This winter has been rough. Thankfully, God gave me a gut feeling to over-buy on hay last year. The farmers I bought from thought I was nuts buying so much. They kept telling me that Illinois winters were never as long or as harsh as what I was preparing for. Now, here we are a full week into February, when the “normal” temps should be in the 30’s or so, and today is -1 with a windchill of -17. There is almost a foot of snow on the ground, and no one wants to be outside.
As a result of almost continuously frigid temperatures for over 6 weeks now, the goats are putting their calories into staying warm rather than milk. They are drying up early to conserve energy. With no cows or goats due to freshen again until May, that was going to be a very long dry spell.
Then came Hollie, our Lowline beef cow I posted on previously, who wound up being bred before I got her. I decided to turn her into a homestead milk cow to cover our dry spell. I just had to teach the semi-wild, untouchable cow to let me touch and milk her. Of course, she had to calve before I could milk her. So, we came up with a plan. First, I asked to S to design a head gate right into her stall wall, and we trained Hollie to use it.
Then we waited for her to calve. That day finally arrived last week. As usual, I closely checked her the night before. Although we knew she was close, she was showing no new signs of impending labor, so I didn’t do a midnight check. It was just too cold. The next morning, S (who let the animals out of the barn first thing each morning) woke me to report there was finally a bouncing baby calf in the stall. I was so excited! I jumped out of bed, bundled up, possibly 10 minutes elapsed between him being out there and me getting out there, and I arrived to the barn to find a calf–dead as a doornail. He was a perfect little bull calf. I had to risk going in to the stall with a potentially very protective mama cow. It was risky, but it was as if she knew. She actually looked at me, bawled, and then nudged her calf helplessly, as if asking me to help her get him up.
Some days I hate farming. The rest of my day was just lousy, wishing I could crawl back under the bedcovers and be depressed. It just breaks my heart when I lose an animal unexpectedly. In this case, we believe she stepped on the calf. It turned out, she was also missing a chunk of her ear. We theorize one of two things happened. The dogs were in the barn, but were not in the stall with her when S was out there. We believe either 1>Hollie stepped on the calf, causing him to scream in pain, which would have brought Athena (the only dog who can squeeze through the stall rail) running to his rescue, and she attacked Hollie trying to protect the calf, or 2> Athena may have gone into the stall to protect the calf from Hollie getting too close (like she does to the goats), and Hollie’s motherly instinct kicked in, they got into a battle to protect baby, causing Athena to bite Hollie and Hollie to step on the calf in the chaos. We’ll never know exactly what transpired, but it was heartbreaking in any case.
The bittersweet part of the whole thing is that although we lost a perfectly good calf, now we don’t have to milk share, which means we get to keep all Hollie’s milk for the family. After the calf’s death, I milked out Hollie’s colostrum and froze it for possible future emergencies, and now have her on a twice daily milking routine. She is doing well, and stands fairly still as long as she has food to eat. Originally, we bribed her into the head gate with grain, but have since weaned her from grain onto alfalfa pellets (which she’s not as keen on). So, she’s also learning that she just has to stand there and wait until I finish. I actually tie her back leg to the corner, since she does have a tendency to kick and stomp when she’s tired of standing there. It’s also still a two-man job, so S helps me keep her distracted and helps out when she gets fidgety. We also swap off sometimes, as we have discovered that milking her is much more tiring than milking a goat!
Each milking has increased to about a gallon. I am looking forward to seeing what her peak production is like. I’ve not been able to find anyone who’s milked a Lowline, or even an Angus (the larger, original version of the Lowline), so no one seems to have any idea what their production or butterfat content is like. I have some in the fridge now, separating so I can skim the cream and make butter! As you can see in the photos, we certainly haven’t reached a point with her to let us be comfortable selling her milk, as we aren’t able to milk her in a proper, more hygienic milking stanchion. It’s working for our family though. That little head gate has come in handy on several occasions too!
So, yes, farming is bittersweet. As usual, we are learning. We didn’t plan for a winter calf, as we believe in letting animals calve in open pasture whenever possible. It likely would have prevented this whole scenario. Nonetheless, we have seen the importance of having a dual-purpose animal such as a beef we can milk, so she can still earn her keep around here. We’ve also learned the importance of giving the new mama some space from other animals to help prevent any feeling of threat that could cause the calf to get stepped on. Most of all, we have vowed to avoid having winter babies ever again if we are able to have any control whatsoever. We hate the worry and stress of those frigid temperatures and wet babies, we hate the midnight checks in snowstorms, we hate the closed in barns and confinement for newborns. It just isn’t the way God designed it to be. However, we try to count our blessings, too. Even though we didn’t know she was bred when we bought her, we feel God knew about our upcoming dry spell with milk, and her calving was timed just perfectly to supply our family with milk. I know one day, we’ll be able to look back and see how all the events come together, but for now, I confess, I’m ready for spring and fresh air and sunshine and warm temperatures.