Road Foodie

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Motherhood Lost and Found: Letter from an American Farm

Posted By on May 11, 2009

Today, I hand Roadfoodie over to New American farmer (and Turkish kilim expert) Peter Davies. For the last nine years, he and his partner Mark Scherzer, an attorney specializing in health advocacy, have farmed 39 acres in Germantown, New York with the aid of one part-time employee. Both still have active non-farm careers; neither had any farming experience before they left Manhattan after 9/11, armed with only a bucolic vision. Their vision has not been unfulfilled, but the tough realities of farm life have, at times, been hard to bear. I have had the great good fortune to share in both their triumphs, and their tragedies. There, the cycles of birth, life, death, nature, and nurture are undisguised and unavoidable.

This is the calf that did make it. It was not Daisy's calf.

This is the calf that did make it. It was not Daisy's calf.

With 22 lambs capering in the Old Saw Mill meadow, four piglets rooting in the back pig compound, 120 turkey poults, forty goslings, thirty ducklings, and fifty meat chicks under heat lamps in the brooder houses, birth is very much in the air at Turkana Farms. But farm life, as we learned last weekend, is not just about birth but also death. Not every pregnancy results in life. And so many of the creatures that survive, we are fully aware, are ultimately intended for human consumption, There is a dark side to farming.

We had been anticipating the calving of our British White cattle for some time. Daisy, our youngest cow, we somehow assumed, would be the first. There were, however, signs late in her pregnancy that all was not going well—signs we should have recognized. She was separating from the herd, going off to hide in the bushes, limping slightly and looking thin. When a beautiful white calf appeared on the 27th I was initially sure that it was hers. One of the older cows, however, was standing over the calf, guarding it, and the herd was ringed around them. Daisy was nowhere to be found. Finally I located her in the bushes and drove her up to the herd and her presumed calf. I did this for a couple of days and then began to suspect that the calf was not hers, and that, given Daisy’s indifference, the cow that had seemed to adopt the calf  was, in fact the mother.

I left for a business appointment in the city, and Mark absented himself from his office to assume the farm responsibilities.

Mark Scherzer takes it from here:

I came up Thursday night and, Friday morning, noticed what I thought was imminent labor. It turns out I was probably right, but didn’t know enough to know it. I ultimately figured Daisy was just uncomfortable because it was late in her pregnancy.

Friday afternoon I saw part of the amniotic sac hanging under Daisy’s tail, and assumed this meant that she was really starting labor in earnest. In fact, I did not understand that it meant her water had broken. While I took down the electric line to give the cows more grazing area, she took the opportunity to high tail it into the woods. I went out to find her Saturday morning, and found her on her side, now more clearly in labor, but still just a bit of the amniotic sac showing. I called our vet, Elaine Tucker, who, once she had dealt with her office obligations, arrived at around 5 in the afternoon. We found the same story, no progress but now bigger contractions. Daisy clearly needed help.

Elaine reached into Daisy’s uterus to find that the calf had its head twisted down, away from the birth canal and one hoof lodged out of reach behind its ear. The normal birth position, of course, is for the calf to emerge hoofs first with the head centered between them, a kind of “diving position.” Daisy would occasionally let Elaine reach in to make adjustments to the calf’s position, but more often she walked away. At close to a thousand pounds, she was too strong for us to control. Elaine decided we needed to corral Daisy so that she could continue rearranging the calf, and left to go on two other emergency calls.  I unsuccessfully tried to get Daisy to return to the barn or corral, but she did rest in a corner of the field and I confined her by running an electric line across the corner.

Elaine returned around 10:30 pm, and we went out with a headlamp on. I held Daisy by the tail while Elaine again reached in and tried to adjust the position of the calf. She said that this was incredibly dangerous, as Daisy could kick back, but we had little choice. For about an hour I was pulling back on her tail with all my might and Elaine was pulling the leg of  the calf and trying to adjust the head. For a time, the electric line prevented Daisy from bolting, and we made real progress, but at one point Daisy was so uncomfortable she bolted through the electric line.
After following her around the field and managing about four more episodes of pulling on the leg of the calf, Elaine managed to get its head properly oriented, and hoped that would be enough for Daisy to do the
rest herself.  With Tommy. the bull, nearby in a protective mode we felt it prudent to stop. By then it was 12:30 am, and Elaine left to do emergency surgery on a rotweiler that had swallowed a stone.

The next morning around 7, I found that Daisy had made hardly any progress—the hoof was only centimeters further out. By now it was obvious that the calf was dead. Daisy was lying on her side heaving with contractions, and clearly having a bad time. Once again I set up an electric line corral around her to keep her confined, and the rest of the herd, especially the bull, away. Elaine arrived, and she and I were able to get the first hoof out to the foreleg, and the lower jaw of the calf, with its tongue pathetically extended, emerged. By now it was obvious that it was a very big calf for Daisy’s relatively small size. The emergence of  the calf, it became apparent, was also impeded by the internal swelling of Daisy’s uterus, the swelling of the head of the dead calf, and the weird position of the second leg.

Peter continues: Once more back at the farm, I answered Mark’s cell phone call and brought down a rope which we tied to the emerging hoof, and three of us spaced along the rope , tug of war style, pulled with all our strength but without success. We realized that Daisy was fast wearing herself down, and that, unless the calf was removed, she would not last much longer.  But we were running out of options.

I remembered a nearby neighbor, Don Van Wagner, who had experience with dairy cows, and who had told me that on on several occasions had pulled calves out using a chain and tractor. I called him, and he arrived with his four-wheel-drive pick-up truck. We attached the rope to the leg of the calf and the rear bumper of the truck, and Don eased the truck slowly forward. To our dismay, not only did the calf remain firmly lodged, but Daisy began to be dragged along behind the truck. Horrified at the trauma that Daisy was going through, we had to stop. The prognosis for Daisy’s survival did not look good.

At Don’s suggestion we called the nearby dairy farm, owned by the Kukon family, and asked whether one of the sons could come by to help. We knew that through managing a herd of over 100 cows, with scores of births each year, they would have had experience with something like Daisy’s predicament and could lend additional strength.  Jordan, the youngest son of the Kukons, arrived and immediately got to work.

The combination of Elaine’s excellent instincts and training, honed mostly on smaller animals but with great interest in ruminants, and Jordan’s practical experience of growing up on a dairy farm proved invaluable. While Elaine went to get surgical equipment, should the need arise, Jordan managed to push the entire calf back through the birth canal, enabling him to pull the second hoof around and to get the calf arranged into the “diving position”. We then attached the rope to the two hoofs and Jordan, Mark, and Elaine pulled with all their strength on the rope while Don and I tried to stretch open the vulva to let the head through. The head began to emerge a few centimeters but would not, despite all our efforts, come out. We could see the nose and mouth but could not get the head out as far as the eyes. Passing that point, the widest part of the head, would be the first crucial hurdle to getting the calf out—the next would be the shoulders. After repeated attempts and rests, meanwhile trying to keep poor Daisy calm, the five of us finally saw the head suddenly emerge and then, the second hurdle, the shoulders, and finally the entire calf, with Daisy’s bloody placenta trailing behind. It would have been a fine bull calf, about 60 pounds.

Poor Daisy by then hardly resembled herself. She looked emaciated, and had lost a lot of the hair on her hide. No one was confident about her chances of survival.  She was too weak to even turn herself over, to say nothing of standing up. She got something of a boost with an IV calcium and glucose combination, and we brought her water and hay.  But, as they say, only time would tell.

But by the next day Daisy was up and feebly walking around grazing, and had rejoined the herd. She gratefully received the scratching behind her ears that she favors. By Tuesday morning I was surprised and gratified to find Daisy snuggled up against her mother, who had her head and neck draped over Daisy, who was reciprocating by licking her. Daisy’s mother had resumed a relationship that had seemed to have ended with weaning. Hopefully her mother’s attentions and ours will see her through this. So while death is maybe not an appropriate theme for Mother’s Day, we hope this final scene is.  Mark & Peter


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