A calf arrives, but the work isn’t over
Gracie is not our favorite cow on my parents’ farm next door on Bedford Road.She is more stand-offish than any of the other animals here and can occasionally be a little bit ornery, whereas all the others tend to be gentle and sweet. Still, she’s been part of the herd for several years now, and her personality has grown on us. Like the high-maintenance friend you know you’ll stay loyal to, despite the challenges of getting along with her, we wouldn’t want all the cows to be like her, but to some extent we enjoy her distinguishing irascibility.
Gracie happens to have another distinction: she’s the only cow who has had difficulty calving. Her first calf drowned in the brook shortly after birth, though we don’t know the circumstances. And Gracie’s second calf was even more problematic; it was the first time in 20 years of my parents’ cattle operation that we’ve had to provide hands-on help with a delivery. Essentially, my husband Rick ended up performing high-powered midwife duties that time, and without going into too much graphic detail, suffice to say that he was the one to do it because he has the strongest biceps among those of us living on the farm.
So Gracie has been unlucky twice, and yet as my father – chief farmer here – pointed out, she was unlucky in two entirely different ways, so when calving season loomed this summer, he assured us there was no reason to think she’d have trouble a third time. Circumstances beyond anyone’s control made it impossible for Dad to be here as her due date approached, though, so with Rick, Mom and me left holding the proverbial bag, we couldn’t help worrying.
And yet luck was on our side – and hers – this time. Midmorning on Saturday I was on the phone with my mother (they live next door, but she and I still spend plenty of time on the phone) and realized that I could barely hear Mom’s voice because of the clamor of mooing – more like bellowing – from the barnyard. So after I hung up, Rick and I put on our boots and headed out to investigate. The cows have many acres among which to roam, but following the sound of the bellowing brought us straight to Gracie, who was standing behind the barn with a small, damp, rumpled brown calf at her feet.
A little poking around assured us it was a perfect delivery. Gracie looked strong and well; the calf rose quickly to stand, which often doesn’t happen until quite a bit more time has gone by, and he started rooting at his mother’s udder. Rick toweled off the calf and treated the umbilical cord with iodine; my mother and I fetched Gracie a bale of hay (the cows graze at this time of year, but we decided to make things easy for her in those first few postpartum hours) and took some photos.
As with human babies, there’s never any promise that a newborn calf is going to thrive. But there’s not much we can do to improve their odds once they’ve arrived; if the mother gets through the birth successfully, we’ve done just about all we can. So we felt relieved and triumphant, but one concern remained; Gracie hadn’t yet delivered the placenta, which would need to be buried. Moreover, both Rick and my mother needed to go out for several hours, so that issue was left in my dubiously capable hands.
In my hands figuratively and literally, as it turned out. Rick suggested before he left that I head back out to the barnyard in another hour to check on the situation. My mother’s advice was to bring a trash bag. So I ate lunch, read the paper, and then somewhat warily found gloves, a shovel and a trash bag and headed back out to the barnyard.
Mission accomplished on Gracie’s part, I discovered. The placenta was out, all right. I wasn’t absolutely certain I’d recognize it. I’d never dealt with this part of calving before. Moreover, I’d never set eyes on a placenta of any kind – including those of my two children. I have friends who do the whole tree-planting thing, but in my case, my interest in what had come out during childbirth began and ended with my actual children; I was content to hold and touch them, without feeling any need to interface with the by-products. But when I went out to the pasture, there was Gracie, there was the new calf, there were a couple of the other cows playing doting auntie, and there was…well, the placenta, obviously. I identified it by process of elimination, no pun intended.
It was too heavy for the shovel, but using the trash bag, I was able to wrap it up and cart it off to an appropriate disposal site, and my work was done. This particular aspect of farming wasn’t on my so-called bucket list, but seeing Gracie have a successful delivery was something I’d hoped for throughout the past several weeks. Back at the house, I washed my hands as visions of cigars and champagne corks danced in my head, though with the summer-long drought we’ve been experiencing, cigars would have been the last thing anyone would want near the barn.
The next day, it started to rain. We named the new bull Rain, in gratitude for the drought-ending precipitation and his healthy arrival. I’ll never forget my first placenta disposal experience. It was a good week for me not to have scrimped and bought generic trash bags. If the Hefty Cinch-Sak manufacturers want a testimonial, I’d be more than happy to provide one. They’ll have to synthesize an illustration themselves, though; I left the camera in the kitchen. The picture in my mind’s eye is more than enough for me. ∆