Hazel, willow, beef and storytelling from Bedfordshire

Trouble with calves


Red Poll cow and calf

One of our first cows, Ginger, with this year's calf


The last few days have been filled with cattle.  Thursday morning last week was our first chance to get ear tags into the three calves born the previous Saturday. We try to get tags in within 48 hours because after that time, calves are quick, agile and strong and rather tricky to catch. And so it proved. Anyone watching (and there’s usually someone) would have been puzzled by us creeping, stalking, acting nonchalant, looking the other way, then diving on a calf and rolling around on the grass. Five day old calves know they don’t want to be caught. It took an hour and a half to tag all three, but we were pleased nonetheless because we had thought we wouldn’t get them at all.

Later, catching up with some paper work I receive a call from her Mum to say Apple’s in labour. I zoom to the other end of the village to find a small crowd lining the fence staring at Apple lying legs up, very obviously experiencing contractions.

There’s a tip of a white hoof just visible.

I offer the usual words of encouragement from any male mammal to a female in this situation – “you can do it girl”. Not certain that this helps, I decide to call Jane. I tell myself that this is so that she won’t miss the birth but there is an element of not wanting to deal with a difficult first calving heifer alone.

Jane’s Mum arrives. “That looks like a back leg” she says, which isn’t great news. Last year, we were both out of the village for a morning and another first timer called Rosy produced a calf with a breach presentation. Margaret’s seen it; I haven’t, so her words had an effect on me.

Apple pressed on. The first crowd dispersed, perhaps disappointed by the inaction. I fretted and studied the slowly emerging hoof, white and beautiful.

Forty minutes after my arrival, another hoof appears, showing a little more at each contraction. Eventually it’s clear that there’s a nose and mouth following, which is good. Although far from meaning that everything will be fine,  I am relieved that the calf is the right way round with front limbs and head as they should be. This looks like the most painful moment; the calf’s tongue is squeezed alarmingly from its mouth; Apple’s eyes roll and she throws her head back to the grass.

“That’s agony” says Margaret and I can think of nothing to add.

Jane arrives and the calf flows out of Apple in a stream of  waters and white membrane. The life seems to drain from Apple. Both are still and might be dead. After a few seconds, there are small movements from the calf. Coughs, snuffles. Apple looks around at her beautiful calf with a look a of surprise that I remember seeing on other cow’s faces. There’s a moment when we both wonder whether she will stagger off saying “That’s better” to herself. But of course she doesn’t. She’s up and licking and making that wonderful sound that cows make to their new bornes – a sound that is the ‘lowing’ of the carol ‘Away in a Manger’. The bull calf is up and wobbling within fifteen minutes and suckling within sixty. Quite satisfied and awed, we retire to drink some tea.

The following morning, determined to avoid delay in tagging such a large and lively calf we are out early and get his tags in. And it’s at this point that we realise everything is not well. He is oddly easy to catch and hold on to. She is obviously uncomfortable. We persuade them into a barn, pen them and wonder what to do.

Later, after a period of discussion and a couple of hours doing something else, we call the vet who will come in the afternoon. By the time Rosy (the vet) arrives both calf and heifer look more forlorn. She hasn’t passed the placenta and both have an infection. We feel relieved we called the vet in.

Five days and several doses of antibiotic later, the calf is racing around his small pen frantically and Apple looks much better but isn’t quite right. We suspect the vet will need to be invited back.

Post script – The vet’s been back and after another dose of antibiotic, Apple is lumbering around after a calf who is very happy to have a huge space to get the hang of those legs.

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