Well, it's all happening down on the farm. Thursday lunchtime I looked out across the big paddock and there was Poppy swishing her tail. Funny I thought, no one else is swishing their tail - time to bring her in. With Sweet Pea's calves safely shut back in one of the cowshed stalls, Poppy waddled into the cowshed paddock, I ran through my cow-about-to-calve checklist, ascertained that today was the day and rearranged my afternoon. By three o'clock a new baby was definitely on the way and I kept a discreet distance to watch the proceedings. Poppy lay down and got up, she swished her tail and mooed, she widened her legs and pushed, and I kept an eye on the clock because, if the process takes more than an hour, I start to get concerned. By three-thirty two little hooves had appeared and I sighed with relief - they were front hooves. A little nose followed and, with a puff and a huff, Poppy's wee calf slurped out onto a patch of spring bulbs and flapped its ears. What joy - a beautiful jersey heifer - and I called her Little Miss Jonquil. Poppy was pleased and I was ecstatic. The usual motherly things followed and I spent the rest of the afternoon watching metamorphosis in action as a wet brown blob changed into the cutest bundle of bounce possible.
Poppy is such a lovely cow and she adores her babies, but her udder is huge and tiny mouths have a great deal of difficulty getting connected. Little Miss Jonquil would need to be fostered onto something else if she was to thrive. Four more beefy heifers were arriving on Saturday and I decided to leave Little Miss Jonquil with Poppy until then. I decided I would put one of the calves that Sweet Pea was feeding in with the new heifers when they arrived and put Little Miss Jonquil onto Sweet Pea. That way I would have a set of five beefy Friesian cross heifers on the five-teat calfateria, Sweet Pea would have the three straight dairy calves and Poppy would be hand milked. And that's what happened. Sweet Pea couldn't have cared less that there was a change on Saturday. Her head came out of the feed bucket and, as she gasped for air, I'm sure I heard her say, "That's cool - it's got no teeth!" and Little Miss Jonquil was very happy to discover a better-sized milk bar. Poppy didn't mind either as by Saturday she was back into the routine of milking and was content to watch her baby, who was in the stall next to the milking bay, while I took the pressure off her udder and made her comfortable.
I like to wait a day before I milk a newly calved cow. There is such a fine line between milking a cow out, and the sudden drain on the system causing milk fever, or not milking a cow out, and having mastitis set in. Each cow is different and, because Poppy is a high producer I tend to be cautious. I'd rather see her stagger about for a day negotiating a set of bagpipes with each step than create any added stress on her system by asking her to draw on calcium levels already depleted by the birthing process. I kept her in the cowshed paddock with her baby on Friday and I gave her plenty of straw, a small feed and an armful of puha. Friday night, after her calf had fallen off full, I brought Poppy into the milking bay and milked a litre out of each quarter checking carefully for any signs of mastitis. The easiest way to do this is by milking the first couple of squirts onto an old vinyl record. If mastitis is present the little lumps will show up clearly on the black surface. If the cow hasn't swiped your knee off in the process, and there are no lumps, you can be safe to say, "No mastitis today". But keep alert. Like all problems, sort them out quickly before they get too big. By Monday the routine was settled again, cows coming in, cows going out, and everybody happy.
Tuesday morning I gazed across the big paddock and there was Cream Cheese swishing her tail - round number two! This time the birth was not so easy. Everything went normally, but Cream Cheese was having a big calf and needed some help. With an old tea towel in each hand to give some grip, I grasped the two slippery front legs poking out and took a gentle pull each time she heaved. Out came an enormous jersey bull. Cream Cheese spun around, mooed thank you and then clearly told me to, "Bugger off - this is my baby and I know what to do."
"Fine," said I, stepping back and letting her go to it. I gazed across the paddock. There was Africa swishing her tail and I began to feel like the Head Matron of a Maternity Ward.
Baby number three for the week duly arrived with no problems and it was a wonderful sight in the cowshed paddock - mother, daughter, half-brother and grandson all happily sorting themselves out. I gooed and gushed, took photos and blessed them both for letting me be part of the action. For the rest of the afternoon I kept a constant check on them as last year Little Cream Cheese had a terrible time calving and I was anxious she was going to be okay.
Last year I started the clock when Cream Cheese began to calve and, when nothing was obviously going to happen two hours later, I rang the neighbour. Her reaction was, "It's a breech birth!" and her man-of-the-house-with-long-arms was fetched. In his arms went, to sort out the problem and, yes, there was a tangle.
"Here's one leg," he said, "and another, and the next, and the last...and, oops, another...call the vet!"
Cream Cheese was having twins and they were really muddled up inside. The vet arrived, gave her an injection to relax her insides and we started to administer Calpromag because by this time she had gone down. As the four of us were grouped around Cream Cheese on the stable floor a dear friend, who is not really into this sort of stuff, arrived and leaned on the door like Farmer Brown watching a little helplessly as we struggled to save her. The usual trivial chatter that arises during these moments of stress pattered on as we kept calm and worked frantically but, when the vet went to get the birthing chains I became very concerned - not for Cream Cheese, but for 'Farmer Brown'. His were the only hands spare and I knew what was going to happen next. Would Little Cream Cheese have some two-legged company on the sawdust beside her I wondered? There was no problem though as 'Farmer Brown' rose to the occasion and did a magnificent job following the vet's precise instructions. The calves were delivered alive and well and Cream Cheese couldn't believe her luck - two babies!
So, I circled Cream Cheese frequently all afternoon checking for any signs of complications as she bonded with her new baby. By six o'clock she was looking seedy and was showing the symptoms of milk fever. She was grinding her teeth and staring with slightly glazed eyes. She was reluctant to move and her head was held to one side giving her neck a distinctive bend. With the neighbours' help, I gave her a sachet of Calpromag as a precaution. By seven o'clock she was down and sweating and I called the vet. By nine o' clock we had done everything we could. Her insides had been checked, she'd been given antibiotics and the vet had administered another Calpromag, this time directly into the vein. Cream Cheese was not going to get up despite all of our efforts and the decision was made to wait and see what she was like in the morning.
Jersey's are sensitive cows and will sometimes 'spit-the-dummy' quite firmly. The more you fuss them the more stubborn they will be and it turned out that Cream Cheese had decided to display her Jersey character. Once everyone had gone home I covered her with blankets to lift the sweat off her and to keep her warm. Every fifteen minutes I went out to check her and when I went out at eleven o'clock she had decided she was sick of sitting down and she was standing up eating straw and looking as if nothing had happened. You can feel a bit silly at these times as we seemingly fuss and bother over our animals but, to 'small farmers', our animals are our friends and to lose one is a double blow. Not only do we lose a mate but also we lose most of our herd or flock with it. Most 'big farmers' would be a bit panicky too if half of their stock turned their toes up in one afternoon!