Today, I’ve got a story I’d like to tell you.
It involves a girl, who once spent several years dreaming of the day she could go outside and see the cows. Who had many a conversation with her Occupational Therapist about the logistics of bringing one to the front door of the house, and even of bringing a calf up to her bedroom, during the years the downstairs world was out of reach.
CCTV cameras were added to the cow sheds to connect her to them, and she watched as many calvings as she could. She dedicated time and energy to absorbing as much information as possible about cow health and management, waiting for the day she could put it into practice.
She waited, hoped, and adapted, constantly.
This girl was then extremely lucky to be given access to the farmyard and cow sheds last year, thanks to a six-wheeled wheelchair who could stand up to the rigours of farm life. She still spends most days of each week in her bedroom, watching cows through cameras, or binoculars through her window. But because of this freedom-giving tool, she’s witnessed and helped with some calvings in person this year, and on Friday, got to help a heifer to calve!
…As you’ve probably guessed, by the not so subtle hints, that girl is me, and the heifer and her calf are who you’re about to meet today.
Athena is a 16-month-old heifer who definitely wasn’t supposed to still be here, let alone become a mum so soon.
Last winter, we weaned an extremely heavy group of heifers. We were astonished by some of their lead-like weights… until we realised, a few were carrying an extra. The bull had caught them just weeks before he’d been taken away from the cows to try and avoid this predicament.
Well-grown they may have been, but at just 10 months old, they were much too young to calve in 5 to 6 months’ time- a large calf from a young heifer has the chance of a catastrophic result for both lives. We had their pregnancies terminated by an injection given by the vet, for the sake of their welfare.
But nothing is ever 100%, and unbeknown to us, the termination didn’t work in two of the heifers. One of those being, Athena.
Athena gained her name after we realised, we’d unintentionally been naming other calves born from her Dam and Sire after various Gods or Legends. There’d been a Goliath and a Titan in the years before she was born here, so it seemed fitting to keep the theme going.
Named after the Goddess of War and Wisdom, she’s quiet and gentle, but can also be strong and feisty if she feels it’s necessary, loves food, isn’t a fan of being told what to do, and is turning out to be an incredible, doting mother, despite her age.
THE EARLY STAGES
On Friday afternoon, I spotted the white, glossy globe of a waterbag protruding from Athena- a portion of the placenta which usually comes out before the calf. After phoning my dad to tell him to head home quickly, as he was out on a contracting job, I headed out to the cow shed to check everything looked ok, rejoicing at the fact that she’d chosen the middle of a day where nothing else needed my energy.
I could see what looked like the tips of two feet, but neither her nor her friend, the other heifer who had also been pregnant but had produced a dead calf a couple of weeks ago (I’ll get to her another time), seemed very comfortable with me being in sight, and were huddled in the furthest corner of the pen. So, I spent the first half hour gradually easing into view and sitting like a statue on their hay, to gain their trust and be deemed a safe addition to the shed.
It worked, and soon, Athena had settled and was laid down, contracting noisily, while her friend quietly snuffled at my arm (can I add ‘cow whisperer to my empty CV?). I moved to a better position and noticed what I’d first thought were two front feet (the correct position for a calf to be in, with the head not far behind, like a diving position) was actually one, very broad foot.
My dad was still about 15 minutes away and she was pushing very hard, so I figured I’d gained their trust enough to climb through the feeder and go see if I could spot the second foot.
I crept across the pen to behind where she was laid and confirmed my suspicions, but she stood up before I got close enough to get a proper look. So, I slowly retreated back to the hay feeder, almost sliding over on a cow pat in the process… It wouldn’t be me if there wasn’t an element of clumsiness, would it?
A little later, she laid down again, and managed to push more of the leg out and the nose of the calf. Being such a young heifer, I didn’t think she’d be broad enough internally to get a calf out with one leg back, so wondering if the other leg was just tucked behind the nose, I ventured back in (watching where I was standing this time).
To my absolute astonishment, the sprawled out, groaning heifer allowed me to put my (gloved) hand inside her and have a feel around the calf’s head! There was no second leg to be found though, and I was right, there was no way the calf was coming out like that. Luckily, that was the moment my dad returned.
We decided he was going to have to try push the calf back in and find the other leg.
The lovely, calm Athena, who’d let me have a small feel around, showed she did, in fact, house some fiery ‘goddess of war’ within her when my dad attempted to ease his, rather large, arm into her. A few well-aimed and intentional kicks later, and we concluded she was going to have to go into the cattle crush if we had any hope of calving her.
Once in the crush, after a few more kicks, my dad managed to get both arms into her to begin to find the second leg; something we were both surprised at. She seemed to have a lot more width to her pelvis and birth canal than we were expecting, and it made us more confident we could do this alone, without any extra sets of muscles.
Incredibly, he managed to push the calf back into the uterus, with her constantly contracting against him, find the second leg and carefully bring it up to join the other in the birth canal. There was a lot of grunting to be heard from both him and the heifer! He then eased the calf back up the birth canal, making sure to keep both feet out in front of the head.
While cupping the other foot and bringing it up, the calf had tried to pull it back to its chest, proving it was still alive, so far. Now it was just a case of getting it out.
Athena gave some visceral bellows with her next contractions, but didn’t manage to move the calf very much. She was laid down now, wearing a halter with me on the end of it, so I could let the rope out a little if she needed to stand, but laying down meant the chance of kicks had gone, so I was safe to help out too.
Out came the bale band, to tie to the calf’s front feet. While my dad heaved on the end of the band alongside each contraction, I pushed lubricant into her birth canal to help ease the passage of the calf, gently stretching it over the calf as it made its way out- a big positive to having small hands!
Gradually, we got the calf out up to its hips. Despite having a swollen tongue, from the time it had spent squished in the birth canal while trying to arrive like superman, it was breathing, although shallowly.
Then, Athena decided she could take it from here (although, she forgot to give us any warning), and rose to her feet, with the calf dangling haphazardly from her. One push later, and out he plopped onto the floor.
I quickly retreated back onto my wheelchair and anchored down, with the rope of her halter held tightly, to stop her stepping backwards onto the arrival. While my dad hastily untied the band from his legs and sat him up onto his sternum, to open up his airways.
He was alive, but struggling.
My dad took him into the straw bedded shed and proceeded to rub his back, vigorously, clearing his airways, then blowing into his nostril, though a bottle, to help him take some deep breaths. After a few breaths, the calf was breathing much better, and as he stepped away, a spectacular thunderstorm broke out, with rain pounding down on the roof of the shed; sort of clapping for the arrival.
We let go of the heifer, thinking she might go wash him, but she was too confused to notice he was hers. After spending some time drying him, still with only a few brief glances in his direction from Athena, we left them, to see if her instinct would arrive. But nothing changed.
The calf, a big, golden bull, now named Thor (in keeping with the family theme and the thunderstorm that greeted him) was very tired and wobbly from the calving and unable to stand. His mum didn’t have much milk, with her being so young, so my dad took out some colostrum for him in a bottle.
He drank all the thick, yellow liquid, filled with antibodies to build his immune system, which we’d frozen from another cow who’d had plenty to spare, in preparation for moments like this. Clearly tired from all the sucking, he then fell asleep; something we’ve realised he does a lot. After a second bottle feed, dad called it a night, hoping he was strong enough to make it through to the morning.
Just over 12 hours after his tricky arrival, Thor gingerly found his feet. The moment he began to stand, Athena looked over from the other side of the pen and rushed to his side, as if the ‘Mother’ switch had just been flicked on by his unexpected movement. As he stood, trying to work out what to do with his legs, she washed him for the first time, getting more frantic and maternal with each lick.
My dad arrived out there to feed him again, but finding them standing together, thought he’d try and latch him onto her udder instead. After a few small kicks, a normal occurrence for a freshly calved heifer who isn’t used to the sensation of being sucked, her instinct kicked in. She’s been feeding him ever since- literally, he never stops!
At first, Thor was still being topped up with a bottle, but now she’s sustaining him all on her own, and her milk supply is beginning to grow the more he stimulates it. She adores him, and doesn’t mind his somewhat strange feeding technique of standing directly underneath her stomach, legs splayed two feet apart, reaching out to the farthest teat, and twanging it when he gets bored of sucking. Nor his uncoordinated bounding around the shed, which usually results in a collision with her.
It’ll no doubt be a while before they can join the rest of the herd in the field. Luckily, Athena is more than happy with her new calf for company, as her friend ploughed her way out of the shed and high-tailed it off to the field while we were preoccupied with her calving… Very kind of her!
I’m pretty certain she’d still be as attentive to him, even with the distraction of fresh grass and friends, but looking at his ungainly lolloping and need to be woken up by her in order to be prompted to feed, Thor is a while off being able to hold his ground against the rest of the rabble in the field.
I’m secretly glad though, it’s something to watch on the cameras again. I haven’t made it out to see him since he was born (I took a fair bit longer than Athena to recover from the calving), but I’m looking forward to when I can go see him on his new-found feet. He looks like he’s already grown a little. I’ll keep you updated on the pair’s progress…