Why spring shouldn’t start in winter
When a calving goes bad, there’s a possibility of a second chance.
Iam not sure who decided that July should be the start of spring. Maybe it was some desk wallah working in the labyrinth of Fonterra or Ruakura where the rain never reaches their air-conditioned comfort and central heating keeps the environment the same, regardless of what is happening outside.
Because I know, sure as eggs are oval, it wasn't the Big Guy upstairs. It wasn't the dairy farmers getting up at 3am in the dark on an often wet July morning to bring the cows to the shed. And it sure wasn't the cows coping with wind and rain or the calves dropped out of a nice warm uterus into a horrible, cold day.
There is a natural progression to the seasons. The best time of year to be born is when the sun is warm and getting warmer and the grass is starting to rocket away and I'm sorry, but July just doesn't do it.
But such is the pressure of the bottom line that many dairy farmers are forced to try and get calves on the ground and cows in the shed in this mid-winter month. They're trying to get milk in the vat before the summer dry hits, trying to get all the cows milking on the first grazing round of the paddocks, and hoping like heck that while there isn't any grass growth now, there just might be in a couple of months when the cows will be doing the second rotation.
So as daft as it feels, July is often the start of calving and of calving calls. These calls don't happen on the clear warm nights - those cows usually manage all right on their own. No, it is usually the stress of the bitterest night and wettest downpour that triggers an animal to calve before they or their calf is truly ready, and that is when the problems arise.
The Mcgloughlans run a reasonable ship of about 180 cows but there is probably not much freeboard in the budget. David is typically overworked and underpaid while trying to get ahead, and Penny has had to take a teaching job to help make ends meet.
That meant it was up to David to do the morning milkings on his own and this particular day was a shitty July classic: nearly horizontal rain and 50mm of it had pooled in the paddocks overnight. There is no wet weather gear invented that can keep a man dry in these conditions.
David got the calved mob milked and through the shed and ducked back to the house for breakfast. Normally the man would have done a quick check of the springers (those close to calving) before going on to other jobs but considering the weather and his level of tiredness, it was probably not surprising he fell asleep in the warm kitchen over his second cup of tea. When he woke, it was time to get the kids away to school and then he needed to set up the new break and the tractor had issues that needed sorting before he could feed out so the springers missed out until later that evening.
These things don’t happen
on warm, clear nights.
Then, with the weather still filthy, it was a quick zap around the paddock where there were four newborns that needed bringing in and those cows drafted through to the milking mob.
So it was at least a day and a half before he found cow 596 tucked down in a gully, disguised with mud, her head down and bum up with a dead calf partway out.
It wasn't a simple case of pulling the calf out and she would be hunky dory either. The rough weather meant she was verging on ketonic. She'd been unable to eat while she was trying to calve, and the rough weather had made her cold so her body had switched to burning what little fat reserves it had. This led to the release of ketones into the blood stream, creating a ketonic or almost catatonic state for the cow. She was completely ga-ga so David raced back to call the cavalry.
The Vet was busy, and this day more so than others. He had two downer cows to see to after the rough weather and then a prolapse came in that demanded his immediate attention so he warned David that with the miles to travel, it would be a couple of hours. David opted to try the neighbouring vet practice and they got a young graduate vet out within half an hour.
Cow 596 was calved, dosed up with Ketol and energy supplements, draped in a warm horse blanket and given a tractor ride back to the recovery paddock close to the cowshed where she could be watched.
The next day was Saturday and Penny gave us a call first thing.
“I'm not happy with that cow they calved yesterday. She doesn't look happy and she's gone down again. Should I give her more supplements?”
As chance would have it, the Vet was out that way on an earlier call and offered to stop in for a look-see.
Cow 596 was down all right. Legs stuck out sideways and straining.
“She looks like she is trying to calve,” he said.
“But they got the calf out. It was dead, a heifer with its head back,” said Penny.
“Well, it wasn't the only one in there,” the Vet announced after slipping his hand in. Soon enough he had his calving chains around some front feet and pulled a nice little Friesian-cross, steaming and slippery, into the morning light.
“Well I'll be…” said Penny. “What a little sweetie. Fancy missing you.”
“It's a basic mistake, and most of us have made it at some stage,” the Vet said. “Twins are rare, but one always needs to check for a second calf.”
“And it's another lovely little heifer,” said Penny. “I think she might end up as somebody's calf club pet. We can call her Abby. Our daughter Abby is always going back for seconds too.” ■
I’m not happy with that cow they calved yesterday and she’s gone down again.