Sometimes, a missing piece of the puzzle arrives in the form of a little black and white calf…
The start of calving is always full of an equal mix of nervousness and excitement, slightly weighted towards the nervous end of the spectrum. But as we get into the swing of it, the nerves fade a bit, but you’re always waiting for something to go wrong.
This year, the first calves were popped out without any complications, even the one who graced us with its presence mid-January instead of waiting for the February start date!
But among the many happy, bouncy new arrivals, there are always some calvings which don’t run so smoothly, or don’t have the ending we hoped for.
One of our cows, Ida, had that calving.
Her twins were unfortunately born dead. My dad tried his best to revive them, but they were gone. Sadly, you can’t save them all, no matter how hard you try; it’s the harsh reality of working with living beings. But sometimes, good can come from an awful situation, and that’s what’s happened here.
Ida had an udder full of milk that was going to get uncomfortable if nobody took some of it, and we’re really lucky to have a lovely dairy farm nearby who always has a healthy calf ready to be convinced that a bumbling, scruffy red cow is its new mum. So, along came Jigsaw, the little British Blue Cross calf.
There are lots or different ways to adopt a calf or lamb onto a different cow or ewe; everyone has a method that works for them.
For lambs, it’s slightly easier because the ewe can’t really throw you out of her pen, or seriously injure you with a well-aimed kick, so you have a bit more of a chance of convincing even the most stubborn ewe. With cows that weigh over 10 times your weight, you don’t really have that many options.
In the past, we’ve used good-old time, patience and bribery.
We’d feed the cow while we put the calf on to feed, putting particularly disgruntled ones in the crush for each feeding to save the calf and us from getting kicked. And eventually, the calf would begin to smell of that cow, as her milk goes through them, and she’d gradually begin to soften towards it, with her maternal instinct blocking out the voice that said it wasn’t hers.
The process would be sped up a bit of we could rub the dead calf or some birthing fluids over the new calf, so the cow would instantly recognise the smell and hopefully begin licking it, like she would her own newborn, and begin building the bond between them.
Some cows will literally take any calf you give them, regardless of their smell, especially if they’ve only just calved and still have all those maternal hormones coursing through them. Others can take weeks of bribery before it all clicks into place.
Over the years, we’ve begun using a method that has proven almost fool proof and cut out the need to constantly supervise new pairings for fear of the cow turning on the foster calf… skinning.
Taking the skin off the dead calf isn’t a very enjoyable job, but it can mean the difference between the cow kicking the calf away and her accepting it instantly.
The skin is like a smelly jacket for the new calf to wear. It’s tied around them so it covers from their shoulders to their tail; all the places a cow will sniff at.
To make sure this adoption ran smoothly, we chose to put the skin of one of the dead twins onto Jigsaw before introducing her to her new mum. Thankfully, Ida didn’t take much convincing. The smell of the familiar skin made her begin licking her new calf straight away, and she stood like a statue when Jigsaw began looking for a feed.
She might have been one of the ones who would take any calf, no questions asked, but we didn’t want to take that risk when there was a way of making sure we got that outcome without any stress.
Jigsaw only wore the skin for a day or so before we knew Ida would have no qualms about keeping this little black and white calf, regardless of what coat she was wearing.
She loved her instantly and has reared here amazingly, she now weighs almost 400kg at just 11 months old!
You can’t miss Jigsaw with her striking black and white markings, and she’s taken on her mother’s laid-back personality. You’ll hopefully see her in our herd for years to come as she’ll be joining the breeding herd next year. Coincidentally, she’s actually the full sister of last year’s foster calf, Bluebell, who’s now due to have her first calf this Spring!