The day broke with clear skies and the whisper of a breeze: Mother’s Day. I had been tossing and turning since 3 a.m., when I had returned from the barn. I turned off my alarm before it even sounded. Feet on the floor, I rubbed my eyes and took a deep breath. I wondered if Lola’s calf would still be strong enough to nurse, or weak and withering despite our efforts. The weight of the calf’s life felt cumbersome and sad at this hour without much sleep to provide perspective. Part of farming is making decisions of consequence at every turn. Farmers are human, and our own moods, energy, strengths and weaknesses come into play in those decisions. It was hard to say why this calf wasn’t thriving as it should. Lola was a model mother, attentive and expectant, but he wouldn’t seek her teat or latch on even with our guidance.
I took another deep breath, pulled on socks and fiddled with my overall straps. I had a feeling Brad would be in the barn when I got there, even though neither of us was “on” chores this particular weekend. The unsettling feeling of an animal in our care, struggling, would draw the entire farm crew to the barn. As I suspected, when I rounded the corner of the Gatehouse, Brad was sitting on the stairs lacing up his shoes and Abby and Meg were already checking water and getting grain ready. Lola nudged her calf and uttered a deep guttural sound. I was relieved to see him wide-eyed and wobbly, and decidedly alive, as he navigated clumsily around the tie-up. We had made the decision to pull them both off pasture and into the barn for the night to make a 3 a.m. check and assisted feeding easier. We were still hopeful this calf would come around and latch on to his mother’s teat on his own. We had essentially been forcing him to feed, guiding him toward the milk and holding his body and head in place until his instinct to suck kicked in. It did kick in, but not quickly and not with the force of will and vigor that a healthy calf would exhibit. This did not bode well and we knew it.
We made the decision to bottle-feed. This came at a price. Once you offer a bottle to a young calf or lamb, it is very unlikely to seek mother’s milk from the source. In other words, we would create a dependency we could not retract. We would be making the commitment to be the source of sustenance for this young life until it could manage on its own with grass and grain.
Thirty-six hours after he came into the world we offered him a bottle – hoping, assuming, he would accept this gesture and suck down a hearty meal of mom’s milk via artificial nipple. Instead, he flailed and resisted, upsetting his mother and frustrating us. He would not suck; he would not even swallow the milk we squirted down his throat. He flopped and rolled his eyes in confusion and opposition. Lola bellowed a protest of concern and we gave into aggravation and weariness. We led Lola, and dragged her calf, back out into the sparkling morning and onto fresh spring pasture. From a distance, the scene could not of been more pastoral. Blue sky against budding oaks, lambs giving meaning to the word “frolic” alongside happily grazing ewes, and a brand new calf trotting amongst them with a wary mother keeping an eye cast his direction while sampling the clover.
I felt resigned and heavy walking home. Without his mother’s colostrum, this bull calf would surely begin to weaken. He would not survive. We would have to put him down to avoid the slow lingering end of starvation.
That afternoon, I was trying to catch up on some sleep with my windows wide open. I heard Brad and Maddie softly talking in the field. “What took you so long?” Brad asked. I felt a surge of energy overhearing those words and for the third time since midnight threw the covers off and rushed downstairs, startling Jordy into a barking frenzy on my way down. We both flew out the door loudly and I watched as Brad raised his arms in the air with victory, an empty bottle in his hand.
It didn’t mean the calf was out of the woods. But, in that moment, he had taken the burden of choice out of our hands and he had fumbled his way toward survival…at least for another day.
-Margaret Youngs, Farm Manager