Archive for January, 2012


mama drinks, baby follows


Writing time has been hard to come by this week. Calves keep coming, two and three a day most days. Brad tagged the sixty-eighth one this morning. We had our first coyote victim a few days ago, a three-week-old calf, healthy and strong. The men loaded their guns, watched and waited. A family friend fired at one I spotted in the field behind the house; we hope he gut-shot it, but at such a distance we can’t be sure. Brad goes out after dark and searches, hopefully running off any that might be around. Another three-week-old calf was dead this morning, this one by the hay bale, with no observable injuries. It may have gotten trampled, or perhaps it simply died. The mama wanders the field, calling. She comes over to us at the fence when we walk past and follows us, bellowing, as if we might lead her to her calf. She is called “Lumpy” for her swollen face; the vet gave her a shot of antibiotic last October for her apparent infection, but too much calcification surrounds the mass and she isn’t improving, which may be somehow related to her calf’s demise. She may have to be culled. The harsh realities of herd management…

Virginia Willis ordered a hundred pounds of grits this week, so Brad will spend all day tomorrow milling. At least the weather has been decent, if a bit warm for the season. The field roads are still puddled and mucky; Steve (a friend of my father-in-law) worked on moving some gravel around with the skid loader this morning to smooth out some of the bigger potholes.

The frogs are loud and plentiful with such mild temperatures and wetness. So far it really hasn’t been a proper winter at all, even for Georgia. I wonder about crops: have the peaches and pecans gotten the cold they need? The apples? Will we get bitten by a late snowstorm after the blueberries have set flowers? What about the strawberries? So much vulnerability. Perhaps I am thin-skinned, but it irks me when I hear people joke about global warming. It seems to always be the same people who complain that their groceries aren’t cheap enough. Which way do you want it? Crops are our livelihood. If that doesn’t matter to you, perhaps you should stop eating.

froggy bog (highest water level; stays dry most of summer)

We’ve been diversifying our homeschool process over the past week. Although we are unschoolers, I was delighted to win a year’s worth of materials from Oak Meadow  and have been incorporating many of their ideas, particularly in keeping artistic materials more handy and using them myself. We will spend tomorrow at the Tellus Museum with other homeschoolers. The kids and I all are excited to see friends, and I am excited to have an outing planned that won’t involve too long of a drive. With so much to do at home, it gets hard to leave…

Tom rests high in the hay barn, enjoying safety from Zen, the cat-tormenting dog


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Over fifty calves have been born now. Yesterday brought another loss, this time a new calf born the previous night that stumbled into a water-filled ditch and drowned. Losing one because of some birthing complication didn’t bother me, but this one left me sad and angry. After a successful birth it just seemed pointless, unfair. Today we had just one new calf and found another with half its tail chewed off by something. It was fine otherwise, which leaves us a bit baffled; if it was a coyote, how is the calf still alive? Did the mother attack the coyote? Is it possible the calf chewed it off, perhaps after injuring it somehow, or getting it caught in something? Implausible, if not impossible. But the coyote story is no better. How could the calf lose half its tail without getting dragged off and eaten?

The kids needed no encouragement to get outside this afternoon, with another day of springlike temperatures and the cacophony of frogs in the lowlands. It was harder to get them back in, even with hands and feet bright pink from the temperature dropping as the sun edged away from us in the west. Iris insisted on a picnic outside, so we brought out an old afghan crocheted by Brad’s grandmother to hold us and the coconut macaroons she and I made earlier today (simplest sweet ever: just coconut, honey, and a couple of egg whites). All three chased each other around and around the house, squirting each other with spray bottles of water and pretending the dog was a coyote that was going to get them. Later they transformed into bark-smashing robots, pulling chunks of bark off of logs around the fire pit and smashing the bark with rocks Brad brought up from the river. Fading light and the lure of dinner brought us all in, with the contrast in temperature making the kids finally realize they were wet and cold. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll find the time to work on my garden plans some more.

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Another powerful thunderstorm last night brought four more calves this morning. With forty-one born now we’re getting close to the halfway mark. Lightning struck close enough to shock Roger at the field gate, sending blue arcs into the air, and the concomitant thunder shook the house hard enough to rattle a copper knickknack off the windowsill, sending it crashing onto dishes in the kitchen sink. All the low places are flooded again, and thick grey stratus blankets the sky horizon to horizon. January has always been one of the wettest months here, but the strength and fierceness of these storms is usually reserved for later in spring.

One calf, 235, appeared to be missing this morning. Carter (my father-in-law) found him on the wrong side of the fence. Back in the herd, all calves accounted for, each endured being followed around until Brad had seen that all were nursing. With mamas and babies all paired up he could come in from the rain and worry about something else.

January with its frequently inclement weather finds me staring at length out windows and thinking. This year I have new medicinal gardens to create, some raised beds to build for a few just-for-us crops that are too labor intensive to produce on a large scale, and then our market and CSA crops to plan. I grew up with a backyard garden but ensuring enough beans come in at once to fill perhaps four hundred boxes is completely different territory. Surveying our back yard, at least five 4 x 8 beds will fit easily just below the patio area, and can hold strawberries, annual herbs, and perhaps a few vining plants that need support. These will make good test plots, too, to reduce the investment risk on a few first-time varietals I’m curious about. I pore over catalogs, make lists and calculations. I struggle to cut enough from my wish list to be economically reasonable while still growing what we want to eat. I am not yet decided…

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After working four new calves this morning, it was time to move the herd. In hindsight it might have been better to move them before calving got underway, but the mamas were grazing well in the eastern pasture and that field was strongest so we waited. Now we need them in the front pasture where we have access to the barns in case we need to help one out or isolate a mama-baby pair. I looked out the kitchen window to see mamas and babies lumbering along in misting rain. One young steer shocked his nose on the fence and barked in surprise. As many as ten of the calves slipped through the wires of the electric fence and into the yard. The herding disintegrated then, with ten mamas calling for their babies, sniffing and shuffling, becoming ever more agitated. Even with four grown men chasing them all, the herd was too spread out. I pulled on my boots and minded the gap where most of the calves were jumping the fence. A couple of calves skittered far enough from the fence to investigate the house:

sniffing the porch column

two days old

Calf number 226 climbed the back steps to lay down on the stoop on top of the cat food bowl, disregarding my prodding and shoving, wide-eyed and foaming at the mouth. I stepped inside the back door to retrieve the dog leash, then sat with the calf for a few minutes, scratching him behind his ears and patting him. After pulling the cat dish from beneath him and shoving pretty firmly to no avail, I slipped the dog’s choke chain over his head and led him down the stairs off the stoop. Of course he panicked then, but I managed to pat him and calm him enough to get him to stand still while I slipped the chain off. He headed for the fence and I followed. We walked along it to the open gate and I followed him over toward the mamas, goading him with a stick here and there to keep him in the lane between the fences. He backtracked a bit when we got to an open space that confused him, then Roger took over for me and I went back in to tend my own offspring.

One mama remained behind through all this, with a fifth new calf born today, so in the afternoon they had to be moved too. This calf had to be handled a lot and got separated from his mama, so now we wait to see if they get that all sorted out. Sometimes if a calf doesn’t smell right the mama won’t recognize it, and may refuse to nurse. The possible upside to all this torrential rain tonight may be to wash the calves clean of any strange human smells. Again, we’ll know more tomorrow.

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Monday Brad and Roger worked four new calves in the morning, only to return later to find a fifth, barely an hour old. Tuesday a record seven were waiting for them. Yesterday brought another seven, and one mama who was still laboring when Brad and Roger had finished the others. This mama seemed to be having trouble, but with no way to restrain her in the field Brad had no choice but to leave her to it. She did get her calf delivered, but it was dead. Roger found it later in the morning when he went back to check on her. We can’t know for sure– it’s not the kind of thing you spend money on, with beef cattle– but by their descriptions of how she looked in the early morning, I’m guessing the calf had a prolapsed cord,  poor positioning, or both. Now we have that to deal with, although at least the mama is still okay.

This brings the herd to thirty-two calves. Heartless math, perhaps, but even the best calving season never hits 100%. A good year will yield a 90-95% survival rate; with a hundred mama cows, all of whom may not be pregnant (since we don’t employ artificial insemination we don’t know our coverage rate until after calving finishes), we will have a few losses through the season. It is nature’s way. We note which mama (the dam), and we’ll look up which sire, and whether this was her first calf or not, and if not how did she fare last year. Herd management. All business.

Not a single new calf today, morning or afternoon. With the moon nearly dark I wonder if the mamas will take a break from delivering. Most mammals attune their estrus cycles to the lunar cycle in some form, fitting for labor at night under the brightest possible light, the full moon. Artificial light and lifestyles that ignore circadian rhythms disrupt that synchronization, but pastured cows have no such intrusions. They pursue green grass, fresh water, and shelter from intense weather, as instinct indicates. The only light triggering their pineal glands comes directly or indirectly from the sun. Of course, birth is more complex than that, and other factors must surely influence the onset of labor, just as with humans. We’ll know soon enough what the next few days will bring.

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Baby Pictures

Two more yesterday brings us to fourteen calves, I think. No new ones today gave Brad a little break and he got some pictures of the herd so far:

mama and baby

mama babysits for some of the otherssome of the oldest calves

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Someone just stopped by to let us know one of our calves had gotten on the wrong side of the fence. It’s one of the two new ones from last night that Brad worked this morning. This one, a steer, is wanting to walk on his front knees instead of his feet, and mostly isn’t walking at all. We may need to brace his legs; sometimes when this happens the calf is just too weak. We’ll know in a few days I guess.

At almost lunchtime, it’s up to a whopping thirty degrees out after being in the sixties most of the day yesterday. Ice covers everything that was wet last night, sparkling cold in the bright winter sun, and altocumulus drifts across pale blue sky. Brad moved that calf back to its mama and thought he was bleeding too much from this morning. I checked the calf a few hours later while Brad was gone milling and he hadn’t moved from the fence, although he was sitting up and looking around. The mama didn’t want me to get too close, and told me so, lowing quietly at me. I resisted checking to see if the calf’s bleeding had stopped. The mamas aren’t used to me, and even if they were, they can get really aggressive if they perceive a threat to their babies. I spoke gently to her and moved on.

When Brad came back in at around 5:30, he had checked the steer again. We’re certain he has nursed some today since he isn’t dead yet, and I had noticed the mama didn’t look full at all. She’s staying right with her baby, too, hovering. Brad administered a vitamin B-12 shot and checked his incision. The bleeding seemed finished, and Brad saw him standing correctly for a few minutes. He may have cut himself on the barbed wire when he went under the fence. Since he seems okay, he’ll be left alone for now. We’ll see how he’s doing in the morning. Watch and wait.

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