The weather this summer has been relentlessly rainy and exceptionally hot. Except for a short 10 days at the start of August, the ground at the farm has stayed wet with high humidity, like living in a jungle. The weeds grew wild and I couldn’t cut the grass fast enough. I am still mowing the yard and fence lines as if the month was May, although the cattle are enjoying fields with grass so high it tickles their udders. The cows are fat and I am exhausted.
And then there are the five heifers that were bred at the end of 2019. This group is our first set of replacement heifers, all daughters from the previous bull. Heifers are female cows who have not yet had a calf, and as with all first time mama’s, the first birth can be a nerve wracking time, for both the heifer and me. I calculated their calving dates should start around mid-August.
Towards the end of July, we decided to separate the expecting heifers from the main herd and move them closer, into the front field. Here I could keep an eye on them and in case of difficulties, the working area was close by. We put up a poly wire line at one end of the mountain field, then used feed buckets to sort the bred heifers on the gate side of the line. Reba, Bonnie and Oprah cooperated, while unfortunately, Shirley and Mahalia balked and ran back to the woods. As a last minute decision, I decided to also move Scarlet and her 5 month old twins. Scarlet had been losing weight trying to keep up with nursing those two growing girls. The twins were old enough be weaned and would thrive with supplemental calf feed. This would also give Scarlet time to regain her conditioning as she was most likely already bred again.
So the small herd of Scarlet, her twins and 3 of the 5 expectant heifers made their way to the South field, through the Backyard field and finally to the safety of the Front field.
By staying with the main herd, Shirley and Mahalia sentenced me to two treks a day to the Mountain field, often in deep mud and pouring rain, to check on them as calving time approached. During one particularly wet and dreary span, our motorized mule broke down so I made the trips on foot. By mule or on foot, Hugo is always by my side for companionship, protection and at times, to drive me crazy. Such is life with a farm puppy!
Finally, after making dozens of trips without any news, early one morning I found all of the cows in the field grazing except for one who was standing at the edge of the woods. Shirley had given birth to a completely black little bull! Shirley, the one-eyed, hapless, orphaned baby heifer had grown into beautiful, full grown cow with her own little bull.
1 of 5 heifers have successfully birthed their calves.
Shirley is also a fantastic mama! She is quite protective and calls her little bull with a fog horn of a moo, and he comes running. She must have a bit of dairy cow in her genetics because her udder is huge, always full. She could keep 3 calves well fed. In just a week, her little bull is strong and lively.
Mid-August and with one successful birth completed, there were four more to go. I wasn’t sure if the next one would be Reba in the Front field or Mahalia in the Mountain field. My twice daily trips to check on Mahalia continued.
And then just before daybreak on August 29 as I was taking Hugo out for his pre-breakfast walk, I heard a quiet mama-moo from the Front field. The sun had not yet risen enough to see but I was sure a new calf had been born. An hour later, I found Reba with her newly minted heifer.
2 of 5 heifers have successfully birthed their calves.
A few days later and this heifer is already running joyful circles around the grazing cows. She is strong, pretty and thriving.
Mahalia, a.k.a Horny, had begun to look more motherly with each passing day. She is a leaner, medium framed cow who was never hugely pregnant but her udder began filling up and her back area became floppier.
Then one afternoon as I made my rounds, Horny was nowhere to be found. After searching the woods and the briar patch, I finally found her and a brand new bull hidden in the tall grass. She still has a bit of wild cow in her, so I kept my distance not wanting to make the new mama nervous.
Every newborn calf on the farm receives a dose of Inforce III, a respiratory vaccination, that is given as a liquid in their nostrils. I like to vaccinate the babies when they are between 12-24 hours old, after Mama has them dried off and the calf has nursed a few times. The mama’s are a bit calmer after some time has passed as well. The next morning, I drove out to check on Horny and her calf and found she had moved him to the other side of the field, into the middle of a large briar path that covers a steep hillside. A perfect spot to keep the baby safe, Horny was standing guard and she even made a run at the mule, mostly because Hugo was with me. I waited until later in the afternoon to try and dose the calf. With Bill along to help, we headed out around the time the herd typically went for water as I was hoping to find the calf alone. Leaving Hugo at home, we went to the briar patch approaching from the opposite direction of the waterer. There was no sign of Horny as I made my way through the briars, using clippers to clear a path, looking for the calf. Thankfully, tucked among the weeds and thorns, his white face gave him away. Not knowing exactly where Mama was and fearing being trapped by her and those horns, Bill stood guard while I crawled into the spot where the calf was laying. There was only one way in and out, and I was praying that the calf didn’t moo and that Horny was busy getting a drink. Speaking softly to the little bull, I gently lifted his head and gave him the vaccination. Thankfully, he didn’t make move or a sound. I was able to back out of the spot and make my way down to the mule with only a few thorns and bloody scratches as a reward. We drove toward the waterer, and there was Horny, already making her way towards her calf at the sight of the mule.
3 of 5 heifers have successfully birthed their calves.
The remaining pregnant heifers, Oprah and Bonnie, were safely in the Front field so my frequent treks to the far field had thankfully ended. I could casually keep an eye on the last two through out the day. Oprah’s mama, Gilley, had been quite the cow. All of her calves were bulls except for her last which was Oprah. Gilley’s nickname was “The Flying Cow” because during one working day, she went airborne over a brand new gate, completely squashing it, and escaping out of the working area. Gilley was also the only cow to almost kill me the first time I tried to gender check one of her newborn calves.
Early in the morning on September 4, Oprah was far away from the herd at the end of the field. As I approached her on foot, I saw a tiny patch of black pop up from the ground. Oprah had her baby! With the memory of her mama in the forefront of my mind, I cautiously approached the pair. Talking quietly to Oprah, I approached the calf with mama about 2 feet away. I waited until Oprah turned a bit sideways and then I gently checked the baby’s gender, another heifer! Thankfully, Oprah was not just like her mama and had not tried to kill me.
4 of 5 heifers have successfully birthed their calves.
One more heifer left to give birth. I was beginning to believe this crazy summer might actually end on a good note. The weather had also taken a turn for the better with not quite as much rain over the last week although my grass was still growing like it was spring.
By now we had moved the heifers and their calves into the south field. I had weaned the group of 9 spring calves and they were occupying the Front field, close to the loading area for their next step. The rest of the main herd, minus two silly heifers Pearl and Willow who were missed the move, went to the Mountain field a few days after the spring calves were weaned.
Bonnie finally began to show signs of an imminent birth. On September 13, our last heifer safely had her calf, another beautiful little red heifer. Bonnie’s girl was taller than the others but still on the small side. Shane the bull was fulfilling his job of producing “calving ease” babies.
5 of 5 heifers have successfully birthed their calves. The ground is dry and the sun shining.
Time to celebrate!!