One of my greatest joys as “GiGi” has been helping our grandchildren learn to appreciate the farm. Even as preschoolers, they are eager to help out when given a chance. One by one, they’ve found their way to the calf barn in the last few weeks to lend a hand.
Henry and Sadie proudly show the others what is what in calf feeding protocol. Rosie and Oliver join in the action. Anna “Beasy” uses the same voice as with her baby sister, “Hello, baby moo-cow!” She crinkles her nose and meets them eye-to-eye with her beguiling smile. They are so adorable; it’s almost too much cuteness to contain. Their great-grandparents and dairy farm founders, Lloyd and Betty, would be proud.
A month or so ago, we experienced a labor loss requiring the Hubs to return to feeding cows. This is much more complicated than it sounds. An adult cow’s daily nutrition is closely tied to her production cycle. Precise ratios of feed components are mixed for each group of cows to ensure proper nutrition and herd health.
Feeding cows is a full-time job on a farm our size, even with herd reduction imposed by our barn fire. It is a highly structured schedule, tightly synchronized with milking and barn cleaning schedules. Returning to his cow-feeding regimen put a real crunch on the Hubs’ flexibility for calf-raising.
He’d taken up calf care with enthusiasm after our barn fire. You’d think a 50- or 100-pound “baby” could almost raise itself? No. They require close attention, a patient demeanor, and astute observation. Was that a cough? Who coughed? Are those joints swollen? Did this one (or that one) feed better this morning? His eyes are quick to spot vulnerabilities and ears are tuned to the sounds of trouble.
We’ve been pleased to develop a market for heifer calves among local Amish. The Hubs prides himself on their vitality and refused to hand off the responsibility. After a few weeks of doubling up with cow-feeding and calf-raising, however, he was showing the wear of the grind.
I remind you that I wasn’t raised on a farm. I’m not an “animal person,” as a general rule of thumb. But as an able-bodied adult with a relatively flexible schedule and vested interest in the farm — not to mention the farmers — under immense stress, I had to admit there was probably something I could do to help.
The Hubs rejected my offer outright. I was somewhat offended. What’s wrong with my help? Although I’m building my business and working part-time in the farm office, I have some discretionary time. I persisted in making my case. That’s how I found myself rising at 4:00 am on Monday morning to pitch in.
I’m a morning person, usually up early. I didn’t anticipate any trouble rising before sunrise to start chores. I discovered quite abruptly that my version of “morning” and a farmer’s version are very different.
It’s one thing to rise at 4:00 am to make a flight, headed off for a few days’ work in a distant city, a change of scenery with lovely amenities for my effort. Or to wake at 4:00 am but linger, reading until 5:30 or 6:00, rising slowly to enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee and quiet time. In the olden days, I’d wake before 4:00 am to study while the house was quiet. Perhaps then I could legitimately say, “Oh, yes, I was up at early, too.” I.e. You’ll get little sympathy from me, mister. Good grief.
The Hubs starts his day quite another way. He’s laser-focused on the first chore, his brain geared up from the moment his feet hit the floor. There’s a long list of responsibilities behind that to keep him on the run until sundown. Needless to say, my little experiment in she-farming has been a rather rude awakening. Even though I’m done with chores at the calf barn and home by 6:00 am, somehow it feels like I’ve worked half a day!
I clean equipment as the Hubs rushes off to fill his first mixer wagon. I own my day until we meet again at the calf barn in late afternoon. I am learning a lot, mind you. I know how to mix milk and prepare colostrum and sanitize equipment. I have almost figured quantities required at various stages of development. But I’ll never be a real farmer.
The Hubs has instincts and insights born of a lifetime of experience. “It’s only Tuesday,” he reminded me, as I bemoaned my inabilities. “You’ll get it if you stick with it.”
By the next night I was reconsidering this scheme. “I’m not speeding you up at all!” Secretly I questioned the wisdom in getting up so early for no impact. The Hubs was not having it. “No and I don’t expect you to yet. It’s only Wednesday,” he reminded me with unwarranted patience.
He also reminded me that this was all my idea. Fair enough. Then noted he doesn’t anticipate any change to his schedule or responsibilities before the end of the year. (Gulp)
As the Hubs quickly discovered, it stresses me out to be left holding the bag — um, I mean bottle. I don’t like wrestling newborns, all wobbly and perhaps a bit damp with unidentifiable fluids, onto their first bottles. It requires a combination of patience and experience I don’t own. After a day or two, I swear the “stupid” starts to surface. How hard can it be to select the nearest nipple? Maybe, like a human baby, their eyes don’t focus well initially? I’m not sure. Clearly, I still have a lot to learn.
They are like oversized toddlers, slightly unsteady, careening around their pens until they find their land-legs. I love the chorus of mini-moo greetings each morning as they eagerly anticipate breakfast. Then it gets very quiet, like the hush on the plane when flight attendants complete meal service. Best of all is when they kick up their heels and cavort after a feeding for the sheer fun of it.
But seriously, you can’t trust them for a minute! They butt their heads on the nipple bar and unseat it with a clang. Inevitably, one calf walks under it and unlatches each of her pals as her back hits each nipple in turn. They trip over and tread on each other. They try to suck on my apron and cover me with slobber. Sometimes they wiggle under the lower rung of the gate. Earlier this week one wandered out into farmdom only to lay down in the rain.
All the while I’m sweet-talking, trying to cajole them into position without getting into the pen or becoming dirty, the Hubs is wrestling the newest baby moos through their first bottles. I’m thinking, “How can anything this cute be so downright obstinate and annoying?” Cuteness wins out most of the time.
I hasten to add that I very much enjoy working with the Hubs. Once I get past the initial “ugh” in rising in the dark at 4:00 am, I like being involved for a small part of his day. I like watching him do what he does so well while learning about dairy operations. It feels a bit like I’m attending she-farmer school. Who knows, maybe I will decide Chief Calf Feeder is my future career path? (Ha! I wouldn’t recommend placing that bet.)
Even if I feel very much out of my element. Even if I’m ill-equipped and an obvious misfit on the farm. All the same, yes. I am delighted to pitch in, show up and help out — just like his family taught me all those years ago. I hope my measly she-farming efforts somehow make a difference. If nothing else, I might provide moral support in the dark before dawn.