The Dairy Farm Adventures: Sweet Strawberry

Posted Tuesday, October 8, 2013 in Features

The Dairy Farm Adventures: Sweet Strawberry

by Lee-Rae Jordan-Oliver

Spring calving season has been a roller coaster of thrilling highs followed by stomach dropping lows.  Our two-year-old heifers started  calving the last week in March when wintry weather still clung to northern Maine.   Heifers are young, first-time mothers who often need assistance during the birthing process.

Matthew has been “on call”  throughout the calving season to help the pregnant heifers as needed.  He habitually monitors the heifers throughout the day to look for newborn calves or signs of labor.  If a heifer looks like she might calve, Matthew and I lure her into the greenhouse to a calving pen where it's warm, clean, and separate from the herd. 

After the evening milking, either Matthew or the nighttime milkers inspect the heifers one last time before leaving the barn yard.  If all is calm, we go to bed.  However, if Matthew suspects an impending labor, he'll wake up once or twice during the night for a maternity check.  He has delivered calves at all hours of the night this spring.   

Despite our vigilance, a small mixed-breed-heifer named “Strawberry” almost didn't survive.   At 5 a.m. on the second Sunday in April,  Matthew found Strawberry sprawled on her side with a calf's body protruding from her birth canal.  During the cold, damp night, Strawberry gave up pushing halfway through the birthing process.  

Matthew immediately pulled an unresponsive calf out of the exhausted  heifer and rolled her so she would be resting in an upright position with her legs tucked under her.  If a cow stays on its side with their head on the ground and their legs stuck out straight for any length of time, the weight of their bodies will compress against their lungs and suffocate them. 

When the children and I went out after breakfast to help with morning chores, Matthew told me about Strawberry.  “As soon as all the animals are fed, we'll use the tractor to bring her into the greenhouse,” 

With our six-year-old daughter, Anna, we drove the John Deere tractor to where Strawberry lay in a motionless black and white heap. Though her body was upright her nose was on the ground for she didn't have the strength to hold up her head.  I wondered if she'd ever pull through.  Matthew knelt beside her, lifted her head off the ground, and said with conviction, “Come on girl, we're here to help you.  You're going to be all right.” 

Hearing his words renewed my hope for her, and I lowered myself to the ground and cradled her head while he worked on making a sling using two wide ratchet straps.  The straps went under her belly and around the tractor's bucket.  When the straps were secure, he raised the bucket and Strawberry was hoisted off the ground with legs dangling  in the air.  He tried setting her hooves gently on the ground to see of she'd stand, but when her weight settled onto her legs, they buckled underneath her.

Uneven terrain and sliding straps made it impossible to move her from the corral into the greenhouse without causing further trauma.  We unhooked the straps and rolled her body into the tractor's bucket.  Matthew positioned the tractor so the bucket's edge lined up with her back.  Then I grabbed  her front legs and he took her back legs and on the count of three we rolled her 900 pound body into the bucket.  An active, healthy heifer would have thrashed her legs around making it extremely dangerous for Matthew and me.  However, Strawberry, in her weakened state, barely responded to the pushing, pulling, and prodding during the tractor-bucket-manuever.

Once we had her positioned in the bucket, Matthew delivered her to the warmth and safety of the greenhouse.  Anna helped us give her warm water, hay, and grain.  We propped hay bales against her back to prevent her from tipping on her side and covered her in a wool blanket.  The fact she was interested in eating grain provided a glimmer of hope for her recovery.

For the first few nights Matthew woke up and periodically went to the greenhouse to make sure Strawberry was upright.  Several times he found her stuck on her side and gasping for breath, for she still didn't have the energy to bring herself into an upright position.

As she gained strength each day, we used the skid steer and straps to lift her off the ground and encourage her to stand.  We knew if she regained mobility, she would live.  After the first week of “physical therapy,” she could stand by herself. 

One day while she was standing in her pen, I asked Matthew, “I wonder if she has any milk in her udder after all she's been through?”   I reached down and began to squeeze and pull on a teat and to my surprise, milk squirted out with force.   I told Matthew to grab a bucket and help me milk her by hand.  We were pleased her milk showed no signs of infection which meant she would be able to earn her keep on the farm if her physical condition continued to improve.

The children took special care of Strawberry.  Our three-year-old son, Wyatt, fed her grain daily and sat beside her with his little arm draped over her neck while she ate.  He'd pet her and say, “Poor  Strawberry.  I hope she gets better.  She's my friend.”  Strawberry soaked up the affection and gradually healed. 

I showed Walker, Anna, and Wyatt how to milk Strawberry by hand.  At one point, all three children were crouched under Strawberry milking her by hand.  They squealed when the milk splashed into the bucket.  Anna took great delight in spraying my face with the warm milk.   I had heard about farmers aiming milk into a nearby cat's mouth.   Anna was a natural who could have hit the bulls eye on a dart board.   Without being restrained, Strawberry stood quietly eating her grain, oblivious to the hand-milking commotion going on underneath her.

After two weeks spent recovering in the greenhouse, Strawberry was reunited with her herdmates.  Bringing Strawberry back to life was a family effort.  Our labor was rewarded with her miraculous recovery, but it doesn't always happen this way.  Witnessing life and death is all a part of dairy farming.  Farmers learn to take the good with the bad and hope for the best on any given day.       

When I prepare Strawberry for milking, I talk to her and rub her face.  She leans into my hand and stretches her neck out so she can kiss my face with her rough, curly-q tongue.  Maybe she likes the salty taste of my sweat, but I believe it's her way of saying, “Thanks for a second chance.”

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