On Tuesday, a calf was born at Kay-Ben Farm. She is the daughter of Dolly, one of the most highly prized animals that the Bensons own. She was somewhat unexpected. And she is beautiful.
By unexpected, I mean that no one anticipated the hour of her birth. I had asked Ryan and Eddie that morning if anyone was expected to calve. They both told me: “no, not today”. So when we were making our way through the milk barn delivering biannual vaccinations to a general succession of cow rumps (when I say “we” I mean “I held the supplies”), the last thing that I expected was to hear Ryan yell: “oh – hey!” In the box stall to our right, I saw a thin trickle of blood running the length of Dolly’s udder. For some reason, I thought this meant that the calving was in progress. How I expected that she was going to give birth standing up I really don’t know. But as we approached the stall, I slowly realized that Dolly was diligently lapping at a small, wet, shining and shivering black calf. Tristan and I stood outside the stall in silence. Ryan walked to the calf and lifted one of her skinny hind legs.
“Heffalump?” asked Tristan.
“Heffalump.” replied Ryan.
On Wednesday morning, a dairy farming newbie received important instructions: wean this new baby girl to a bucket. Cool! I combined milk-replacer and warm water in a bucket. I carried my bucket to the calf’s cozy hutch. I coaxed and I prodded, and with milk-wet fingers, I tempted the calf to wobble her way toward my bucket. I nudged her nose toward the milk and slowly taught her to drink down. It took some trial and error on my part, but this calf caught on quickly and I was very proud.
Two hours later, I watched Ryan and Erica pump water and electrolytes into the stomach of a very sick and severely dehydrated cow named Sharon. This involved running a metal hose through the cow’s mouth and down the length of her throat. Sharon has had a hard time of it. She’s been sick for weeks, has undergone various treatments, has responded to nothing. Ryan is not entirely sure what’s wrong, but his best guess is cancer. She also recently developed mastitis in all four “quarters”. She’s lost immense amounts of weight and she eats nothing. I am reasonably certain that when I return to work at Kay-Ben farm, Sharon will not be there.
So I said to Ryan, “I think I’m beginning to understand the emotional highs and lows of working here.”
He nodded and replied: “You can go from here (hand at shoulder level), to here (hand at his knees) in the snap of a finger.”
He elaborated on this in our Thursday Story Circle, relating the story of his assistant Chad’s first week. Chad was new to dairy farming and it was his second or third day. Ryan was working that day in two side-by-side box stalls. In one, he had started an IV running into a sick cow that had recently calved. Chad held the IV. In the other stall, a cow was dying. Ryan held the cow’s head in his arms. “They were right next to each other, this dying cow and a calf in the first hour of life. Chad was just standing there holding onto this IV, and he was completely overwhelmed, you could just see it in his face.”
“So what do you do after that?” asked Claire.
You move on, they say. “That’s the thing about farming,” says Tristan. “It never stops moving; it’s just constant movement.”
In the last two weeks on Kay-Ben Farm, I’ve had the opportunity to see a newborn calf, scrub water buckets, relocate hay bails, wean two new calves to buckets, feed the babies grain, rake out a heifer stall, watch vaccinations, observe an ultrasound, brush cows clean. I’ve climbed up through the musky shadows of the hay barn, stumbling and sinking into bail after bail of sweet third growth alfalfa, chirped at by swallows, reminded viscerally of some story I read long ago or maybe multiple stories . . . I’ve trekked across the fields in search of electric fencing and I’ve said goodbye to at least one cow, maybe two. And I’ve been grateful for every moment.
Tristan tells me, of dairy farming: “It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle . . . You just have to love it.” On my way out of the barnyard Wednesday noon, I holler a goodbye thank you to Eddie, and add that I’ll be back. “You’ll wanna be careful,” he hollers back. “Some people, it gets in their blood . . . and it’s ruined many a decent person!”