Sucker-Punched


Recently I have been overwhelmed by a sense of my own stupidity. Two weeks ago my builder wrote me an angry email. He said he was too busy to meet to discuss the remaining work; he disparaged my husband; he said he had lost $15K on my job due to having to work around us after we moved in. He wrote that in a couple of days he would send a list of the work he was willing to complete.

I was so flabbergasted to be attacked when I thought I had been nobly patient and kind (we moved in on our contracted “finish date,” as we had no choice, and then lived, without complaint, in construction chaos for months) that I did not let myself respond. I figured I would be polite and professional when he sent his list. He sent nothing. After ten days I wrote him a short, kind email as a prompt. No response.

I tell myself he will complete some of the work he has been paid for, and the rest I will have to figure out. I find I am most upset by my misjudgment. Over the months the builder had come to feel like a friend. I lost sight of the reality that he was an employee. Now that he owes me labor and materials, I am apparently resented like an enemy. My heart has been sore and I have felt like a fool. A limping, tired, old fool.

Meanwhile I have realized that the farmer who sold me Flora played me for a sucker. Primed with the helpful information from Daisyhill, a reader, I googled bottle teats in Angus cattle. In my years of dairy experience I had never heard of bottle teats. It is indeed a heritable trait in beef cattle and a problem that farmers cull for. Clearly my farmer culled Flora after her first calf by selling her at full price to me.

The night I realized this I could not sleep. Of course I had inquired why he was selling. Just downsizing, he said; he had a herd of fifty. But looking back, all the clues were there. Out of this large herd of black Angus, only Flora wore a collar. I did not think to ask why. He told me she was tame and loved slices of bread. I did not ask how or why this particular heifer had learned to like bread. I simply thought, That’s sweet.

Once again, I was a fool. It is now obvious to me that Flora’s impossible bottle teats were a problem in her first calving, that the farmer enticed her into a squeeze chute with bread, got her milked out enough to allow the calf to nurse the bad teats, put a collar on her to mark her, and then put her up for sale after the calf was weaned and her udder dried off and shrunk back to normal.

The one-two punch of my unwisdom with the builder and the farmer were hard to bear.  I wailed to DH, “I feel too stupid to be allowed outside!’

I trudged through the days. I mowed and listened to hymns, trying not to hear the refrain in my head: Flora has this genetic flaw. Her cute little bull calf and all her offspring will carry this genetic flaw. My Jersey girl Moxie is old, arthritic, and fragile; the bull Red and steer Ikey have a slaughter date in July; now Flora and her bull calf… Essentially my entire herd should be culled. I was sunk in gloom.

I moved the sheep every day. I took care of Alison’s horses. I put up my chalkboard. And I tried to figure out how to get Flora into the barn. Since calving she had developed an unreasoning fear of coming inside. On June 10, five days after calving, I could see her front teats were in bad shape. The calf Riggins was nursing from the rear. He was hungry and butting her bag, not realizing that the swollen gourds in front were actually giant teats full of milk.

That day the biting flies were particularly fierce. Flora’s face was covered with them. I was determined to bring her inside with the other cattle. Carrying a pitchfork in case she charged me, I circled around and then, shaking the fork and yelling at her, I drove her step by step toward the barn door. I had a cold feeling in my stomach as she repeatedly turned to face me, protecting her calf, but I made myself yell louder. Step. Step. Suddenly, ten feet from the doorway, Flora remembered that she actually loves the barn and trotted in without a backward glance.

The bull calf Riggins had scampered off in a panic but Flora was so happy to be in the cool gloom she made no attempt to call him in.

The next morning was hot, the flies were biting, and all the cattle were eager to be let inside. Riggins trotted along behind his mother.

I was sure this was the happy start of a new routine. Unfortunately, after those crucial five days of his mother’s instruction that the barn was the lair of ogres, he reached the doorway and again bolted.

This time Flora was concerned. She walked outside again and mooed; she paced and bellowed; but Riggins paid no attention. Finally she came in alone. He was eight days old before I finally got him safely into the barn.

However I still haven’t been able to deal with Flora’s bottle teats. When her baby was not with her I tried to put my hands on her. Flora is terrified of touch and I always keep in mind that she’s about 900 pounds with a mind of her own. When I first brought her home, I had thought to have her in the smaller stall across the aisle. She attempted to jump the gate and instead just crashed through it. (Oh, you want to be in the stall next to Moxie instead? Fine.) So I have been careful not to crowd her to a point of panic.

I have been quiet and gentle and persistent. I managed to curry her back with my hands, which she nervously appeared to enjoy as I was rubbing out the remnants of her winter coat. By moving very slowly, rubbing constantly, I got my hands on the huge right teat. I have very large hands for a woman and to encircle the teat for milking required both. I even managed a few squirts before she jumped and moved away. I kept after her, slowly, slowly. Unfortunately when I touched the enormous, hot left teat, she kicked out at me and I roared reflexively, “No!” That scared her and we were done for the day.

I cannot get a halter on her. I cannot get her in the stanchion. I have no squeeze chute. With every passing hour, the swollen teats get worse. Riggins does not touch them.


Clearly, in the future I must train every heifer I own to go in the stanchion for a treat. However that won’t help Flora now.

I won’t give up on this problem, but I’m feeling overwhelmed by my many mistakes with no clear solutions.

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9 Responses to Sucker-Punched

  1. Jack Merritt says:

    Hi its me again.Im sorry that youv’e had a run of bad luck with everything, but I thought I should tell you that those tits don’t look like something to worry about at this time,.Ive seen very much worse Im sure if you leave well enough alone that the calf will look after this. After you ween the calf if it still worry’s you cull the cow, but for now I think she is ok. Financially you wont be too bad off. Its not worth getting hurt over. I wont bother you anymore but be careful, and Good Luck to you.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Thank you, Jack. Of course you are not bothering me! I’m glad to know you’ve seen worse. At this point the calf doesn’t go near those teats and the left one is very hard and hot. However I definitely do not want to get hurt and will be careful. Thank you again.

  2. Viv says:

    Sorry for your difficulties.
    Because I couldn’t afford sheep and cattle handling equipment , I gave up my sweet cattle. Grass fed beef was my goal and I found other sources. I always felt fortunate that there wasn’t an emergency that I wasn’t prepared for but I still fretted about it.
    I did invest in sheep handling equipment and I culled the ewes that didn’t work well on our farm. It was hard because I like all my sheep but I want to keep raising them and hurting myself isn’t an option. The sheep do improve my land with rotational grazing so my other goal, besides feeding us is met.
    I hope you can find a way to arrange your farm so you aren’t dogged by crises and there is less anxiety.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Thanks, Viv. I’ve managed both sheep and cattle for sixteen years, fourteen on this land. In the earliest days I had to walk my cow down the highway to get here! 🙂 I’ve dealt with lots of animal emergencies over this time. Still, I have never felt I was “dogged by crises” on the farm, though for the past twelve months the number in all aspects of my life HAS been wearying. I’m glad you’ve been able to arrange your own farm to your satisfaction. Mine is definitely a work in progress. Because I work alone, perhaps I vent too much about my worries and failures. I’ll keep it in mind!

      • Viv says:

        You never vent too much. Your honesty is appreciated. The added worry of the unfinished house, combative builder’s response or lack of response and the almost mourning of a lost relationship is a heavy burden. We are a work in progress too. I lay awake at night how to move forward a lot, how to balance all the things I love. Never getting to the bottom of my lists is humbling.

  3. Michelle Canfield says:

    So sorry, but don’t beat yourself up. When we buy livestock, we are always somewhat reliant on the seller’s honesty, and everyone gets bit now and then. And who knows, maybe he didn’t knowingly sell her with the issue, or it was only mild the first year where he didn’t notice or think much of it.

    Either way, is he close enough that if you called him and explained your dilemma, you could prevail upon his better nature to feel badly for setting you up for this, and possibly come out and help get her haltered? I agree with Jack, it doesn’t look *that* terrible. I think the engorgement is just due to losing the elastic tone of the teat, and would probably look that way even if nursed-out. Her body may cope with the backed-up teats ok, tho the risk of mastitis is higher since the milk is stagnant. If you could find a way to get antibiotics and NSAIDs in her, that would certainly help as a preventive. Could you sneak oral antibiotics in a crumble into her grain?

    I hope you figure out a solution, or she just manages ok without intervention. I have neighbors with huge herds of cows that never get any attention, and somehow they all manage, so I think beef cows are tough and can tolerate a lot.

  4. adkmilkmaid says:

    Thank you, Michelle. He is three hours away. I’m pretty sure he knew what he was doing. Otherwise the bread and the single collar in a big herd make no sense to me. I can already see that beef cattle are tougher than dairy, but I’d like to be able to make her comfortable if I can. However I do know my options are limited. Thank you again!

  5. daisyhill says:

    I am so sorry for all these bad things at once. I know how that feels. I have a word of hope for Flora; it is not inevitable that her calves will carry on the bottle teats. We talked to our AI tech about it a few years ago, saying that we would keep Daisy, but likely not any of her offspring, and he said quickly that bottle teats are something you can breed away from if you like other things about the cow. Daisy’s daughter Clover had her first calf this year, and she does not have bottle teats. The verdict is still not out on Daisy’s current heifer and grandheifer, but their sire should not be a carrier, and we hope all will be well.

    Flora is not too old to train, and if you can comfortably care for her for a few days after calving each year, you may find that her condition is not a problem. I would not care to have a herd full of cows with bottle teats, but I don’t mind just one.

    I am so glad that you are concerned about safety, working alone. We made ourselves a makeshift squeeze chute that was quite successful and simple, and might also work for you. I am sorry I don’t have pictures to post, but will attempt to describe it. We used two pipe gates, but it would also work to squeeze her against a wall if you only need to be able to access one side. The idea is to have a gate long enough to give you some leverage in squeezing her against the wall (or against another gate set solidly against two posts), and tall enough so she doesn’t think she could jump out of it. The head of the moveable gate was set about 30 inches from the head of the solid gate. It would be ideal to have a headlock here, but we just used the corner of the paddock. A stout rope was tied to the solid gate at rump level, and used to keep her from trying to back up, then the moveable gate was tied with another rope, squeezing her hard against the wall. It really seems to be true that squeezing calms cattle. Now, all our cows are halter or horn-rope trained, so we did tie their heads. I don’t know if that is essential or not. I don’t know your exact set up, but I was thinking you might be able to squeeze Flora this way in the corner of a stall, with some food bribery, a gate and a couple of ropes.

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