As February came to an end, we adjusted to a new rhythm of life. The first calf of the year was born to a first calf heifer within the safe confines of our new barn on Tuesday the 24th. The labor proceeded without a hitch. The mother welcomed her newborn into the world with a tongue-bath while it lay on a bed of fresh straw, catching its first breaths. Drying the new heifer quickly was imperative; the air temperature hovered in the low single digits and the winds were howling. Although our barn has but two sides for this first year, they are strategically placed to block the predominantly northwestern wind and thereby create an effective barrier to the cold.
After we made sure the new calf was up and suckling from its mother, we headed to the camper just a few hundred yards from the barn in the coulee. For the next several weeks, this became our second home, allowing us to easily check the cows every few hours during the night. Last summer we helped my father-in-law fix up the 2nd-hand camper. After intense cleaning and repairs, Bart installed wood flooring, a folding table, and propane heater, while I selected paint and coated the interior in a warm yellow hue. The first night we slept in the camper, the wind howled all night long, shaking various loose pieces of metal and flapping the vents. At first, we were cold and then way too hot, shedding the feather comforter midway through the night in favor of a light cotton quilt. The cows outside the door woke me several times with their bellowing. It was ultimately a very restless night of sleep. Just a few nights later, I had adjusted to waking up every three hours, figured out the perfect combination of blankets and pillows, and was tired enough to just about sleep the whole night through.
So far most of the births have proceeded without a hitch – easy, smooth labors. Mild trouble arose in the first week when a first-calf heifer became wildly confused about the baby that had just emerged from her body. She bellowed at her new calf, and tried to head-butt it a few times. Luckily, one of the more experienced cows nearby came over and began licking the newborn, perhaps thinking that the calf could be her own. Something must have clicked for the first-calf heifer as she followed suite and proceeded to lick her baby dry. The air was still very cold, but at least this little calf arrived under the mid-day sun. If it is very cold, and the calf doesn’t quite dry out quickly enough, we bring it into the truck (thank goodness for the quad cab) and drive it to the shop to warm up. One Friday evening in early March, I helped towel-dry a white-faced calf that was still too wet when the sun went down and the temperature plummeted into the single digits. In a stealthy grab, Bart quickly snatched her from the mother and stuck her in the cab. Back at the shop, she stood fairly patiently through the toweling, and then stood next to me by the fire, looking for somewhere to nurse. She tried my hand, which was curled up in my lap, and then went for my rubber muck boot. After striking out on both counts, she took a couple of laps around the truck and checked out our dog, Doc, who was obviously intimidated by this oversized baby. We decided the calf was warm and mobile enough to go back out in the lot with her mom. When we dropped her off, Bart did his best imitation of a calf bellowing in order to draw the mother over. A few other cows came and checked it out with their noses and tongues, but quickly left when they realized it wasn’t their baby. At last the calf let out a bellow of its own, and instantly its mother flew over to the rescue. In no time at all, the calf latched onto its mother’s nipple for its first nutritious meal. There are but a handful of cows left to calf as we near the end of the month. It has been a relatively easy year, with daytime temperatures often above fifty and ample sunshine. Once we turn them into pasture, the calves are a joy to watch. They tumble in play and run circles around their moms in shear delight at being alive. It is a truly wondrous time of year.