A Farmer’s Stripes

Such a beautiful morning.

Green. Bright. Warm. With the kiss of fog on my face and the warbling of birds as the first sun rays burst through the trees.

Late Sunday evening Briar went into the first stages of labor. We brought her into the barn and put her in the calving pen I’d recently built. Everyone spent a sleepless night checking her every half-hour because we really didn’t want to miss the calf being born. After all, it was Briar’s first calf and it’s such a miracle being able to witness new life.

At 6:30 am the feet and nose emerged and it was then I knew something was wrong. Not wanting my siblings to see, I sent them quickly out of the barn. Fifteen minutes later it was all over.

The calf was dead. Stillborn. Deformed. Half of it’s forehead was large and ball-shaped, it had half a nose, one eye, a crooked jaw at an unnatural angle, and one of the back legs was larger and humped.

Other than these it looked like a normal calf and it hurt to see it, especially when it had a white stripe down it’s forehead and white speckles splashed on it’s little brown body.

A paint Jersey. I’ve always wanted a paint Jersey.

Such a beautiful morning.

And my heart broke as my calf lay lifeless and mutated at my feet.

Just the other day I had felt it – rolling and kicking inside Briar. Only then I didn’t know what I know now.

All the excitement building up for 9 months only to witness something so incredibly sad.

The absence of life is the loudest noise I have ever felt.

The warm brown body already turning cold and stiff…the one eye so perfectly formed and lined with black lashes unblinking, sightless…I kept staring at its flat little sides, wondering if maybe I just missed a breath, but knowing the entire time that it was dead.

Life is truly a gift. As Christians our souls live after death. With my calf there was nothing. It just lay there. And I had wanted it so much to live. But even for something so incredibly sad, hindsight tells me that this was the easiest and most merciful way than to have had it be born alive only to live a few short minutes or hours.

Briar knew her calf was dead. She cleaned it off, nudged it, called for it in that soft, deep rumbling moo, and left it. And because I still have my steer Boaz, I think the loss of her calf wasn’t as hard on Briar.

In the six years I’ve raised family milk cows, this is the first time something like this has happened. And I wanted to know why. After doing some research and calling my vet, I’m pretty sure we had a Hydrocephalus calf – where there is too much fluid on the brain. In Heather Thomas’ book “Essentail Guide to Calving”, it says that usually most hydrocephalus calves are aborted or born early and so are small. If they reach full term then the cow needs help delivering because the forehead is too large to pass through the pelvis.

Briar’s calf was full term. Normal size as a full term calf and even though I didn’t want to look I did – the bottom jaw had all the teeth for a nine month calf.

The difference is that only half of its forehead was large and fluid filled otherwise we would’ve had to pull it.

Briar also had hydramnios, or something similar: extra fluid in the amniotic sac or outer water sac. Don’t know which. She WAS large, on both sides, like she was having twins. But with twins, cows lose condition in the last trimester because they are putting all the extra energy and food into the second calf. But Briar was fat all through her pregnancy. Hydramnios is usually found in bull-dog calving deformities, (bull-dog is a Dexter related malfunction) however Briar’s calf didn’t have any bull-dog deformities (i.e squashed bull-dog face and short legs).

All the same, she still had extra fluid in there. The calving pen was drenched, soaked – I don’t ever remember my other cows having so much fluid….

But the good news is that even though my cow lost her calf she isn’t holding back her milk. Actually, Briar has adopted me. As her calf. One hundred percent and without any reserves. 🙂  Every morning I hand-milk 2 gallons of rich, creamy, golden milk into my tote (sometimes I barely have enough room left for the lid because Briar does a second let down) and every evening I get an additional 1.5 gallons.

For a first freshener,  Briar has milking down to a “T”, and behaves like an old pro. Like clock-work she is at the back barn door at 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., waiting to be milked. It’s been a couple of years since it was this easy and pleasant! Training Fancy and Hazel to milk were rodeos and rollercoasters and I never truly felt comfortable and peaceful around them. With Briar it’s a whole different story. 🙂

The birth of Briar’s first calf was a very sad  and devastating experience (sometimes farming really sucks)  but we all made it through. And Briar is a wonderful cow. She’s perfect. And as someone told me, I got my farmer’s stripes for sure now.



One thought on “A Farmer’s Stripes

  1. Hi audrey. I tried posting a reply earlier but was unsuccessful (perhaps it was too long). I’m very sorry to read your account of Briars calf. The LONG year wait from calf to calf is bad enough, but oh my, how it hurts when all that pent up hope and anticipation is poured out on the ground of disappointment. Many times I have wanted to quit farming when one of God’s creatures have died on “my watch” and I think it is especially hard because there is no avenue for conversation between the caregiver and patient. .
    Your “absence of life” observation really was poignant.
    May your “perfect” cow continue to pad your pain, and I’m sure the earning of your stripes is helping to mold you into a better person.
    May God continue to bless all your endeavours and all your cheesemaking etc with all that milk!

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