I’ve got a problem. It might help to know the background.
In 2013, my cow Moxie gave birth to her second calf on the very last day of June. I named the little heifer June Bug, and immediately called the dairy forty minutes away to see if I could find a bull calf to foster on as a “twin.” Moxie’s rear teats were so tiny they were impossible to hand-milk. Hungry calves were the answer to keep Moxie milked out and healthy.
On July 2 I brought Neal Calf-frey home in a dog crate as a day-old calf. I named him for the charming con-man hero of my daughter Lucy’s favorite television show, White Collar.
After a couple of nursings in the stanchion, Moxie accepted him with her usual tolerance.
She allowed him to tag along in the pasture as part of the family, and nurse when Junie nursed.
However her kindness did not extend to taking care of him as if he were her own. She did not monitor his whereabouts or call him to follow her. Invariably when I brought the cattle into the barn in the morning, Junie was bouncing at Moxie’s heels and I had to search the pastures for Neal.
Like fawns, calves instinctively hide motionless in the grass until they are summoned by their mother. They will lie still, only moving to breathe, for hours and hours. They are hard to spot. As I hiked painfully in search of Neal every morning, for the first time I was grateful to have lousy pasture. Still, I was always almost on top of him before I saw him.
These days a sixty-pound calf feels heavier than it did ten years ago. Moreover the knee I tore in 2011 and had surgery on in 2012 has a permanent ache. I was grateful that D had left his four-wheeler at the farm to ride with his granddaughter, and had given me permission to use it. Here’s Neal enjoying his daily lift out of the sunshine and flies to the shade of the barn.
As always happens, eventually Neal outgrew infancy and woke up to follow his foster mama himself. Or, actually, to follow his “twin.” To create bonds of attachment, I always stall my “twins” together and they become close playmates. Here are Junie and Neal at the end of the summer:
Winter came early and cold.
By the time the twins were five months old, they were sassy and fat and lifting Moxie off her feet at nursing. It was time to wean.
It was around this time that my life became a grueling daily endurance event and I stopped taking pictures.
Neal next appears in the photographic record five months later in early May. Here he is, leading the cattle into the barn in the morning.
He is barely ten months old. You’ll notice his coloring has changed.
His temperament had changed, too. Starting at around eight months, Neal had begun to stare at me measuringly. “This bull is precocious,” I said uneasily to my husband. Neal would not move away from me quickly at the gate. He knocked Junie out of his way to gobble her morning grain as well as his own.
I felt the beginnings of the familiar “bull dread” in the pit of my stomach.
Just ten months old, but I was afraid.
Electric fences are thin cord, tape, or wire. They only work if the animal that is confined is more worried about a shock than he is interested in whatever is on the other side. I was aware that Neal did not seem to worry about much. I tried to make sure there was always plentiful grass inside the fences and nothing very interesting outside it to draw his attention.
On June 9, when he was eleven months old, Dorrie came into heat. She came into the barn in the morning as usual, but he charged after her, moaning and lunging and caroming off walls. It was dangerous. He would have broken down the stalls to get to her. I turned them out again in the barn paddock. I put Dorrie’s calf out with her, in hopes that Harvey could nurse and relieve any pressure in her udder.
However Neal would not let the calf anywhere near Dorrie. He chased her relentlessly. Here is Dorrie mooing to me plaintively, clearly saying, “Rescue me from this rapist!”
By the next morning, life was back to normal, but I worked around Neal as I would around a loaded gun with an uncertain safety. DH was away on vacation and I wrote to him, “The bull is a pain. Every day roaring and growling. He’s not angry at me or even making any threatening gestures — I think he’s roaring at me for grain! — but it is a constant worry.”
Family came to stay at the farm and not long afterward I was horrified to see them walking a small dog on one side of the fence while Neal paced along, watching, from the other side. I rushed down upon them, gabbling frantically. I’m sure they thought I was crazy. I was afraid.
Next Neal figured out a new trick: lifting a ten-foot gate off its hinges. Twice he let the herd out — luckily, both times merely into new pastures. Between other chores I hurriedly worked on all eight of the big gates around the farm, taking them down and rehanging them with the hinge pins reversed so they could not be lifted. I weedwhacked the fence lines to keep the charge high. In case despite all these precautions the cattle got out, I hung a dummy electric line across the top of the driveway, to turn them back from the 55 mph highway.
On June 22, Moxie came into heat. It was the same story. If anything, the heat and flies were worse, and so was Neal. I had to do some fancy footwork to keep myself safe from him, and I could do nothing for Moxie. As she lacks a tail, she was miserably chewed by biting flies all day outside while scurrying to escape Neal’s attentions. One of her toes cracked as she pivoted hastily, and then she was limping. I felt awful.
By the next morning the heat was over. Moxie was crusty with bloody fly bites. She almost hopped into the barn, trying to keep her sore back hoof from touching the ground. Neal went into his stall, gobbled his grain, then roared for more.
I had planned to keep him until 14-16 months. He wasn’t even a year old but I wanted him gone. The rest of my life felt out of control and the sense of danger surrounding this bull was putting me over an edge. I called to beg the slaughterhouse for an immediate date. Then I asked to borrow the school stock trailer. The trailer was in use and I would have to wait a few days.
The next morning, before driving Lucy’s carpool, I was chatting via Facebook with a family member at the farm when she wrote, “BTW, did you know your bull is out?” (I live a mile away.) My heart slammed in my chest and I raced for the car.
At the farm I discovered that someone had driven through the fencing tape at the top of the driveway, snapping it. It lay in shreds on the ground. There was nothing between the loose bull and the highway.
“Don’t get out of the car,” I told Lucy when we drove up to the barn. Neal was lying in the lee of the pasture fence, chewing his cud. He rose and stretched lazily, watching me.
I ducked into the barn and armed myself with my pitchfork. Then I scooped grain and poured it into all the grain feeders. I filled the scoop again and shook it where Neal could see it.
“C’mon, Neal,” I called, my voice squeaky with tension. “Breakfast.”
I never needed the pitchfork. It was easy. The bull meandered slowly into the barn and into his stall. I slapped his gate shut and locked it. I let in all the rest of the cattle and fed them. Then I went searching to see how Neal had got out. In the very furthest corner of the south pasture was a tiny 4′ gate I had forgotten. It was hanging askew on its chain. Neal had picked it up off its hinges and walked under it. I had a chill thinking of him testing every gate on the place until he found the weak link.
I kept all of the cattle in the 6000-volt barn paddock that night and the next day my elderly friend Allen helped me load Neal on the borrowed trailer and drive him to the slaughterhouse.
I was so relieved to have the danger past that I never stopped to do the arithmetic.
One of the items on my Winter List was to figure out Dorrie’s and Moxie’s due dates on a gestation calendar. Knowing these dates would tell me when I needed to dry them off (gradually stop milking). Typically, a cow has a ten-month lactation and then two months of rest and rebuilding before calving again. In the past I have taken advantage of this schedule by raising 2 calves until weaning at five months, and then substituting another for the second five months.
After looking up all the dates, I made my notes. Assuming they are pregnant (I’ve done no testing this year), Dorrie is due to calve March 18 and Moxie, March 31, 2015. Thus, counting back two months, they should be dried off…hmmm… in January? What??!!
Because they calved six weeks apart, I had waited until Moxie’s “twins” from this year, Leo and Marty, were five months old, before weaning the four big calves and putting on the two new babies. The current foster “twins,” Luke Bryan and Conway Twitty (Allen is a country music fan), were born just before Halloween. They are happy and healthy. They are a team, nursing Dorrie every morning and Moxie every night.
The once-a-day nursing has been good for the cows, allowing their milk supply to decrease naturally during these days of harsher weather. It’s been great for the calves, who bounce around the sheep stall all day playing. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that Luke and Conway are only ten and eight weeks old, respectively. At the time Moxie and Dorrie should be dried off, Luke and Conway will be only three months old. I try not to wean calves until five months. The earliest I’ve ever weaned, in a pinch, is four months.
I couldn’t understand how this happened. What was wrong with my math? Yesterday I went over and over the dates, puzzling over my mistake. I finally figured it out.
My first cow, Katika, never came into heat until a solid 2+ months after giving birth. This made it easy to space out her lactations vs. her calves. Her daughter Dorrie, however, came back into heat 7 weeks after giving birth. Moxie raced back into heat a mere 3.5 weeks after giving birth. To have a two-month rest period before calving, Dorrie can have only a nine-month lactation and Moxie only an eight-month lactation.
Moxie’s first twins nursed the usual five months. Dorrie’s twins nursed six months. These can only nurse three.
I know early weaning is do-able. It’s just not been something I do.
It’s my fault. I let my life get overwhelming, and I was so relieved to be rid of a danger that I never stopped to think of the consequences of precocious breeding. I never did the math.
Though I have regularly let the calves taste sweet feed, I will start today to supplement them seriously and over the next month will gradually make the switch to hay and grain. I will ask my cow friends for more advice.
Sigh. I hate it when I make mistakes.