Calving season makes for memorable times on the farm
For someone like me, who grew up in a family whose diversified farm included a cow-calf herd, calving stories are among the favorites.
One of the rewards of working for Agweek is that I get to get out of my office and go to farms. So far in 2022, most of my farm visits have been to cattle operations to do features on calving.
For someone like me, who grew up in a family whose diversified farm included a cow-calf herd, calving stories are among the favorites. Seeing the mothers and their offspring and hearing their owners talking about the successes and challenges bring back some of my most vivid — both good and bad — memories of growing up on the farm.
My fondest memories are of times spent with my mom, dad, brothers and sister during calving season, which, at our farm, began in mid-to late-February. My dad preferred to have the cows calve in late winter, instead of spring, because our farmstead in a low-lying area with a high groundwater level became a mucky mess when the ground thawed. Calving in the winter reduced the amount of diseases, such as scours, the calves contracted from being in mud and manure.
The temperatures, of course, could be frigid in February, dipping well into the double digits below zero, so my dad put the cows that were due to calve in the barn. My dad, who tended to his herd in the days before cameras that cattle producers could use to monitor their herds from the warmth of the house, made late-at-night and early morning checks on foot to the barn and the corral where the cows who had later due dates slept on a large straw bed.
Some of my happiest memories are of going out to the barn with my dad at midnight, where I saw newborn calves struggling to their feet or getting their first meal from their mothers. Once in a while, there was a surprise birth outside of the barn, on the straw pile, and I helped my dad get the cow and calf into the barn, me steadying the calf as I pushed it toward the barn and him encouraging the mother to follow.
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Sometimes my dad’s job also involved protecting me from mamas who were concerned that we wanted to do harm to their babies. One time my dad and I successfully got the pair into a stall in the barn and helped the calf to nurse. He was ahead of me leaving the stall while I paused to admire the sweet sight of the calf getting its first meal. The cow, apparently riled up by being inside, charged toward me, pinning me against the in-swinging stall gate, where she head-butted my mid-section.
My dad, acting swiftly, gave the cow the Three Stooges eye gouge and she backed up long enough for me to slip out the gate. That night was a reminder that I should never get too comfortable around livestock and that raising them can be far different than the sweet stories depicted in children’s books, on TV and in movies.
Though, that memory isn’t of a happy incident, it was a good life lesson, one of many that I learned during the good and bad times of calving. Other sad memories are of calves that died during delivery despite our best efforts to assist the cow, sick calves that didn’t respond to medication and TLC, and cows that wandered around mooing plaintively after the removal of their deceased calves from the corral.
The deaths, like the angry cow incident, taught me valuable lessons, like the fact that death is part of life, that despite our best efforts humans don’t have the power to save every animal’s life, and that life is made up of good and bad experiences.
Those experiences help me to relate to the cattle owners I interview and to understand their victories and struggles. While the sight of a cute calf contentedly chewing its cud warms my heart, I know that its owners also have dealt with the sickness and death of other herd members.
I appreciate the opportunity I have to share the stories of the cattle producers and to, for a few hours, get to experience the joys and sorrows of calving season.
Ann Bailey lives on a farmstead near Larimore, N.D., that has been in her family since 1911. You can reach her at 218-779-8093 or firstname.lastname@example.org.