The Dairy Farm Adventures: Contrary calves

Posted Wednesday, September 4, 2013 in Features

The Dairy Farm Adventures: Contrary calves

by Lee-Rae Jordan-Oliver

When a bull breeds dairy cows, the farmer has to relinquish control to Mother Nature.  On the other hand, artificial insemination allows a farmer to purposefully space the breeding of their cows throughout the calendar year.  Artificially breeding cows requires time, skill, and trial and error.  Having not mastered the art of artificially breeding our cows, Matthew and I left that order of business to a bull named Napoleon.  He has taken his job seriously and ten months after his arrival, we had a calf boom.  By summer's end in 2011, we housed over seventy calves.  We sold the bull calves and kept thirty-five female calves to raise as future replacements. 

            For safety reasons all calves, both male and female, need to be dehorned.   Having a milking cow with horns makes her armed and dangerous to the farmer and other cows.   Hence, the dehorning process is imperative when raising calves on a dairy farm.   When the calves are six to eight weeks old, a farmer applies a chemical paste on the developing buds or cauterizes the buds  to stop the horns from growing.  Though we did our best to debud the calves in a timely fashion, six of them grew two inch horns over the winter. 

On a clear, sunny day this past April, our veterinarian, Simon, came to our farm to help us dehorn the calves we missed.  Dehorning the calves at this stage was not complicated.  The hardest part  was catching the calves with horns who were frolicking with over thirty of their calf friends in a large outdoor corral.  The first three calves were easy to snag.  While the entire herd munched on grain spread across the ground, Matthew crept up beside them and looped a rope around their neck and lead them to where Simon was stationed with his clippers.  Unfortunately, the last three calves did not fall for the grain gimmick and scooted away from Matthew each time he drew near.

Matthew recruited Luke, a young gentleman we'd recently hired, and me to assist in catching the three contrary calves.  At first we teamed up in pairs.  Luke and I  targeted a calf with horns and slowly edged our way towards the wide-eyed calf.  When we were within arms reach, the calf would dart in the opposite direction before we could drop a rope around its neck.  For fifteen minutes, the calves had a grand time playing tag with us. 

Swiping the sweat from our faces, we decided to change our strategy, and the four of us ganged up on one calf at a time.   One person herded the calf toward the three-sided calf shed, where the rest of  us positioned ourselves so we could corner the calf in the shed.  Once the calf was in the shed, Simon deftly tossed a lasso around her neck and lead her to the clipping station.  We managed to catch the first two in this manner, but the last calf named Tax,” gave us a run for our money.  At one time we had “Tax” cornered in the shed but before Simon could toss the lasso around her neck she bolted right through our human barricade.  As the calf ran by, Luke took a flying leap and landed on the calf's back, arms wrapped around her neck and chest and his body stretched across her spine, trying to take her down like a professional bulldogger.  Luke hung on tightly for a few strides, but he was outmatched by the six hundred pound calf and let go. 

More determined than ever to catch this renegade calf, we repositioned ourselves and prepared to try again.   By this time the other thirty-five calves were riled.  As I stood in my position waiting for the round-up crew to run the calf in my direction, one of the oldest and biggest heifers named Joanne approached me.  Joanne was known for being friendly and curious.  When she was close enough to me, I reached out and rubbed her head and said, “Hi Joanne.”   Refocusing my attention on the task at hand, I stopped petting her and shooed her away.   Instead of backing off, she took a step forward, putting her head down to head butt me in the chest.  Before she pushed against me, I slapped her face and yelled, “Go away!”  Not deterred, she lowered her head again and came toward me.  At this point, I realized Joanne wanted to play with me.  Wrestling with a six hundred pound heifer was not on my “bucket list.”  Before she could make contact with me, I backed up enough to give her a swift kick in the nose.  The blow stopped her in her tracks, but she didn't run away as I'd expected.  While I had the upper hand for a brief second, I swung my leg back and repeatedly whacked her in the snout until she backed off.  Just as I was delivering my last kick, the men popped around the corner and saw what was happening.  Having been raised from a young age to be gentle and kind to animals, I fretted about what our veterinarian would think about my brutish behavior.  To my surprise he hollered to me, “Good for you!  Don't let her boss you around!”

After the last calf was rounded up and dehorned, Simon, Matthew, and I met in the milk room to wash up after our cardiovascular workout.  While we recovered, Simon told us a horrifying story of a seasoned dairy woman who was maimed by a heifer about Joanne's age.  With no forewarning, a heifer rammed into the farmer's back and knocked her to the ground.  Acting like an enraged bull, the heifer repeatedly attacked her.  A nearby employee heard the commotion and rescued the dairy woman from the temperamental heifer.  Simon emphasized the importance of always being on guard when mingling with young heifers and to use force when necessary to protect your space.

After my confrontation with Joanne, I have a new found admiration for farmers who have milked cows for years and are still in one piece.  Like a professional chess player, a dairy farmer has to stay focused, be defensive, and think several steps ahead to stay in the game.  I'm glad my survival switch automatically clicked on when I felt threatened because my chess game has only just begun.  

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