hope.
Randy Robar, co-owner of Kiss the Cow Farm