My wife’s parents were tenant farmers for much of their lives. That meant they worked long hours running someone else’s farm for very little money. Long days and often harsh conditions were always part of the job, and calling in sick was never an option. Other family members always picked up the slack even if that meant mostly three-digit-hour weeks for a single wage.
Late winter to early spring was calving time. They always fed morning and evening for two reasons. First, cattle wasted less feed that way. Also, they could monitor the animals better and determine when some of the cows were about to give birth.
Melting snow and thawing ground meant copious amounts of mud. It’s a difficult job providing a healthy environment for a herd of animals, especially pregnant females, under those conditions. Some farmers let their cows slog through mud up to their udders. My in-laws would never do that, even when they were tending someone else’s animals.
I remember visiting and they had brought a newborn calf into the house next to the woodstove to warm her up and try to limit her frostbite. They named her Josie and my oldest son was fascinated. He was three. After that he wanted them to let all the baby calves in the house.
Sometimes cattle, sheep, hogs, and other livestock need help giving birth. Losing a baby hurts profit margin, but losing the mother is devastating. Ezra and Elloise never looked at it purely as a money enterprise though. They loved their cattle.
I remember the first time I had to pull a calf. The mother was a young heifer belonging of their neighbors. The calf was huge, probably weighing about 110 pounds. Its head was folded back across its body and I had to reach in and turn it. Dystocia (difficult labor) is common in cattle and often it’s cause by a calf being in a difficult position such as upside down, tail-first or the problem I encountered.
The outside air was freezing, so the temperature gradient between birth canal and outside air was staggering. The worst part was young bovine had a contraction when my arm was inside her well above my elbow. It felt like she was going to crush my arm and I was scared until it subsided.
Once I oriented the head between the front legs she still couldn’t push it out. We were going to have to pull it. Ezra talked me through it. He’d injured his arm and couldn’t do it himself.
We tethered the heifer to the back of a tractor right in front of a light pole. I tied some baler twine to each front leg and pushed one of my feet against the pole to get more leverage. Then I gave it all I had and all of a sudden the shoulders cleared and I wound up on my butt with a big bull calf in my lap. Both mother and baby were healthy, however.
Calving isn’t always that traumatic. Sometimes farmers wake up to find newborns already running around in the field. Still it’s a tough life, one a person must really enjoy, especially for someone else’s benefit.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.