On a Rarity of Firsts

On a Rarity of Firsts

We don’t enjoy many firsts here anymore.

We’ve raised at least a few of all the common types of poultry, we’ve farrowed thousands of pigs, a couple handfuls of lambs, we’ve been putting beef steers by in the freezer for years, we’ve raised everything from a tiny garden for our own foraging to a massive one meant for market, we’ve butchered here on the farm and taken our stock out for slaughter to both custom and USDA facilities…

At this point, most of the firsts we could have are firsts we have no desire for. Goats, for instance, would be a first. We’ve never raised goats, but then again we don’t really want to either. And so we’re largely resigned to this place in our farm’s lifecycle where we’ve been there and done that with nearly everything we have interest in being and doing. In some ways this is contentment at its finest. There is very little urgency here now. We’ll plant/harvest/breed/farrow/lamb/buy/sell/construct when we plant/harvest/breed/farrow/lamb/buy/sell/construct, and that’s that. All is well and good and fine if we do or don’t do or have or don’t have any single, specific thing at any single, specific time. We are in a word, relaxed. We’ve completely, wholly, gloriously reclaimed the slow life we originally set out to cultivate and it is fantastic.

On the other hand, having virtually every first behind us is a little melancholy. To a significant extent the urgency in firsts are a result of the excitement in them. There’s something exhilarating about the first time you do or have or make anything. And while we have learned that a life of constant exhilaration isn’t for us, it’s nice to be exhilarated every once in a while. Knowing the particular excitement that comes with the newness of a new life or project is largely behind us is a tiny bit sad. Which means it makes those instances where we do enjoy it all the sweeter.

Such was the case of last week’s first calf to be born here. We’ve raised calves from weaning and brought home this particular Mama cow with a one month old calf at her side last year, but this sharp little bull’s entrance last Thursday marked the first time we’ve welcomed a bovine to the world right here on our little slice of mid-Michigan. And exhilarating it was.

Loki, as we’re calling him, presented breech. I noticed the two tiny hooves protruding from his mother, Lotte, first thing Thursday morning, just after returning from carting kids to sports practices again and just before I had a conference call scheduled for work matters. Lotte is an older cow who we allowed Wren to buy for herself last year mostly because she has had so many calves unassisted and would, therefore, probably be the best bet for a happy, healthy calf despite our inexperience. When I got home that morning I could see the hooves from the kitchen window, which overlooks her pen, but couldn’t make out enough definition to know for sure whether they were front or rear hooves, and this is where I went wrong. I should have been a couple minutes late to my call to go out and check for sure. But Lotte is experienced, I knew she hadn’t been laboring long (there were no hooves visible twenty minutes earlier when I checked before I left to drop off kids), and I didn’t want to disturb her unnecessarily so I took the call first and planned to check on her when it was done.

An hour later that’s what I did. As my call wrapped up I slipped on some shoes and headed for the barnyard. When I got there, I found Lotte with a set of rear hooves hanging from her backside, no further exposed than they had been when I noticed them earlier. Hooves should always come first in calving, but the proper birth presentation of a calf is front hooves first. Calves who present rear hooves first can get stuck in the birth canal, injured by contractions as they struggle to emerge from the uterus, and their umbilical cords can be disconnected too early in the birthing process so they inhale fluid or even suffocate before they make their way into the world. In other words, a breech calf is not a good thing.

I snapped a quick picture and sent it off to a dairy farmer friend to make sure I wasn’t mistaken and he responded quickly: “Both [herdsman’s name redacted] and I agree, those are back hooves.”

If I was certain Lotte was dilated, they figured I should probably be able to pull the calf out pretty easily given her age and many previous calves. This would be the best bet for a quick birth and (hopefully) a live calf. But I would have to make absolutely sure she was dilated so the pressure I used to pull the calf wouldn’t injure her. If she wasn’t dilated, they advised the help of a vet.

By the time those messages came through I was already on the phone to our vet’s office to request assistance. I was home alone and Lotte is… well, not the nicest cow. I wasn’t sure this was a one person job so I figured getting the vet on her way to us was a good idea. Then I’d try on my own while I waited. If the vet happened to show up while I was working or when I’d already delivered the calf, that was fine with me. I’d rather have an unnecessary vet call fee and a live calf than wait too long and end up with a dead calf because I’d erred too far on the side of caution calling out for a little assistance. In fact, throughout all of this I hadn’t seen the slightest twitch or movement from the calf’s hooves and one exposed fetlock looked a little swollen. I wasn’t sure the calf wasn’t dead already. Urgency was at a peak and I headed for the house to clip my nails (the least a gal can do when she’s about to stick an arm where the sun doesn’t shine, I suppose) and grab some lubricant and tools.

As I stepped back out of the house, no more than three or four minutes later, the vet called me back. She was on her way, but about thirty minutes out and wanted to check on our status. I told her I was on my way back out to the cow now, and as I rounded the corner to the pen I stopped in my tracks. There, behind Lotte who was laboring laying down, was half of a gorgeous black calf, tiny tail twitching with each contraction — a promising sign of life and another shot of excitement. As I unlatched the gate and swung it open, Lotte hoisted herself to her feet and out fell the rest of the calf, dazed and confused and gasping just a bit, but alive and well and beautiful to boot.

“We have a calf! And he’s alive!” I announced over the phone, crossing myself and thanking the universe for good old cows who manage to bring breech babies into this world on their own. I told the vet she didn’t need to come out anymore, and she congratulated us on the brand new life laying in our paddock, blinking purposefully.

When she hung up, I snapped a few pictures of our rare first and shot it off to any friend who might have the slightest interest in my morning excitement. We’ll never again calve for the first time. I suppose it was only fitting that Loki made sure it was a first for the record books. And I’m grateful Lotte made sure it wasn’t one filled with trauma. Thank goodness for old cows and spirited bull calves.

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