Part bovine midwife, part detective

Whenever possible, I like to watch our cows give birth. It's good to be on hand in case of trouble, even better to witness the event without the need to interfere. The calvings that keep our dairy farm running have never become old hat to me.

The only routine aspect of an uncomplicated bovine birth is its sequence: First comes the water bag, and then the tips of two soft and tiny cloven hooves. If the cow isn't on her side already, she quickly lowers sail at this point, stopping whatever she's doing to attend her suddenly urgent business with wide-open eyes. Once she pushes the head out, nothing holds the little body back but the hips. One more effort at that point, and there's a small, shivering heifer or bull on the ground, its tongue flickering and nose atwitch. The cow gathers herself and rises for a good half-hour of licking the newborn dry. Within that time, the calf usually manages to stand up on its long, wobbly legs, and begin nosing about for the udder that it somehow knows is full of something fine.

It's a nice idea to have all this happen in a hay-bedded barn pen, especially in bad weather, but the cows usually have other ideas. A sure sign of an impending birth is an animal that quits the herd and heads to a private pocket of the farm. Jezebel always preferred the far corner where the pasture begins to shrub up at the edge of the woods. Year after year, Hannah somehow negotiates our steepest hillside to birth in the most darkly shaded ravine bottom. If we've missed seeing either cow separate from the herd, we know where to look.

Other cows are not so picky, and if an expectant mother is not in sight when we collect her mates for milking, we launch a wide-ranging search. At such times, our Percheron draft horse is an invaluable aide. Astride Ben's broad back, we need only sit back and wait until his massive head swivels and points unerringly to cow and calf, however sequestered they are.

Ben has a good nose, and a "thing" for calves, an almost maternal instinct toward the little creatures. Some newborns have even ridden back to the barn, mom following, straddling his amply shared warmth.

Calving time is often hard to pinpoint, even though we generally witness the breeding and mark the calendar. The gestation time, just over nine months, is similar to that for humans. But like human mothers, cows toy with such scheduling. So, we begin checking on a cow regularly a week or so before her due date. This is a sweet chore, often involving a walk to the back pastures in fine weather. Of course we could walk back anyway, anytime, but there is a feeling of accomplishment to a walk with a mission that gives it a certain leg-up over aimless strolling. And when a cow does calve early, the outings are well-rewarded.

Sometimes the due date passes, and she grows ever larger as the days tick on. Then, the regular checks become more urgent and the mere sight of an even-huger cow than yesterday's disappoints. One of my cows was a good week overdue, and lumbering about with what looked to be twin propane tanks bulging from her sides. I complained to Bernie, an old friend and stockman extraordinaire, who'd stopped by for a visit.

"When is she ever going to drop it?" I queried in frustration. Bernie eyed the bulbous animal from several different perspectives. He stroked his chin, and after some long, thoughtful moments he answered.

"Sue, she is going to have that calf just as soon as she possibly can."

He was absolutely right.

Often, the cows drop their calves when and where we least expect them to. Beth did it one pitch- black summer night amid the tall flowering ironweed, and I might never have found them but for the sound of her licking over the chorus of tree frogs. When Bonnie, one of our finest milkers, was born, she slid from her mother's womb into a karst sinkhole behind the barn. Charlie awoke that night from a sound sleep to the mother's frantic bellowing. The rescue operation was a success, and man and cow have enjoyed a special relationship ever since.

Another night's sleep was interrupted by the distant bleating of an unhappy newborn that had tried to stand up too near the edge of an icy slope. The tiny bull had skittered out of reach of his distraught mother. This particular calf owed its survival to Ben, whose strength was mustered at the upper end of a rope, and to Charlie, who wrapped himself around the half-frozen animal for two hours as I milked the cows.

Brittany calved in the cedars a few winters ago, but when we began driving her and her long-legged heifer toward the barn, the big Holstein seemed unable to make up her mind whether to walk with her calf or turn back toward the woods. We finally urged her safely inside a snug pen, and headed to the farmhouse to warm ourselves. When I went to check on the pair again, a twin had arrived.

Just the other day, Aries delivered a calf in the best of weather, an autumnal morning cool and dry, with a gradually warming sun. I checked her once before I began milking. She had a "look" and had begun ambling toward the cedars, so I checked her again after I'd milked the first three cows. I was too late; a steaming little body was already luxuriating under Aries's rough, robust tongue. Having missed the moment, I sat on a log a while, watching the little animal's drying bath as the sun crept up. I didn't bother to wonder whether this scene would ever grow old for me. If it hasn't by now, it won't any day soon.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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