A gift to both of us

I wanted to help the rejected calf. He had other ideas.

Andrew D. Brosig/The Daily Sentinel/AP/File
A cow stands watch over her calf in Nacogdoches, Texas.

It is the very nature of a farm to change hands, stewardship, and even purpose, sometimes between generations of the same family and at other times almost willy-nilly at an auction sale. The 80-acre farm I once called home, near Bloomington, Ind., was first deeded in 1832 and has had a succession of owners and uses – crops, dairy (yours truly), and now sheep and beef cattle under its present owner.

This last deed change was made between friends. My own stint as a partner in the farm’s former dairy operation ended some years ago, but Jason, who purchased the house, barn, and spread of pasture and woodland, allows me to keep two of my elderly animals on the back acreage with its small but solid shelter. It is all within a few miles of my current home in town. 

The last of my charges – Brown Swiss milk cow Nellie and Buck, a Belgian draft horse – are living out their now at-leisure lives on home turf. Such are the perks of friendship, though I don’t stop to think what I’m spending on carrots.

When I make my daily check on their welfare, I check on Jason’s herd as well. Beef cattle are far less sociable than dairy cows. They tended to scatter and bolt as I walked among them, at first. But Jason’s cattle are at heart peaceable, and they’ve gradually begun to accept me in their midst. 

A few days ago, strolling among them, I saw a pair of tiny newborn calves, clearly twins and still wobbly on their legs, walking behind their mom. One, I noted, was already nursing lustily from time to time. For whatever reasons, the mother had begun to reject the other calf, kicking it away when it tried to nurse. He succeeded now and then for a second or two before being rebuffed yet again. The little fellow wandered off among the dry cows, trying to find sustenance elsewhere. He knew what to do, but even the cows willing to let him nudge about their udders had no milk to give. He wouldn’t last long without it, especially in the suddenly wintry weather. 

The next day, Jason and I got him into a barn pen for bottle feeding. It was none of my business, really, but I leaped at the chance to help at that, as I’ve missed the warm, milky ambiance of newborn calves, which clings to jeans, coats, sleeves, and hands after a session straddling the little head and adding a finger alongside the rubber nipple of a bottle to encourage suckling. I’d had two decades of experience at it. 

The inevitable weaning of calves from their mothers in dairy farming is one of the things I’d most regretted having to do, but also personally missed about it all. After an initial period of natural suckling, the cows let down their milk in the parlor, and the calves readily took to a bottle twice a day and thrived. As did I, feeding them.

But this little bull calf wasn’t going to get mom’s milk at all, for you simply don’t milk beef cattle. And he instinctively knew the difference between the real thing and a powder-based substitute, though he hadn’t had more than a few moments on the udder.

The surprising strength of a newborn calf! Again and again I lost his head and my own balance as he resisted what he needed. He twisted away time and again. I ended up sitting on the hay and glaring at him, telling him he was being ridiculously stupid. He glared back. But some of the deeply suspect nourishment had made its way down his throat. 

Jason’s strapping son has done most of the subsequent work with calf and bottle. It’s a physical lark for Ben at a muscled 6 foot 2, and the calf has begun to thrive, like his sister out on the pasture with a full udder to tap. But I’ve slipped into the oh-so-familiar barn now and then to have a go at it under the old and winter-vacant swallows’ nests. I think of it as a welcome new lease on my former lifestyle – and a small donation to life itself for the calf. 

I will never return to full-fledged animal husbandry at this point in my life, but the unexpected opportunity to relive some of its sweetest moments has captivated me. 

As if to underline that thought, the calf soon began to welcome all that I offered.

Once he gained enough strength, I thought, he’d persuade his mother to let him nurse. Based on his initial, vigorous resistance to the powdered milk formula, I knew he had it in him to try again for what he really wanted.

But it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, another cow calved, and the little bull found her a receptive adoptive mom, allowing him to suckle alongside her own newborn. It sometimes takes a village ... or a herd. And dedicated foster parents.

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