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Dairy Diary #2

January 20, 2013

In order to allay Brian’s concerns regarding my tenure under his supervision, I made attempts at appealing to what I hoped was his empathetic nature by displaying a childlike enthusiasm for the job. “Don’t fire me, Mr. I’ll do better. Sure I will.” That was basically the foundation of my argument. I accented this plea by never being further than 3 feet from his side; showing how keen I was to try my hand at anything. I was consequently told to go away a number of times, but I this was only after he understood. I know this, because he told me.

As it happened, from the first week on I was never left wanting for something to try my hand at. It was now the beginning of August and the start of calving season. This meant that each of the 700 cows was going to have a little cow of their own, sometimes two; and over the coming months I was going to be helping. This would involve a number of jobs of varying description and liking but, for the purposes of the blog, can be condensed into these.

1. Calf retrieval – Once the calf is born – usually over the course of the night – I am sent into the paddock to locate the mother, who has been described to me as ‘white with black parts on her’ or sometimes with a slightly more concise description of ‘the brown one’. While it appears that everyone else knows which cow to target, I am generally running with both arms raised above my head towards a collection of innocently grazing cows. Once she has been located, I am to separate her from the rest of the herd – more often the case against her will – and coax her out on to the track.

At the point of completing this phase of the task I have likely run several kilometres chasing upwards of 10 separate cows, none of which have birthed, through a paddock riddled with holes big enough to get swallowed by and logs and broken sticks hidden in long grass that possess to be the perfect instruments to administer a dislocated knee. As long as I haven’t found myself at the bottom of one of these concealed openings in the earth I am now put to retrieving the new calf.

Providing luck was on my side the infant would be curled up in a restful slumber in the middle of a low lying and flat section of the paddock inches from the gate. I remember this being the case once, and never again.

Convention would have it several hundred yards away; sometimes not in the same paddock; sometimes not in the same farm; standing at the highest point of the horizon briskly limbering up for the chase of its life. By the time I have reached the calf and regained composure enough to breathe without the sensation of my lungs collapsing, I take a minute to study its curious countenance while it makes preparations in front of me in the form of quad stretches.

What follows is a good 10 or 12 minutes of exasperating pursuit – up hills and down banks, over logs and through bogs, and if I’ve not been drawn at least once into a head on collision with an electric fence then it’s been unusually fortuitous.

The final stage of the proceedings is for me to carry said calf back across the hillside to the trailer. The demand of this can only be appreciated when it is understood that newborn calves can weigh up to 100 lbs, depending on the breed. One calf of a particularly tremendous dimension was birthed by a cow with the significantly apt nickname of ‘Tank’. Danny carried that one. And this task is to be completed as many as 15 times per day during the season’s busier weeks.

The Rock Paddock

2. Transporting the cows and calves – Up to seven or eight calves can fit into the trailer attached to the back of the 4-wheeler at a time. The trailer is then driven at a speed of less than 5km/hr with the objective of persuading the birthed cows down the track behind it, and back towards the direction of the milking shed.

If we now consider the simplicity of a cow’s mind with its usual and somewhat unexceptional day to day existence, we shouldn’t fail to remark upon the potentially distressing effect this task may have on a new mother. Essentially, I have just, without reason or explanation, singled her out of a crowd of her peers and chased her like a maniac out of a field in which she was understandably recovering from a taxing night of labour (100 lbs!) onto a grassless track and left to wonder what that was all about.

She has then bore witness to the very same man wrestling her new born to the ground and throwing it into a caged trailer where it is left to cry-out while it is stood and defecated on by seven other screaming calves. At this point it can be ascertained by the nervous pacing back and forth along with the distended eye balls protruding from her skull, that this mother’s sensibilities are now a bubbling tumult of confusion and agitation.

However, the episode of distress hasn’t quite reached its end as now is the moment the individual, and unquestionable cause of her anguish, mounts the 4-wheeler and parades the young in front of her at a speed that forces her to suffer this scene for perhaps over an hour; after which the calf is swiftly whisked away from her and summarily disposed of into a pen filled with other similarly fated calves.

It is entirely understandable, almost logical, that the trip back to the milking shed is significantly comprised of frustrated attacks from said cows against said individual.

The track home

3. Drenching – This job is required in order to replenish a cow’s diminished calcium levels after they’ve given birth. The process is simple in theory – feed each newly calved cow one bottle of molasses. In practice, you’re lucky to get the job done without losing the use of an arm.

Before this can be attempted all the cows will have been herded into the herringbone and locked up tight to one another. After filling up the drenching bottle I wander down the aisle in front of the cows to pick the one pointed out by Brian. The cow catches a glimpse of the bottle in my hand and instantly fires a startled glare up at me. I clock that she’s seen it and there’s a second where both cow and man are frozen in a stand-off, each waiting for the others’ move.

The cow’s nerves get the better of her; swaying side to side, pawing at the ground, edging backwards and stepping forwards, craning its neck up and away from me. Now I’m standing face to face with it, both arms out stretched and mimicking the motion, side to side, looking for an opening. When I think I see it, I make my move. That is to say, I thrust my thumb and middle finger right up its nostrils.

Then there’s another second where I’m amazed at having my hand inside a cows face. Once I’ve made a mental note of how awesome this is I tuck the bottle of molasses under my right arm pit, yank on her nose, wrap my left arm over the top of her neck and grab the underside of her top lip on the opposite side. I let go of her nose and slide the bottle into my hand. This is the point where she really kicks off.

It’s now my job to, not only hold onto the head of a cow that definitely doesn’t want me to, but to overpower it with one arm, pry open its mouth, tilt its head up to open the gullet and upend a litre of tar-like syrup down it. She definitely doesn’t want me to.

It’s not uncommon for a cow to drag me over the barrier and pin me, with the force of a Car-Cuber, between herself and her neighbour, whom she is certainly in cahoots with. However, it’s a more regular occurrence for the cow to have me floundering with both legs airborne, one arm clinging around her neck, and the other flapping wildly dispensing molasses over me and everything else in the local vicinity. A timely flick of the neck would see me catapulted with a parabola’s trajectory against the unfortunately position breeze block wall.

The herringbone

4. Feeding the Calves – New born calves, for the first few days of feeding, must imbibe themselves on colostrum. It is the priority of the afternoon milking to collect this colostrum from the newly birthed cows in a specifically designated receptacle and ferry it over to the calves’ pens.

From being deposited in their pens in the morning to being corralled for feeding in the afternoon, the calves have collectively dedicated their time to decorating themselves and their surroundings in a staggering amount of excretion.Such was their dedication; a good number of them will have collapsed into an immobilized torpor.

This, therefore, requires some physical encouragement provided by some gentle rocking with the inside of the palm; and supplemented by a few stirring swipes with the outside. This technique would almost always render poor results but a better way was without the grasp of my temperament.

If I had made a success of raising the sleepers I would then need to direct them out of the pen and onto the ‘calfetier’: a task made all the more calamitous by the ice-like slick covering the wooden flooring – a residual effect of the previously mentioned calf waste – and the now unrestrained vim shown among the calves.

One man and eight calves produce a total of thirty-four legs; each one working with seemingly opposing objectives and at an alarming rate. A front leg might lurch forward while a hind leg splays outward; a knee might buckle while a hip joint locks; a body could collapse and cause a chin to meet with the floor; or a leg may rocket into the air and throw a head backwards, perhaps leaving it fixed between slats in the gate. This latter predicament is far less wearing when it happens to one of the calves.

It is outside the pen at the ‘calfetier’ that the true level of stubbornness in a young calf is displayed. Large amounts of time and effort are required to over-turn the natural impulse of a calf to look to an elder for nourishment.

Convincing them that the source of their unbridled excitement lies in drinking vast quantities of liquid and not in my crotch is to convince most women I know of the opposite.

If after completing all these jobs I was still able to call upon my bodily faculties to walk myself home unassisted, I could graciously call the day a roaring success.

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From → New Zealand

One Comment
  1. Annie Hallett permalink

    Very funny Andrew. Where’s yout twitter account then? 🙂

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