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Coming to the aid of a confused cowPosted Tuesday, December 4, 2012, at 3:23 PM
When people drive by the farm it would be natural to think everything is easy. After all, what scene doesn't look prettier from a distance? It's when you zoom in -- either with a camera lens or a critical eye -- that the cracks and wrinkles begin to show.
Right now if you look in our pasture, you would see our newborn fall calves running around the pasture, enjoying fresh air and sunshine. And I can forgive anyone for believing all is well.
But the truth is we had a maternity question to solve, and without a Maury Povich show for cow DNA testing, we had to use instinct and ingenuity.
It all happened one fall morning, when son A went out to check the cows. He realized 905 had recently had a calf -- a bull -- which she was contentedly nursing.
Then a few minutes later, he noticed another calf, a little farther away. The calf was mobile enough, but he wasn't sure at first who it's mother might be. The mooing, bawling calf seemed to be an orphan.
Concluding 905 must have had twins, he urged the little heifer toward her would-be mother. For a moment, the cow let both calves nurse, but then started kicking at the heifer, leaving the bull to nurse.
Our son took the unwanted calf to our lot and gave her some colostrum and milk. It looked like we had inherited a bottle calf.
So imagine his surprise when the next day he checked the cows to find the little bull calf he had left in the pasture was not nursing on 905, but another cow.
Something fishy was going on.
Sons A and B decided they were going to bring the bull calf up to the lot to see which mother followed -- both did.
Both mothers were red, as were both the babies. Both were obviously newborns, and both mothers had recently given birth.
It was eventually decided 905 was the mother of the heifer, while the bull must belong to the other cow.
Of course, the hard part would be convincing 905 of her confusion.
Although it may seem strange, the truth is such mix-ups occur relatively often. It probably happens when two mothers give birth at about the same time, in a close proximity. Either the calf, still woozy from being born, tries to nurse the wrong mother (don't all red cows look alike?) or the mother, still a bit disoriented from childbirth, turns to see the wrong calf. Either way, one calf often ends up rejected.
For a farmer, it's a frustration. Not because of the extra work, but because it is heart-breaking to see a small calf hungry for a meal. When a cow rejects the baby trying to nurse, it is painful to watch, because the rejection never comes with a gentle nudging. Instead, the cow usually kicks the small, hungry calf with a harsh kick or thud to the chest, usually repeatedly.
In this case, it all turned out well. It began with a few trips to the cattle chute, where we helped the small calf find her dinner plate and dodge her mother's kicks. Then we put them together in a small pen.
The calf proved her desire to live -- and athletic skills-- dodging and weaving when necessary. Eventually 905 realized this calf was better than none at all and let her nurse. Although the calf would have made it as a bottle calf, she will thrive on her mother's milk.
It was another lesson to remind me how important farmers are to the animals they care for. In nature, survival of the fittest rules, but on the farm, that's not an option. I learned that lesson long ago when I insulted my young husband by questioning his motives and concern over a calf in a similar situation. He was upset, and determined to give the newborn calf a chance at life -- that was obvious.
"Are you upset because of the money we will lose if this calf dies," I asked, not yet understanding the role of a farmer. After all, when you grow up in the city with little understanding of where food comes from, you think of any death as cruel.
So isn't a farmer, who raises animals for food, naturally uncaring?
The look in his eyes told me his answer, even before I heard his words.
From that day on, I understood the nature of farmers was to look out for their animals while they were on the farm. And yes, no doubt, if you take care of the animals well, they take care of you.
And yes, someday a calf or a pig would grow up and leave the farm. Eventually that animal will become a nutritious meal on someone's plate. That made the newborn calf even more important, certainly not less.
That lesson has gotten lost as people get further removed from food production. But it is apparent to anyone who spends enough time around a farm -- or a farmer.
For something or someone to live, something else must die. The circle of life begins with the smallest organisms, and everything and everyone dies. It is as true for farm animals, as it is for vegetables.
I was reminded of this lesson when Trent Loos, nationally known agriculture advocate was in town last month. Speaking at the Houston E. Mull Memorial FFA Scholarship Trail Ride dinner he said, "Everything lives and everything dies and death with a purpose gives full meaning to life."
I learned from my farmer many years ago, the death of a defenseless calf which could be saved, was not a death with purpose. That death wouldn't make anybody's life better.
The next time you drive by a farm, on the the highway, or a gravel road, I hope you take a closer look. I hope you see raising food isn't always easy.
As you zoom in you'll see it comes with cracks, wrinkles, valleys and peaks, as everyone's life and job does. But because of a family farmer somewhere on that land today -- your life, my life and a newborn calves' life is a little easier.
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