I've had a very very rough couple of days. That's because Matilda had her calf yesterday morning -- the last calf of the year. Normally this would be wonderful news, but there's been a complication.
Poor Matilda had been looking very misshapen for the last week or two. Unlike our Dexters, Matilda (being an older Jersey) gets all bent out of shape toward the end of her pregnancy, with a massive, pendulous, ginormous udder that makes her walk splay-legged.
We've been keeping her close to the house since her due date was September 14. But, just like with people, due dates aren't precise. For the last few days, I've been checking on her every hour or so, and especially before I go to bed, for signs of labor.
Despite this, Matilda had her calf in the wee hours of the morning. When I walked out yesterday morning at 6 am, the baby (it's a little girl) was already dry and on her feet. Beautiful little thing!
But as daylight crept in, I noticed something was wrong. Matilda's teats were caked with mud and dirt (not surprising, after giving birth) -- but there were no signs the calf had been nursing.
This meant that despite being a few hours old, the little baby still hadn't had her first drink of the life-nourishing colostrum all calves need for a strong start in life.
Despite this, the baby -- Younger Daughter named her Amy -- was strong and healthy.
The other calves were eager to greet the newcomer.
But despite the fact that Matilda's teats were constantly dripping colostrum...
...little Amy showed absolutely no inclination to nurse. This was getting me worried.
By this point Amy was probably seven hours old (assuming she was born around 2 am) and hadn't yet received her first nutrition. It dawned on us that Matilda's teats were hanging so low the calf just didn't "see" where they were. It was time to intervene.
I don't have any photos of the ensuing couple of hours because we were, to put it mildly, busy. I didn't have a halter that fit Matilda any more, so I put a rope around her neck and coaxed her into the milking stall, where I practically had to hogtie her (because, trust me, she didn't want to be there). I tried to box the baby in with us so Matilda wouldn't worry too much, but she managed to escape despite Don's efforts to prevent it. I hastily stripped some colostrum out of Matilda's teats and released her, then we closed both her and Amy into the corral. I poured the colostrum into a bottle with a teat, and we tried and tried and tried to get the calf to nurse.
This was tougher than we ever thought it would be. The calf wanted nothing to do with the bottle. At first we tried straddling little Amy and holding her still, then forcing the nipple into her mouth. That didn't work. I dribbled colostrum into my fingers and tried to get her to suck. That didn't work. We tried guiding her head toward Matilda's teats. That didn't work. The morning was a rodeo.
Poor Matilda, still recovering from calving, was tired and stressed, compounded by the pitiful bleats of her hungry baby. Both animals ended up lying down in the barn, exhausted. I was afraid the baby was getting weak. Every half hour or so, I'd take the bottle of colostrum and try to get the baby to drink... nothing doing. She refused all attempts to get the teat into her mouth.
Until it happened.
It was a magical moment, when the calf finally understand what I'd been trying to do. You could almost see the wonder in her eyes as she started mouthing the nipple, then sucking, then greedily drinking the colostrum so fast that the little eight-ounce bottle drained in a couple of minutes.
I didn't realize that Don was watching through a slat in the barn. He immediately went into the house, poured the bowl of colostrum into a pitcher, and came out to refill the bottle... and refill, and refill, and refill. Baby Amy drank all the colostrum I had milked out of Matilda so far, maybe a pint and a half, but we weren't sure how much to give her.
With a full belly of warm milk, that was one happy calf! The animals relaxed during the rest of the morning...
...but I was worried because I had to go into the city for the rest of the afternoon (Tuesdays are my "city days"). Matilda won't let Don milk her, so it was up to me to get more colostrum. So I tried squeezing into a bowl at any random moment I could, without Matilda losing patience with me.
Don found some information online about bottle-feeding calves. I managed to get a couple of quarts of colostrum out of Matilda before leaving for the city. Colostrum is very thick and creamy yellow, almost like custard.
I strained it to get out any impurities (bits of hay, etc.) and we filled another bottle for Amy.
This time Younger Daughter came out to feed. It took a few minutes for the calf to realize what we were trying to do, but then drank greedily.
She tried to bring the bottle close to Matilda's teat in an attempt to transition the calf, but no go. The teat is only a few inches from the ground, you see, so the calf would practically need to lie down in order to drink.
But at least she had a full belly, and more important, she had the critical life-nurturing colostrum that is so essential for babies.
Late that evening, after returning from the city (where I made sure to buy a halter for Matilda), we warmed up some bottles and went out to feed. Like bottle-feeding human babies, milk needs to be body temperature (I tested it on the inside of my wrist). It took a few minutes for Amy to understand what we were doing with the bottle, and then there was no stopping her.
Of course since the calf isn't nursing, I needed to milk Matilda as dry as possible, twice a day. It was almost dark as I did this, crouching so low to reach her teats that it was almost hard for me to breathe. No wonder the calf couldn't nurse.
I came in, strained the colostrum milk, poured two quarts into a pitcher for the next day's calf milk, and then bagged up the remainder. Believe me, there is nothing finer than having fresh real colostrum in the freezer, just in case we ever need to rescue another calf.
I made sure to label and date each bag...
...before indulging in a much-needed glass of wine after such a stressful day.
Early this morning I started warming up milk for the calf. Like human breast milk, colostrum cannot be microwaved, so I heated it in a bowl of hot water (refreshed when necessary) until the milk was skin temperature.
Matilda was bedded down with her baby, looking bucolic and happy. She's a born mama and loves having calves, and it saddens me that this will probably be her last.
Little Amy is beginning to understand what a bottle is for.
Younger Daughter says she never thought she'd become so intimately acquainted with a calf's nostrils. They flare when she nurses and you can see waaaaay up.
Looks like this will be our routine for awhile.
After both Matilda and Amy had their breakfast, it was time for me to milk Matilda.
Her teats are splayed so far apart that, to achieve even a modicum of comfort in my squatting position, I use two separate containers.
There's less colostrum in this milk (for the next few days we'll get "transitional milk") but I'm still freezing it.
I'll probably freeze three days' worth of colostrum and transitional milk.
There is a chance, as Matilda's udder begins to get less swollen with the postpartum hormones of fresh motherhood, that the calf will start nursing on her own. But for now it's physically impossible. This means we've been roped into a twice-a-day milking and feeding schedule, without fail.
Such is life on a farm.