HONEY ROCK DAWN

Intermission

I’ve been writing The Long & Winding & Beautiful and Tragic Story of 3M for a few reasons. One: to share, pure and simple. Two: to get this story on paper and out of my brain, because it’s something I want to hold on to. Three: because I need your help, or advice, or ideas, or perspective. Here’s the thing: all the characters in this beautiful true story are Angus cows and calves – that is to say, beef cows and calves. You care about them. I care about them. My hope, my wish, my dream, is that the general population, society at large, comes to care about the animals that produce and become our food (and our pets’ food) the way that you and I care about the cows in The Story of 3M. Because all of the animals that produce and become our food (and our pets’ food) are individuals with personalities as vast and endearing as the animals I write about. Every single one. If I hadn’t bought Daisy when I did and if she had stayed at the dairy for seven months longer than she did, Frisco would have been veal. Our conventional food system, the way it is currently arranged, does not treat animals very well. The environment is often treated poorly, too. How do we change the status quo?

The answer is not as simple as “everyone should be vegan.” That’s not realistic, as many bodies do not thrive without meat, myself included, (and not for lack of trying). I’ve also come to the conclusion that, for me, eating organic, grass-finished beef is more ecologically responsible than getting the bulk of my protein from plants. Defending Beef (written by a vegetarian environmental lawyer) explains in depth the restorative effects of grazing animals and the detrimental effects of cultivated crops on climate change, sequestering carbon, and preserving topsoil, which is why I feel this book is an important read for everyone, not just meat eaters.

I love cows, I eat meat, I raise beef cattle, and I sell meat to other people who eat meat. I have been called a hypocrite murderer via email more times than I can count. I don’t see myself or my work that way – I see it exactly the opposite and have written about that here. And as I stated in that post, none of this is easy. I’m not doing it for “easy.” I’m doing it to change the world. And sometimes it feels so impossible, the necessary shifts insurmountable. And so I tell myself that even if I don’t change the world, I can change the lives of some animals by keeping them out of the feedlot system, and of my customers by providing them with extraordinary, healthy meat that is aligned with their values, and that these small changes matter. Strangely, even when it feels impossible, I can see my dream of the future so clearly… the solutions, the big picture, the potential! I can see it all spread out in front of us, as clear and distant as the view of Earth from the window of an airplane.

I’m reading a book called Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown and I’m in love with it – this book gives me hope and determination. Full book report coming when I finish it, but for now: emergent strategy is “strategy for building complex patterns and systems of change through relatively small interactions….” Wow. Yes. This blog post is a relatively small interaction. What might it do? What mycelienic network is it part of and how will that network expand? Star Brand Beef is a relatively small interaction, a microbusiness. I started it and continue it because it’s an alternative to the status quo and if the status quo is going to change, alternatives must be available. And a network of people – my incredible, creative customers and supporters of this work – keep it alive, keep it evolving. I could not do it on my own.

I learned quickly that I need to completely clear my schedule during the weeks I take my steers to transition from living beings to nourishing food. It’s hard. It’s intense. I still cry and I know I always will. I thank the animals – I wrap them in layers upon layers of prayers of gratitude – not just from me but from every one of my customers who will be sustained by them for the coming year. And all year long, after every burger, every steak, I say “holy wow, Star Brand Beef is the best!” And I say thanks to the animals again.

I was talking to my mom the other night (I’ve turned her on to keto) and she mentioned how much she likes chicken. And when I asked her where she bought her chicken, she said ‘the store’ and when I asked her about the kind of chicken, the life and backstory of the chicken she bought and ate, she said she didn’t know, that she never really thought about it. And I gave her my schpeal about the inhumane treatment commercially-farmed chickens endure before they become grocery store chicken, and how, on the flip side, she could have an incredible impact on the life of an indie chicken farmer if she went to the farmers market or read the local classifieds and found someone raising pastured chickens, someone who cared for and respected their chickens and raised them in a way that served the planet and honored the birds. “You will make a difference,” I told her, “to that chicken farmer and to every single chicken you eat.” And part of me was screaming inside because why did I have to spell this out for her? She sees what I go through with Star Brand Beef, has heard my passionate rants against factory farms and the inhumane treatment of animals and earth. And I wonder how often she’ll consider this going forward. Sometimes, maybe? Will she think about it every time she eats chicken?

Pastured, humanely-raised meat (be it beef, pork, or fowl) is more expensive than factory farmed meat. This is because doing right by the animals and by Mother Earth takes more time and effort and care and money and space. But what is of greater value than healthy, nourishing food that was raised ethically, prioritizing the sustainability of agricultural practices, the well-being of the animals, the environmental impact? It SHOULD cost more. This idea that food should be the cheapest thing we spend our money on is the dark side of capitalism: the system has been rigged to train us to buy cheap food so we have money left over to spend on more clothes and knick knacks than we need, often made by cheap, exploitative labor, and then, perhaps, an expensive, brand new car on credit because that’s our collective sign of success. Let’s not! Let’s buy perfectly decent used cars, get our wardrobes from thrift stores (all my cashmere has come from thrift stores), and spend more on the most important thing: healthy food, produced ethically and sustainably.

“I spend most of the money that comes my way on food, and most of my time thinking about, procuring, preparing, and consuming food…and this seems as it should be. This is my definition of right relationship to our food- that it should be an all consuming relationship that leaves little room for things like shopping addictions or toxic friends or any of the other trouble we find ourselves in with all the extra time that convenience foods afford us.” (Erin Rivera Merriman, Active Culture Family)

“How do we create and proliferate a compelling vision of economies and ecologies that center humans and the natural world over the accumulation of material?” (Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy).

“Refuse what you do not need; reduce what you do need; reuse what you consume; recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse; and rot the rest.” (Bea Johnson, Zero Waste Home).

Not everyone can afford to make these choices. Not everyone can afford food, period. Which leads me to my latest venture, another small act of emergent strategy: a collaboration between Star Brand Beef, The Food Bank of the Rockies, and, if you’re interested, you.


I donate beef every year, personally, but believe that together, we can donate even more to those in need and keep even more animals from entering the feedlot system, and I’ve teamed up with The Food Bank of the Rockies so that YOU get the tax deductions.

Supporting food banks was extremely important to my grandmother, the late, great Svensto, and I am honored to continue her legacy.

We all need healthy, nourishing food and I believe we all deserve it. And it’s getting harder to procure, especially in certain areas like food deserts. Healthy, organic food is generally more expensive, and I have a really hard time with the fact that one’s socioeconomic status determines the quality of food available. The healthiest (and most sustainably produced) food should not be exclusive to the economically-advantaged.

I am disturbed by the widening chasm of income inequality. I consider this a heartbreaking crisis and I feel powerless in many ways. But I am in a position to donate the finest, healthiest, most delicious beef to food banks, and I do this with a rebel’s spirit. Cooperation is a revolutionary act, I believe this with my soul.

How this works: Donations will be collected and pooled to buy humanely-raised, organic, grass-finished beef from Star Brand Beef at wholesale (more beef for your buck). That beef is donated to The Food Bank of The Rockies in YOUR names. I will provide The Food Bank of The Rockies with a spreadsheet of donations received (which will include your names and addresses) and The Food Bank of The Rockies will then send YOU your own, personalized 501(c)3 charitable donation paperwork in the amount of your donation for the 2018 tax year.

To contribute, click HERE. You’ll see a drop-down menu of options – every amount makes a difference. Thank you so much for joining me in this venture in whatever way you feel called.

Thank you for reading this far.
I look forward to reading your thoughts…….

And now stay tuned for our regularly scheduled programming: Part V of The Long and Winding and Beautiful and Tragic Story of 3M is here.

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

Previous Installments: Part I / Part II / Part III

So, to recap: we have Roxy and her calf and Roxy’s udder edema. And we have Grandmother 6 and her calf and 6 had no milk. And we have Star Baby and her calf and Star Baby’s giant udder and previous mastitis from too much milk.

This has been the hardest segment to write, not because it’s tragic, but because these weeks were so wonderful, so beautiful, and I know my words will never be adequate. It was Spring. Newly Spring. The air was warm and the warm air was a revelation. Birds chattered and trilled everywhere, all the time: robins, mourning doves, red-winged blackbirds, sparrows, Sandhill cranes. The sloppy, slicky mud had dried. Things were finally, finally easy.

Each morning, I went out early, often before coffee, to my little motley gang of cows at the barn. I let Roxy out of the barn and she trotted to the head catch. She had a haystack in the barn to eat from as she wished, and she went into the head catch just because she wanted to, not because she got extra food. 6’s calf learned quickly that if a cow was standing in the head catch, that cow was hers – her meal, her job, her delight. She’d run into the alley, wiggle alongside Roxy’s body, and suck her dry. When the calf finished drawing Roxy down, I let Roxy out of the head catch and let Star Baby in. Star Baby was lined up and ready to go as soon as Roxy was out, because Star Baby got extra hay while in the head catch. She stood peacefully and ate while 6’s calf latched onto her and devoured the bounty of milk Star Baby had to offer. I gave 6 extra hay in the corral while Star Baby fed her calf, for she was still so skinny.

One morning, Mike was with me during my musical cow routine and I said something about how 6’s calf has three mothers and he said, “We should name her 3M!” And so we did. 3M for 3 Mothers. I also like it because 3 is half of 6. Because, while 3M got her food, her nourishment, from two other cows, she got love from 6. After 3M finished nursing Star Baby, after she’d had her fill, she galloped right back to 6 who licked her and licked her. They stood together. They slept side by side. The love, the bond between them, was humbling in its purity. There was no “survival” requirement for their bond – the connection they shared was beyond biology. I don’t understand how some people believe animals don’t have feelings or emotions. Either those people haven’t spent any real, meaningful time around animals or they themselves lack feelings or emotions. Cows love. This I know.

I fell in love with 3M immediately. She understood from day one that I was going to help her get her meals but that she was going to have to make the most of every opportunity, to eat fast and suck hard. She ran to me when I arrived at the corral, licking her lips in anticipation, and ran into the alley when a cow was in the head catch. She was scrappy, happy, eager, opportunistic. Built delicately, her body and bones smaller than every other calf, but tough and determined, mighty!

I loved my morning chores. I loved this routine. Though, they were not “chores” and it was not “routine” – it was ritual beauty I got to help orchestrate and take part in. It was my guaranteed time of guaranteed wonder, of peace and the warm spring air and the good work of helping a cow raise her calf and helping a calf get the best food and helping two others cows keep their udders healthy. Of filling the water tank, of watching the cows and calves interact – the group together, the community of this little space – each one independent and respectful, familial in the very best sense of that word.

I repeated this ritual work every evening, too, and cherished it then, too. My time at the barn was the best part of my every day in a quiet, dependable way. I sat in the dirt with my back against the logs of the chicken house in the little alley next to the head catch as 3M sucked and slurped ecstatically, and I breathed – really breathed, and smiled – really smiled. In the afternoon, this spot was in shadow, but still warm.

By the time Roxy’s calf was a week old, he was drinking exponentially more than he had as a newborn and could consume all the milk Roxy produced. Calves, as they grow, will eat more and more – even more than they need. Mara, for example, now five months old, can drain every drop of milk that Daisy produces – gallons upon gallons upon gallons every day. Roxy and I no longer needed 3M’s help in keeping her udder drained twice a day. And Roxy’s udder edema had completely gone away. My early concerns about Roxy’s calf’s health had vanished, too – he was healthy and strong and both of them had outgrown the barn. It was time to let them out.

And so, my beautiful mornings and evenings transformed, became even more intimate: 6 and 3M and Star Baby and SBB (Star Baby Baby) and me (though Roxy kept returning to the barn, kept wanting to stand in the head catch just for the fun of it). Star Baby, for all her haughty disdain towards people, was so good with 3M. So generous. She refused to allow 3M to nurse when they were out in the corral, but she was always waiting for me in the alley next to the head catch when she saw me approaching, and once she was in the head catch, she stood calmly and patiently for as long as 3M wanted to nurse.

These weeks of mornings and evenings with 6 and 3M and Star Baby were so special. And I’ve been around long enough to know that if you love something, you better revel in it with all you’ve got because nothing lasts. Calves grow up. Seasons change. And even when seasons cycle back around, no two Springs are ever the same, no two Winters. Everything is temporary – and there’s no place this is clearer to me than in agriculture. These chores were sacred because I knew they wouldn’t last. They couldn’t last. Nothing does.

Part V is here. It doesn’t get tragic quite yet, I promise.

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

Part I is here.

Part II is here.

The day after 6 calved, Star Baby calved. Star Baby is one of my Angus cows. She is Star’s daughter, who was my first Angus cow, given to me by Mike. (Star’s birth story is crazy, too, and can be read here.) Star loves attention and loves to be brushed, but Star Baby has never really been a people cow. She’s not fearful of people, not at all; she just has never wanted much to do with us as long as we bring her food. I get the feeling she thinks we are beneath her. If I try to pet her, she tosses her head like, “get your filthy hands off me,” and walks away.

When I saw Star Baby was calving, I crept out to the hill to watch. I had binoculars and I didn’t get too close; I was only there to make sure everything was OK. Star Baby saw me and glared at me, got up, walked a short ways away, and lay down again – this time behind a sagebrush with her face facing me and her backside arranged so I couldn’t see hooves or delivery or anything. So I got up, walked down the hill she was lying atop, circled around, and hiked up the other side so I could see what was going on. I wasn’t as sneaky as I’d hoped, but Star Baby tolerated my presence and her delivery went smoothly, even though she continued to glare at me and was obviously irritated that I was intruding. Once her calf shook its head and Star Baby stood up to lick it off, I went back to the house and left them together.

By late afternoon, Star Baby’s calf still hadn’t had her first meal. I watched from the house with binoculars, saw her calf nuzzle around Star Baby’s udder and try to suck, but she never actually got a teat in her mouth, even though Star Baby stood perfectly still for her calf. The calf could not figure out Star Baby’s udder. Star Baby’s udder is unique. She has a round, nearly spherical, bag and her teats don’t dangle down, they point forward. They are perfectly positioned to slide right into a calf’s mouth, as long as the calf is coming at the teat from the perfect position, head on. But if the calf tries to nurse from the side, it can be challenging, especially when the teats are engorged and rigid as they are right after birth, especially for a newborn who is unsteadily trying to figure out how it all works. Star Baby’s baby couldn’t figure it out. We had to intervene.

With many cows, I can go up to them in the pasture and help maneuver their babies onto teats for the first time if need be – the cows will stand still, more focused on their calf than on me. But Star Baby’s disdain for people thwarted such simplicity. When I approached Star Baby and her calf, she hustled away, mooing for her baby to follow her. Down the hill she went, and the more I followed, the farther she traveled. Since she wouldn’t stand for me, or even let me get close, I needed to get Star Baby and her calf into the little corral in front of the barn with 6 and 6’s calf and I needed Mike’s help to get them in.

Star Baby wanted no part of this plan. She trotted in sweeping figure eights, her udder swinging, her calf prancing after her. A gusty windstorm blew in and red dirt coated our skin and filled our ears and blinded us as we chased after Star Baby, but we couldn’t stop and wait out the storm, because who knew how long it would last and it was going to get dark and we had to just ‘git ‘er done’ and it was miserable. We finally got them in the little corral and as I was tying the panels shut, Star Baby, furious about being contained, reached through the slats in the panels and tried to bite me! I’ve never had a cow try to bite me before. I told her all we wanted to do was help her and her calf. I always tell the animals my intentions, the “why” behind what I’m doing with them, if they seem stressed.

We have a head catch set outside the barn, along the west wall in the alley between the barn and the chicken house. A head catch is a contraption of two metal panels that open and close with a big lever, and these panels gently close around a cow’s neck without actually touching the cow. A cow’s neck is so much narrower than her head and her shoulders that when the panels are in place, she can’t move forward or backwards. Since the panels aren’t squeezing her neck or even touching it, she can move her head up and down and eat while standing in the head catch. Head catches aren’t inherently traumatizing to a cow, as long as the person running the levers doesn’t let the panels slam against the cow or otherwise abuse her.

Once, I was helping another rancher work his cows, and if a cow balked for even a moment before entering the chute and head catch, he hit her with a hot shot (aka electric cattle prod, which gives a huge shock) to make her jump forward. I was like, ‘no wonder your cows don’t want to go into the chute – they associate it with pain because you shock them to get them in!’ It was awful to watch. If a cow can take a moment to sniff it out and isn’t traumatized by the people around her, she will have no problem standing in a head catch. It’s kind of like riding the subway at rush hour. You might be a little tentative about stepping into a packed train, and once you do, you can’t really move, but overall, it’s not a big deal, as long as no awful men molest you while you’re trapped.

I lured Star Baby into the head catch with some hay, and as she stood and ate, she began to relax, and her breathing got calm and deep. While she ate, I helped her calf stand in the right spot to get one of Star Baby’s torpedo teats in her mouth and nurse for the first time.

When Star Baby was getting close to calving and her udder was growing, it puzzled me. Her left front quarter was not filling like the rest. I couldn’t figure out if she was letting another calf suck that quarter (extremely unlikely with an older cow) or if it was going to fill up last (abnormal, as all quarters fill at the same rate) or what. Now that I had a chance to study her udder up close, I understood. Star Baby must have had undiagnosed mastitis in that quarter last year, and now that quarter was dead – not producing milk at all.

Last year, I was so focused on the book, I wasn’t out with the cows as much as usual. And Mike is not one to stare at udders the way I’m inclined to do as a milkmaid – plus, Angus cows generally aren’t at risk for mastitis under normal circumstances because they don’t produce surplus milk and their calf will keep their udder drained and healthy. But Star Baby’s udder this year was enormous for an Angus cow, and it must have been big enough last year that her calf never needed to drink from all four quarters to stay satisfied. I’m guessing her calf ignored one quarter consistently, and after a while it got mastitis, and we didn’t notice or treat it. Now, that quarter will never produce milk.

Luckily for Star Baby and all calves present and future, her remaining three quarters were producing a ridiculous amount of milk. So much milk, her calf was not going to be able to drink it all until she grew bigger and more voracious. Star Baby’s calf drank and drank and drank until she got full and still didn’t even drain one quarter. Star Baby was going to need help getting all that milk out every day or risk mastitis again.

I had put 6‘s calf with Roxy twice that day but I knew she could eat more. She was getting adequate milk from Roxy but not enough to properly stuff herself. And so when Star Baby’s calf had finished her first meal, I brought 6’s calf alongside Star Baby and 6’s calf went to town. She grabbed a teat with her tongue and sucked till she was in gluttonous milk ecstasy. When she was full enough to burst, she waddled back to 6, who licked her and loved her though she could not feed her.

Even after both calves had their fill, Star Baby’s udder was still full of milk – colostrum, actually. It was getting late and it was still windy and I knew Star Baby’s calf would nurse a few more times during the night, but I didn’t want to neglect Star Baby’s udder, especially considering her history, so I sat beside the head catch and milked her. Star Baby was the most perfectly polite cow I’d ever milked, more so than Daisy, even more so than Roxy. She was calm and patient. Or perhaps she was just pleased that I was kneeling in the dirt at her feet.

We’re not even halfway through this saga!
Part IV is here.

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

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.

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

Roxy, Daisy’s youngest daughter (not counting Mara), had her first calf this Spring. In the week leading up to Roxy calving, I had been watching her like a hawk. Since she is Daisy’s daughter and half her genetics are dairy cow, it’s harder to tell when she’s getting close to calving by looking at her udder. When an Angus cow’s udder fills out and loses all wrinkles, calving is nigh. But with Roxy, her udder looked full and ready and then it kept on growing. So I checked on her constantly. We always keep an extra close eye on heifers because they tend to need more help during or immediately after calving than older cows; it’s their first time, after all. And I tend to keep an extra close eye on all my cows whenever I can, because birth is a big deal, the culmination of months of growth and care, and birth can be life or death. One little thing or big thing goes wrong, and it all ends before it can begin.

Two days before she calved, I put Roxy in the barn so I could check on her more easily, especially at night. It was days away from a new moon, and finding her at midnight or 3am took luck and wandering the hills and flats of the property with the weak light of a flashlight, searching for where she was sleeping. When it’s as dark as it is without moonlight, you have to stumble right on to a cow to see her. I had more success finding clusters of sleeping cows by sound rather than sight, listening for their collective deep breaths in the dark, huffs of sighs, their great exhales. Once I found a group, I had to shine my light on every body to find Roxy before returning to bed. Cows in labor prefer to go off by themselves and find a secluded place to have their calf, and this is why I finally put Roxy in the barn. Searching for her in the dark, if she decided to go off alone into a draw or far corner to have her baby in the night, would have been nearly impossible.

This year, I have put off going into town until it is absolutely unavoidable. There’s just been too much going on at home to take care of, and town is thirty miles away, and errands are never something I look forward to, even in the mellowest of times. I’ve been averaging one trip every three or four weeks, and by mid-April, it had reached the point where I simply had to run to town. I coordinated with Mike. I would check on Roxy mid-morning, then go to town for a few hours. He would be home by noon to feed cows and would check on her then. I would be home soon after to resume my post of obsessively watching her. I got home around 1:30pm and went straight into the house with groceries, and as Mike and I were chatting, I went out on the deck with binoculars to peek at Roxy in the barn. I could barely see her, but something about her posture sent off every alarm in my head. “I think she’s calving,” I said as I ran past Mike and dashed out to the barn. Mike was right behind me. When we got to the barn, we saw she was in labor, and her calf’s hooves were already out, and her calf was breech.

You can tell if a calf is breech or not by the hooves when they emerge. When a calf is in the ideal position, the shiny black part of their hooves is facing up. These are the front hooves, and the calf is positioned like it is diving out of its mother – front legs, then face, then the rest of its body. When a calf is breech, the soft white undersides of its hooves are facing up. The calf is in the same ‘diving’ position, but backwards – the hind legs come out first, and you are looking at the soles of its back hooves. We saw the white bottoms of the hooves and Mike went straight into denial. “Maybe it’s just twisted around and looks backwards,” he said. Since Roxy is tame and trusts me, I walked up to her, pet her back, and reached my hand inside her, following the leg of her calf. “I feel the hock,” I said to Mike. The hock is the pointy joint on the hind legs of cows (and cats and horses and many other four legged animals) that does not exist on the front legs. “I’ll call the vet,” I said, and we ran back to the house. The vet’s receptionist said he was in the field and wouldn’t be available till 5pm. Babies don’t wait, and this one was coming now, and Mike and I had no choice but to deliver it.

The reason delivering breech births is so stressful is because if you do it wrong, the baby will die. When a baby is delivered, a pressure change occurs when the thorax emerges, and this is what compels the baby to take its first breath. (Tangent – this is so bizarre to observe in non-breech births, when the calf’s front legs and face and entire head are out of the cow, and its eyes may be open, and sometimes it hangs out like this for a while if the cow needs to rest, and it’s not breathing!) So, if the thorax is delivered before the baby’s head, as is the case with breech births, this biological demand to breathe will still take place, and the calf will take its enormous first breath at that moment. And if the calf’s head is still inside its mother, it will not be able to breathe air and it will drown or suffocate – in either case, it will die.

What makes breech births in cows so hard to deliver successfully is that the two main ‘hang ups’ during delivery are the calf’s hips and shoulders. These are the widest parts of the calf, by a significant margin. Depending on the size of the calf and the experience of the cow, she may need time to push these parts out. This is why I’ve seen the strange scenario I described above so many times – a calf with its front legs and head out for several minutes before the cow delivers the shoulders and the rest. With a breech, there can be no waiting. Once the hips are out, the torso slithers out quickly because it is so much narrower, and the person delivering the calf must get the shoulders and the rest of the calf out immediately or the calf will start breathing while its head is still inside the cow and it will die. Breech births require human assistance because the cow just can’t do this fast enough on her own for the baby to survive.

And it was up to Mike and me. We got the chain and the calf puller, which is a huge T-shaped bar that fits against the hind legs of the cow, with notches in the long part of the T and a ratchet handle. I grabbed leather gloves and a towel, because baby calves are incredibly slippery, and we would need something with a little traction if we had to pull by hand. Out in the barn, I put the chain around the calf’s ankles. It’s a rounded chain that fits around their ankles just above the hooves and doesn’t hurt the calf. A chain must be used as the point of contact because the force required to pull a calf in an emergency is so great and calves are so slippery; there’s no other way I’ve heard of to pull one out. We crouched beside Roxy where she lay in the barn and hooked the chain to the calf puller. Then Mike started ratcheting out the calf, slowly, working only when Roxy pushed on her own.

Mike and Roxy delivered the calf’s hips by working together, with me coaching Mike, telling him when to ratchet with Roxy’s contractions and when to stop. And then everything went so fast and so crazy and also felt like eternity. The calf’s hips emerged and the thorax slithered out faster than I thought possible. Mike hit the wall of the barn with the puller bar and didn’t have room to ratchet out the shoulders. We each grabbed a calf leg with both our hands and pulled with all our might, me screaming “we have to get it out NOW!” and somehow, together, we did. I immediately thrust my hand down the calf’s throat and scooped out a handful of jelly-like liquid as the calf blinked and gasped and shook his head.

We did it.

I was nervous for Roxy because it was hard on her and I was nervous for the calf because I wasn’t positive it hadn’t breathed any liquid. I was worried that pneumonia would show up in a few days and that Roxy’s calf would die within a week. But for now, everything was good. We placed the calf right at Roxy’s head so she didn’t have to get up in order to lick him clean, and left them together to rest while we returned to the house to have our delayed-reaction heart attacks.

Roxy’s calf is not 3M. This is just the beginning.
Part II is here.

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