Controlled Frenzy in the Ripening Spring

April 24, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Sometime before dawn Wednesday, the red and white 2-year-old heifer I knew as 223 made a decision that would prove fatal.

She had been carrying the big calf within her for more than nine months, and when the time came to deliver it she chose to lie down on a hillside next to a board fence. It was the wrong place. Somehow she managed to slide halfway under the bottom board and became wedged, unable to get up. By the time I found her and freed her, her calf was dead and she was in tough shape herself.

It was bad enough to find her there, in the first light of a cool April morning, but it was worse because her situation was to some degree the result of my own bad management. If she'd been checked more closely through the night, or if the fence had been built closer to the ground, she and the calf might have been all right.

Heifers having their first calf need close attention, and although I keep ours in a special field close to the house and watch them carefully, I obviously hadn't provided enough of it. Perhaps that was the result of cockiness; I hadn't lost a calf due to obstetrical difficulties for several years, and might have been developing a casual know-it-all attitude. In any event it was a wake-up call.

The calf's death, and the certain knowledge that by evening its mother would have left the farm where she'd spent her life and gone to the weekly livestock auction in Churchville, cast a pall over the bright morning. But as always, there were compensations. Two showed up almost immediately.

While 223 was struggling, the last cow in the main herd to freshen produced a healthy calf. Last spring she was a 2-year-old, one of the group that kept us up several nights helping them deliver their first calves. This year she's 3, this is her second calf, and it looks as though she's well started on what I hope will be a long career.

Also that morning, before either the grass or the last newborn calf were dry, the barn swallows returned after a seven-month absence. They're usually here by April 18, so I'd say they were a couple of days late, but who am I to set their schedule? Bienvenidos, I said, on the assumption that having just flow in from Argentina their English might be rusty. Aqui tienen su casa.

When winter first begins to fade into spring around here it's very exciting, but by now the excitement has given way to a sort of controlled frenzy. There's so much to do, and almost all of it absolutely has to be done right now. I tend to get very bad-tempered at this beautiful time of year.

A few days ago, as I was fixing the fence that divides my back pasture from my neighbor's beech woods, something -- maybe a noise, maybe a shadow -- made me suddenly look up. There, 60 feet in the air and right over my head, a huge log was caught in the fork of a beech tree. It teetered back and forth, horizontal to the ground, like an enormous see-saw.

The log was a chunk of the rotten top of a long-dead oak, apparently blown over during the winter and now precariously hanging above fence and field, a serious accident waiting to happen. It probably weighed half a ton. I wondered how on earth I would ever get it down.

I had to do something about it, because pretty soon we'll have livestock in that field. But it was too high to reach with a rope, and the way it was moving I didn't like the idea of climbing up to it. And I didn't want to cut the beech in which the log was snagged, both because it was on my neighbor's side of the line and because I was afraid I'd bring everything down on my head.

I learned years ago to be careful when cutting trees. When I was in my mid-teens and very proud of the skills I thought I had, I took my father's pickup truck out to the middle of a field one day to take down a big dead walnut. I made my notch, started the final cut, and then stood by in horror as the tree fell right on top of the truck.

This particular booby trap was a lot trickier than that old walnut. Eventually I got the log down by casting a weight at the end of a fishing line over one end, using the line to pull up a long rope, and then carefully hauling on the rope with a truck until the log crashed down. It missed the fence entirely, and I was very pleased by the whole operation. In fact, even though it really hadn't been all that difficult a project, and only took a few minutes to complete, I felt downright smug about it.

On the other hand, when a few days later I lost the heifer and her calf, I felt unbelievably stupid. The ordinary little puzzles that farm life presents have a tendency to do that to you. If you get too puffed up, something will knock you down. But fortunately it often works the other way too.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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