The Skunk

 

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It was February 12th, and sheets of rain pounded on the cabin walls as an unusually warm storm descended on us from the north. Out in the calving lot, the cows didn’t seem to mind as they munched on the day’s delivery of fresh hay. They were brought in earlier than anticipated after a calf was stillborn two weeks ahead of schedule. This was an unfortunate and rough start to calving season. We began the search for a replacement calf to graft onto the cow in order to increase the odds of her future reproductive success. It was early to be looking for extra calves. Phone calls and internet searches left us with one unlikely lead – the Mountain View Hutterite Colony in Broadview. As luck would have it, they had a few newborn Holstein bulls to sell since male milk cows aren’t too useful.

The next day, we headed to the Colony, a collection of immaculately clean and orderly buildings, surrounded by large productive gardens. There was a young boy hanging around the barn, wearing the traditional slacks, suspenders, and long-sleeved shirts of the Hutterites. He corralled the dogs in a Germanic language incomprehensible to me. The man with whom we did business, probably in his twenties or thirties, was dressed in a manner similar to the boy. No other people were in sight on this bright, warm afternoon. The man brought us into the barn to a series of pens, each only roughly 3×3 feet large and containing a young calf. He stood our calf up, who at just over 24 hours old was more limb than substance. He looked healthy enough, so Bart guided him out to the yard, and loaded him into the cab of the pickup.

Poor Doc reluctantly shared the back seat with the calf, who towered over him and occasionally trampled him. On the ride home, the calf tried to suck on everything – the walls of the cab, the seat belt, and Bart’s back – guided by his instinct to look for milk. Finally, the calf decided to relieve himself on the carpet, and Doc was thus relieved to move to the bed of the truck for the rest of the ride in order to avoid sitting in the cow paddy. It was a rather comical and stinky 25-minute ride home.

Back in the coulee, Bart took on the unpleasant task of skinning the stillborn calf so that we could “jacket” the new calf with the dead baby’s hide. Meanwhile, I fed the hungry calf a bottle to quiet him down. He stumbled around uncoordinated, not sure what or where to suck. With some persistence, I got the nipple in his mouth and he drained the bottle in no time. Bart then carefully tied the red hide onto the calf’s body with twine, and put him in the barn with the cow, hoping she would recognize the smell and take the baby as her own.

The first few hours with his new mom were a bit strained for the calf. She head-butted him once into the fence, and then ignored him. That evening, we put her in the head stall and fed her hay so that he could suckle. She put up a minor fuss and kicked him once unenthusiastically, mostly occupied with eating. We left them together in the barn for the night, hoping that time would work its magic. And truly it did. The next morning, the cow was vigorously protecting the calf, who appeared sated as he jumped around the barn all “nimbly bimbly”, as Bart reported to me while I cooked breakfast. I went out to get photos later in the morning, and with aggressive wagging of her head she let me know that I wasn’t allowed near her calf. They make a funny pair, the red Angus cow with a black and white spotted Holstein calf. I am grateful that she has accepted him as her own. We have affectionately named him the Skunk. He is growing tall and strong – in the afternoons he romps around with the other calves on the hillside. As I watch the calves frolicking in the sunshine, the lack of sleep that is inherent in calving season melts away into joy at the arrival of new life.

Marching into spring

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Calving is now in full swing, with one or two new additions to the herd each day. It seems the old Hereford bull did pretty well for himself before he injured his foot and had to be pulled from pasture with the cows. A majority of the calves bear his markings – either patches of white on the face or full white-faced baldy calves. One little heifer calf has the face of a jack-o-lantern with eyes, nose and mouth of white lighting up her otherwise red coat. The mixing of Hereford genes into the Angus herd gives the calves hybrid vigor, thus avoiding the pitfalls of inbreeding. They sure are cute little creatures. It is amusing to watch them– those that are a few days old are romping around with their anxious mothers following them at full trot, occasionally bellowing as if to say “get back here!”

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The placement of our cabin allows us to see about half of the calving yard right out the kitchen window. With binoculars, I have watched two cows give birth at the far end of the lot. After their babies arrive in the world, the cows begin vigorously licking them dry, and urging them to get up. The calves shake their heads occasionally, their wet ears dangling down heavily against their necks. Shortly after birth, they begin to try to stand up. It takes several attempts before they are successful. Up goes the back end, and then plop back down. Again, up goes the back, and this time the front legs make it part way up before collapsing, and the calf tumbles onto its head. After a brief rest, the calf tries again. A few more tumbles, and he manages to stay up on all fours, wobbling unsteadily for a few moments. Sometimes the vigor of a cow’s licking pushes the calf right back down. But with each attempt, the calf gets stronger. He is determined to find his mothers’ teats so he can nurse. Usually within a half hour, calves are up, mostly dry, and sucking their first meal contentedly.

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It is simply amazing to watch nature take its course. The cows’ instincts for maternal behavior allow the process to unfold gracefully. Everybody seems to know what to do on cue. It is rare that we have to intervene and lend a helping hand. So far the births have gone smoothly. We keep a close eye on the herd, checking them every three hours. Bart and I have gotten into a good rhythm that allows us to maximize continuous sleep. I check the cows at nine PM and midnight, and Bart goes out at three and six AM. Under the darkness of the new moon, I absorb the stillness of night while I walk through the herd, looking for signs of cows in labor. We couldn’t have asked for easier weather for calving. The days are mild, fifty and even sixty degrees, with nights hovering right around freezing. It is a blessing for birthing, but surely odd weather for February. All across the countryside, there are patches of green grass. I am a lover of all four seasons; it just doesn’t feel right to skip over winter. At least we had one solid month of cold and snow. Brisk cross-country ski journeys allowed me to cherish cozy nights at home with cocoa by the fire. But since late January, it has been mild enough to go out without a coat and hat during the day. This year is simply abnormal. The Snowy Mountains loom on the northern horizon, still blanketed in white. At least there is some moisture in the mountains to keep our rivers running this spring.
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