If you have a milking cow and you want to have milk, then every year or so you want to see to it that there is a calf for mother to cherish. That seems simple enough, but even little Jersey cows have been bred to provide far more milk than the infant can handle. After the birth, the cow’s milk, called colostrum, is rich with all kinds of specialised elements which the calf needs to get it off to a good start, so calf and cow are kept together for three days or so. After that comes a period when the calf is “put on the cow” to nurse before the milker sits down to take the rest of the production. Then, some days later, at last the calf is ready to wean.
The world divides, even in the barn
Talking about weaning calves reminds me again that the world divides and redivides itself on any issue that may come down the pike, however indivisible the issue might seem at first glance.
I originally discovered this penchant for hauling up on two sides of any question when I was younger, and, incautiously as it turned out, assumed that everyone loved the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan as much as I did. It came as a great surprise to me to discover that the whole world did not share my enthusiasm. And, I must say, I still find it hard to believe.
Ever since that discovery was forced upon me I have been keeping mental note of inexplicable divisions we humans insist on. Take the dogmatic disputes over weaning calves.
We have not had all that many calves to deal with, since this is what the British would call a "smallholding." Not having been brought up on any farm, where the weaning of calves was simply one of the things about which God - or father - pronounced in the beginning and thus it was done ever after, when we first were confronted with a calf that needed to break the mummy habit we turned to a slim volume from Maine, The Cow Economy, by Merril and Joann Grohman. How we came across this book I don't remember now but it was the best help a small operation like ours could ever want, providing just the amount of information needed without sinking the reader in tables, charts, and cross-sections of "the stomach," etc.
Not only did The Cow Economy discuss the pros and cons of keeping the calf with the cow for more than a few days (better not, unless you are so blessed with land that you can afford to keep cow and calf in separate fields more-or-less for ever), but it also discussed the pros and cons of weaning strategies: buckets with nipples vs. plain buckets, etc.
Without realizing that we were standing at a fork in the road of life, we followed our authors' lead and set out for the barn with an ordinary bucket, prepared for what might come. As I recall, what came was some awkwardness about getting the recommended grip on the nose of the calf so that one's fingers in his mouth made him think of mother while one pushed his nose down into the bucket that held his milk ration. During this struggle the bucket was being guarded against spillage by another member of the family. I really can't remember how many of us it took to wean that first calf, but we would probably have filled Madison Square Garden.
I do vividly remember the moment, not too long after, when the calf, drawing analogies, wacked the bucket the way he was accustomed to wack mother when the milk supply seemed to be getting down. I at the time was leaning over the calf, holding his nose down to the milk with one hand, while holding on to the bucket with the other. What the physics of the calf’s action might be I don't know but I do know that the milk remaining in the pail instantly gathered itself together and shot upward with great force, catching me just under the chin. From thence it too divided, a portion proceeding upwards to make a good try at drowning me whilst the majority took a sharp right and disappeared down the neck of my coveralls, headed, no doubt, for my boots, but contenting itself with producing a miasmal swamp that reached from neck to knees.
That pretty effectively ended Lesson One, and whether we or the calf learned more it would be hard to say. Subsequently, we learned to back the calf of the hour into a corner so that his tendency to leave unexpectedly was thwarted, and we learned to keep a firmer hold on the bucket. The geyser effect has not been vanquished but we are better at ducking than we were. That calf, and his successors, have all grown up to be happy, healthy and productive members of society, as far as we can tell, but we just learned last week that Dire Results ensue from this method of weaning. Apparently the Only Way to wean is with a nipple pail which enables the calf to keep his head up and thus the milk goes into the right stomach, etc., etc.
You pays your money and you takes your chance in this as in other things, it seems.
25 February 1987
No matter how often I came to the barn to tend to a new calf, I found something unexpected that made the process memorable. Nine years after the experience above, faced with two calves, Frank and Jerusha, and weaning time, the battle of the sexes ran high.
Down in the barn as the weather warms a bit and spring may possibly be on the way, emotions are running high among the barn cats, rather to the mystification of our splendid but purely decorative Thomas Not-a-tom who continues to focus closely on food and making sure he gets more than his fair share.
Thomas has acquired a new title, thanks to an off-the-wall novel my wife was reading a while back. Part of the action was set in a vegetarian restaurant with Buddhist overtones in San Francisco in the sixties. Need I say more? You can probably make up the plot to please yourself. Anyway, this restaurant had a cat named “The Ever-Present Fullness.” Well, names like that don’t turn up every day in the week and when one does present itself it would be the worst sort of consumerism not to recycle it. Thomas positively basks in the implications.
The two calves who have been getting their milk from the source had gotten so big that I finally decided that it was time to wean. In other years, when there was only one calf to deal with at a time, the logistics of weaning were simpler. This pair, though, have had the freedom of the big box stall and it was obvious that calf B was not going to stand idly by while calf A was being introduced to a new food source.
Eventually I tied them in opposite corners of the stall and advanced with buckets. Jerusha, the heifer, was all for leaving to go see mommy, and although I had her backed into the corner we managed to spread milk about with (to coin a phrase) reckless abandon. It reminded me of that Bill Cosby skit in which, rather than admit he doesn’t know where the gas cap is in his new car, he tells the gas station attendant to “just pour the gas over the top; maybe it will run in someplace.”
Frank was a good deal easier to deal with. Like Thomas, Frank was not one to question the source of supply, as long as the supply lasted. I dipped a couple of fingers in the milk, applied them to Frank’s mouth, lowered his nose into the bucket and we were off and running. Now and then we emerged from the deeps, snorting and blowing milk far and wide, but generally we were in business. I left the pen with a good deal of the milk I had brought in (but it was distributed differently), and quietly congratulated Frank for demonstrating the innate superiority of the male.
In the evening, however, it turned out that Jerusha’s objection was not to milk in a pail but to me putting my fingers in her mouth. I left her with her bucket and tried the same experiment with Frank. He stuck his nose in the pail and then came up wild-eyed, looking for fingers.
A week later, Frank is still devoted to me. Jerusha finishes her bucket by herself and without spilling a drop.
“It just shows the natural superiority of women,” my wife explained when I told her.
26 March 1996