The Dairy Farm Adventures: Expect the Unexpected

Posted Wednesday, June 26, 2013 in Features

The Dairy Farm Adventures: Expect the Unexpected

by Lee-Rae Jordan-Oliver

I am a fastidious planner.  I inherited this trait from my mother and father.  Knowing how to organize my day to get maximum output has served me well over the years.  However, on a dairy farm the best planned day can turn into chaos in a heartbeat. 

The twenty Lineback heifers Matthew and I bought in the spring of 2008 were calving at a rapid rate within a few weeks of their arrival.  We built two birthing pens for the mothers and calves to stay in for a short time before separating them. We were rotating the new mothers quickly from the birthing pen back to their stanchion stall where they would be milked. 

One day Matthew drove to Skowhegan to look at a second hand piece of dairy equipment.    He left mid morning and asked me to check on the cows and heifers during the day.  The two maternity pens were full at the time with first time mothers and their babies.   He assured me there were no signs  the heifers would calve while he was gone.

While my children napped, I strode out to the barn with my knee length muck boots to do a quick check.  Entering the barn, I scanned the aisle.    I gasped, “Oh No!” upon seeing two bodies sprawled on the damp concrete floor.  One calf was visibly moving, the other was not.  Holding my breath, I nudged the lifeless calf with my boot.  There was no response.  Without skipping a beat I dragged the dead calf quickly out the back door to the manure pile.   Then I focused my attention on the rambunctious calf who looked like Bambi trying to stand up on the slippery floor.  I worried the calf would break its leg if I didn't do something. 

I called Matthew and shouted into the phone, “I came out to the barn and there were two calves on the floor.  One is dead, and the other is alive!  What am I supposed to do?”  I must have sounded like a distressed pilot calling “Mayday! Mayday!” to headquarters.  What I really wanted to say to him was,  “How could you leave me here all alone with two children and all these cows?” 

From a hundred miles away, Matthew calmly told me, “Put the calf in front of its mother in the manger where she can see the calf and lick it dry.” 

“Then what do I do?” 

“Call me back when you're finished,” he answered.

I pressed the end button and stood motionless trying to get my bearings.  I felt like a city slicker stranded in the middle of the wilderness without a map or compass.  I took a deep breath and told myself, “O.K., I can do this.”  I strode over to where the newborn fumbled around trying to find its mother.  I can scoop up my seventy-five pound dog and throw him in the truck, but when I tried to lift the slimy calf, I couldn't boost him up to my waist to carry him across the floor.  This meant the calf weighed well over seventy-five pounds.  I half carried, half slid the calf and heaved him onto the three foot high concrete manger.   Within a minute, the disoriented calf flopped onto the floor in a heap after  trying to stand up in the narrow manger.    Matthew must have thought it would curl up like a cat and sleep like a baby while his mother washed him.  I dialed the phone.

“So how did you make out?” he asked much too cheerfully.

“Not well.  The calf will not stay in the manger.  What am I supposed to do?”

“Can you find a place in the barn to make another maternity pen?”

 “I could move the tractor outside and use that space,” I answered.

“Good idea.  Call me back when you're finished.”

After moving the tractor, I scurried back to the calf and lifted his body so his two front feet dangled and skidded him across the floor on his hind feet to the end of the barn.  I plopped him in a bed of straw and boxed him in with hay bales.   I prepared food and water for the mother, then went back for her.  I unhooked her chain not knowing how she would behave.  She called out to her calf; he “Maaaawd” back at her, and she headed in the right direction all on her own.  While she was preoccupied with her calf, I screwed a two by four across the doorway.  She easily could have broken through the temporary barrier, but I hoped she would be content to stay put with her baby.

When I finished the job, I answered the phone ringing in my pocket.

“I did it!” I exclaimed.

 “I knew you'd figure something out.  See you in a few hours,”  Matthew said.  Apparently, he had more confidence in me than I did at the time. 

The scenario that unfolded in our barn would have been a minor bump in the road to a seasoned dairy farmer, but I had just climbed a mountain.   I left the barn and sprinted back to the house, fully expecting two young children to be hollering for Mama.  When I opened the door, all was calm and quiet.  I may not have completed the naptime chores on my list, but I learned farmers needed to be determined and resourceful when challenges arose because much of the time they are alone.  I hadn't fooled myself into thinking I was a full fledged farmer, but I was tested that day, and I passed. 

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