The Long and Winding and Beautiful and Tragic Story of 3M ~ Part II

☆ May 24, 2018

Part I is here.

When Mike and I returned to the barn an hour later, both Roxy and her calf were standing and the calf was trying to nurse. It can be challenging for a newborn to figure out how to balance and find a teat at the same time and the inevitable fumbling drives me crazy to watch. I know I should give calves time to figure it out on their own, and I try to keep my distance, but it’s so hard to watch a tiny, hungry baby suck on a teat sideways or fall right past a teat (over and over) or finally grasp a teat in their mouth just to have their mother turn to admire or lick her new baby and that movement swings the teat away and the fumbling begins anew. Sometimes I can’t help but intervene.

I crouched next to Roxy and her calf and guided a teat into his mouth and he latched on, and Roxy stood perfectly still while her calf had his first meal. Mike and I sat together in the hay, still overwhelmed from the breech delivery, and watched the simple beauty of Roxy nursing her calf. “How many people get to experience this in their lives,” I wondered to Mike. He didn’t know. I didn’t know this kind of life existed fifteen years ago.

Because the breech birth was hard on Roxy and because I wanted to watch her calf closely for any sign of illness or respiratory issues, I kept both of them in the barn for monitoring. Roxy’s udder was large for a heifer due to Daisy’s genetics – not enormous, but she had more milk than her newborn could drink. That evening, after her calf had drank twice and her udder still looked tight, I decided it would probably be best for Roxy if I tried to milk the two teats her calf hadn’t touched.

I usually freeze Daisy’s leftover colostrum – the rich “first milk” mammals produce – to have on hand for orphans or twins. It’s imperative that calves get colostrum as soon as possible and no later than 48 hours after birth, and I like to keep a stash on hand. This year, I got no colostrum from Daisy because of the medication she was given after her miscarriage – I dumped everything I milked for a week until the medication was out of her system.

Roxy had let me rub her udder before she calved – she loves attention and being brushed and when I rubbed her udder, she would raise her hind leg to encourage me to scratch that hard-to-reach spot where her leg meets her body. So, with her calf lying in the hay in front of her, I crouched at Roxy’s belly and, ready to leap away should she kick, tentatively began milking. Roxy stood perfectly still! She stood calmly and chewed her cud and I think she was grateful to have the pressure in her udder relieved. I milked over half a gallon of colostrum from her back teats.

The next morning, Roxy’s calf was running circles in the barn and bucking little baby bucks as calves do, but Roxy had a bulge of fluid under her belly skin and her udder was tight and the texture was very strange, almost like clay. Google told me this was udder edema and that it’s common in dairy heifers freshening (making milk) for the first time. Roxy fit this profile and all symptoms. The cure is to make sure the cow is completely milked out twice a day. Luckily Roxy was so easy to milk. She was even easier than Daisy had been this winter. I simply sat down beside her and she stood for me without food or halter or head catch, requiring nothing from me but gentleness and conversation.

*  *  *

Unlike other ranchers, Mike and I keep our cows until they die of old age. Most, if not all, ranchers sell their mother cows, usually when they reach the age of 8 to 12, and these culled older cows are replaced in the rancher’s herd by young heifers. From a business standpoint, this makes perfect sense – as cows age, their fertility drops off and, just like elder humans, elder cows tend to require more care: they need special consideration, nutritional supplements, more medical attention, more of the rancher’s time. All of this is money. And when the cow isn’t having calves, she’s not “paying her way,” so to speak (in terms of business). There’s no income to balance the expenses of food and vet bills and time.

Older cows sold into The System are treated like garbage. They’re considered “canner grade,” and are turned into pet food or fast food. These cows have little value (again, in terms of the status quo capitalist business model) and are treated as such. Mike started his herd by buying ten ten-year-old canner-grade cows, because they were cheap and what he could afford. They all had calves the next year, his herd grew, and all ten lived out the rest of their lives with Mike. Mike and I refuse to sell our older cows into The System. We feel they deserve the respect of living out their days in peace and comfort. Our little herd is half animal refuge, and we always have a handful of very old Grandmother cows at any given time.

Two days after Roxy calved, I glanced out the window at a cow walking up the driveway. “That cow is going to calve today,” I said to myself, and took a closer look to see who it was so I could keep track of her. It was 6, our most elder cow, and there was no way she was going to calve because there was no way she was pregnant. She was nineteen. She had broken her leg last year and it healed rather well, but she was very slow getting around. She was so, so bony – extremely underweight due to her age – and she creaked when she walked. “Oh,” I said to myself, “it’s just 6,” and I put it out of my mind.

I don’t know what it is I see, when I look at a cow and know she’s going to calve – it’s something in their posture that I can’t explain or point out to anyone. It’s that subtle noticing that begets knowing that Gavin De Becker talks about in The Gift of Fear (in a completely different context), of perceiving information that you can’t articulate and this is called instinct or intuition. I’ve learned to trust it. But in this instance, I must have caught 6’s hobbling out of the corner of my eye and interpreted it wrong, because 6 was not going to calve.

Mike came home a few hours later and saw 6 lying off by herself and thought, “Oh no, is she going to die today?” And when he went out to check on her an hour later, he turned on his heel and came to get me. 6 had calved. 6 had a baby! 6, our ancient, bony grandma, had given birth to a beautiful, perfect little calf, smaller than average but not by too much, and lively and healthy, already up and prancing around her mother. I still don’t understand how it was physically possible for 6 to grow a baby inside her in her condition – by all measures it was impossible. Her baby was truly miraculous.

6 did not have any milk. This is no surprise – she gave all her resources to her calf and had none remaining with which to produce milk. But she doted on her calf – she got up and licked her calf’s entire little body and let her calf suck her empty teats. I made a bottle of Roxy’s colostrum and 6’s calf gulped it down. She wanted more. I’d milked Roxy that morning as part of our twice-daily treatment for udder edema, but not since, so I led 6’s calf to the barn and put her in with Roxy. While most cows will kick at a calf who is not their own if it tries to nurse on them, sometimes heifers are more flexible (to the point of it being detrimental if they allow thieving calves to take all their milk at the expense of their own calf).

I pet Roxy and positioned 6’s calf beside her. I rubbed Roxy’s udder and squeezed her teats like I was going to milk her, and then let the calf take over. I wasn’t sure how Roxy would respond and was prepared to milk her into a bottle and feed 6’s calf that way if need be. But Roxy stood, and I brushed her while 6’s calf drained Roxy for me and had a satisfying first meal. When the calf finished, I took her back out to 6, who had made her way to the front of the barn. 6 licked and licked and licked her calf, and the two of them lay down side by side. Mike put panels up around the front of the barn to make a little corral around them, and I put a small trough in with them and filled it with water, and we gave 6 extra hay. She was going to need help raising her calf, and Roxy and I were going to do it.

There is so much more to this story.
Part III is here.


22 Responses to “The Long and Winding and Beautiful and Tragic Story of 3M ~ Part II”

  1. Gina
    May 24th, 2018 @ 7:11 am

    What a fantastic story I can’t wait to read what is next. This world is truly fantastic and you never know what is going to happen.

  2. Vee
    May 24th, 2018 @ 7:21 am

    See what I mean…. complete soap opera. Edge of my seat here.

  3. Vanessa
    May 24th, 2018 @ 7:23 am

    It seems it took forever for Thursday to come; now having to wait til Tuesday is gonna be torture!
    What a sweet love story: Roxy sounds like a Luv, so patient and gentle; and an awesome momma X’s 2!

    As for 6 and her surprise…never second guess your gut, no matter how your head tries to make sense of what seemed impossible; you’ve had enough experience, you know what you know. :-)

  4. Nova
    May 24th, 2018 @ 8:11 am

    Such a fascinating story. Can hardly wait to read the rest of it.

  5. Carie Sipka
    May 24th, 2018 @ 8:16 am

    Thank you for your post. It made me smile. A smile was just what I needed.

  6. Marg
    May 24th, 2018 @ 8:38 am

    Funny how time flies….. until you are waiting for next Tuesday !

  7. Kristan
    May 24th, 2018 @ 8:38 am

    Happy tears! This is the sweetest story I’ve read in a while.

  8. Sheila
    May 24th, 2018 @ 8:38 am

    It is stories like this that give me hope for our world. Thank you.

  9. Sheri Nugent
    May 24th, 2018 @ 8:41 am

    I am on the edge of my seat reading this! THIS is the book I want you to write! Stories of surprising miraculous farm life plus facts about the business end of it (what happens to old cows). Which, by the way, I’m completely off fast food burgers now. This book must contain your beautiful photos – lots of them – and we will line up to buy it!

    Question: You’ll keep 6’s baby as a pet?

  10. Theresa Szpila
    May 24th, 2018 @ 10:01 am

    OMG! I’m still speechless! Now, I can’t wait for Tuesday’s post….

    Hugs to the babies and their moms, and blessings to you all!!!

  11. Christy
    May 24th, 2018 @ 10:03 am

    I always love reading your posts and am a long-time reader, but I am really I loving reading this story! I agree with Sheri, you could write a whole book about cows and farmily life and I would read it!

  12. JoDi
    May 24th, 2018 @ 10:29 am

    Part I of this story was “edge-of-your-seat” good, and this one moved me to tears! Such a beautiful story, and the way you and Mike care for your animals is so kind and full of love, it’s just heartwarming. Can’t wait for Part III, and I agree with a previous commenter, there needs to be a book of your farm stories with LOTS of photos!

  13. Sarah
    May 24th, 2018 @ 11:12 am

    Now I’m crying.

    Thank you, Shreve, for sharing your amazing not-of-my-world stories and photos.

    Looking forward to Tuesday!!!

  14. bonnie
    May 24th, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

    thank you for being so beautiful!

  15. Sarah W.
    May 24th, 2018 @ 1:04 pm

    Thank you for sharing these beautiful stories! They transport and move me in ways I didn’t even know I needed.

  16. Julie M.
    May 24th, 2018 @ 3:36 pm

    Your story about 6 and the fortune of having Roxy’s milk to share with this elder cow’s calf just touched my heart so! I love your sharing of your experiences on the farm, as animals are fundamental to my life.

  17. nerr
    May 24th, 2018 @ 11:21 pm

    i’m going to cry buckets when part 3 finally comes around won’t i? well… *preparing self*

  18. Two.
    May 26th, 2018 @ 7:53 am

    So touching and beautiful.

  19. Teri
    May 26th, 2018 @ 7:54 am

    So touching and beautiful.

    Silly autocorrect turning me into Two.

  20. Holly
    May 26th, 2018 @ 11:44 am

    This is a most beautiful story. What a miracle to have happen. 6, becoming a new Mom at her age. I am truly in awe of the wonders that happen in your life daily Shreve. I can’t wait for part 3. You are truly blessed!

  21. Maggie
    May 26th, 2018 @ 10:34 pm

    Aww! I love this so much!
    In humans, our breast milk changes to give the baby whatever it specifically needs that day, that moment, because a little of the baby’s saliva enters the nipple and works like code for what kind of milk the breast needs to make!
    I wonder if cow teats work the same way??

  22. Penelope Bianchi
    May 27th, 2018 @ 12:36 am

    what a lovely story.

    Tears were streaming down my face!

    My book came today! What a treasure! Thank you for saving one!

    I adore it!


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