A Case of Bovine Maternal Jitters

February 24, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.--Anyone who's spent much time with livestock knows that emergencies occur more frequently on Sundays. This is a law of nature. So it was with some misgivings last Sunday morning that I went out to check the cows.

I had a feeling that something was going to happen. This is calving season, the weather has been even harder on cows than on people, and the farm has had pretty good luck the past couple of years. Trouble was overdue.

Actually, we've had some cow trouble already this season. One cow aborted early, perhaps due to a fall on the slippery ground; we found the prematurely-born calf dead in the field. And we lost one perfectly healthy calf at the age of several days. It was apparently stepped on in the shed, where conditions are more crowded than usual because of the terrible weather.

Usually, if one of my cows loses a calf, she's history -- and probably hamburger, too. It isn't cost-efficient to keep a cow if she isn't either pregnant or raising a calf. I've made exceptions, but not often. The mother of the stepped-on calf, cow number 825, was almost on the truck on the way to the sale when soft-hearted Larry Rawlings had an idea.

''She's a nice cow,'' said Larry, who works for me. ''What do you say I go to the sale and pick up a calf for her and let her raise it?'' I said it sounded like more trouble than it was worth, but the next morning the cow was in a stall with a little black and white heifer calf by her side, and they seemed to be getting along fine.

Cow personalities vary a lot. We've had some that tried to disown their own calves. Such a cow has to be tied up to allow the calf to nurse. But right from the beginning 825 was motherly to the little orphan from the sale. I was proud of her, and Larry was even prouder. But all that was in the past on Sunday as I walked through the herd. It was yesterday's problem.

When I'd gone to bed on Saturday night, we had had a total of 20 new calves. Each was nursing, and each had a yellow tag in its ear. This inexplicably ominous Sunday morning I found 23 calves, the newest three still wet and tagless. Because this is 1994, their numbers would be 421, 422 and 423. I had the tags, already numbered, in my pocket.

Number 421 was a bull calf; its mother stood by nervously. I tagged it in the right ear. Number 422 was a heifer. Its mother also was standing by, not as nervous but certainly attentive. I tagged her calf, too. Number 423 was another heifer. I tagged it, but I couldn't find its mother. All the cows were in the lot, but none seemed interested in poor little 423. I knew what that meant. Trouble.

I went back to the barn and tended to some other chores for about half an hour before returning to the cows. When I got back, little 423 was on its feet, but there was still no cow in attendance. Nearby, however, was yet another brand-new calf, a few minutes old. Its mother, cow 806, was busy cleaning it off. The calf was a bull. I put tag number 424 in its ear.

But what about 423? It looked a lot like 424, and for a minute I wondered if 806 had had twins. Sheep farmers expect that and are pleased when it happens, but with cows it's a nuisance. Then I noticed cow 705. She had obviously just had a calf of her own, and she was looking covetously at 424. But (you'd better pay close attention here) 424 belonged to 806, not 705; therefore 705's calf had to be the unclaimed 423, whether she wanted it or not.

I picked up 423, carried her close to 705, and put her down in a pile of hay. I made a noise which sounded exactly, if I do say so myself, like a hungry calf. Cow 705 looked at me dubiously; she knew what I was, and it wasn't a calf. But then she inspected her own calf with a new interest. It got up and wobbled toward her. Perhaps there was hope. I went away for a while and left them alone; sometimes you can tinker too much.

When I checked the cows again in late afternoon, the sun was high and meltwater was running off the ice and snow, gurgling down the roadways and plunging into brooks. It felt and sounded like spring. Some of the calves were sleeping in the sun, while others played tag with their tails high in the air. The four calves born that morning were among the sleepers. Above 423, protective and maternal, stood cow 705.

There are various good management reasons why we breed our cows to have their calves in the winter. One is because the calves will be old enough to take advantage of the grass when it starts to grow in the spring. Another is because, although it's harder in some respects, the cold weather is healthier. There seem to be fewer infections, and there aren't any flies.

But there's another reason that has nothing to do with management. Call it tradition or call it aesthetics, but around here a February without calves would be like an April without daffodils.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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