Calving Season is Upon Us!

Sidehill Farm News

Calving Season is Upon Us!

After Zebra had her backwards calf a week ago Monday, things have been pretty quiet in the calf pen. We expected Edith to calve, but she hasn’t yet. Toothpick, maybe, but her udder isn’t filled up yet, so she’s clearly a while out. Nina and Ciba were due for Tuesday, but Normandes are always 5 to 7 days late, so we weren’t looking to see calves from them yet. It was pleasantly uneventful in the barn.

Now here at Sidehill, we are always looking for the ideal cow, and as much as we love our Normandes and Jerseys, we find that crosses are almost always a healthier and hardier cow that combines the advantages of both breeds. Even better is a 3-way cross - breeding a Normande/Jersey cross to a third breed - since that maintains the advantages of hybrid vigor into additional generations. But the right third breed has been hard to find - we need high protein milk to make firm yogurt, and most breeds other than Normandes and Jerseys fall way short on protein. This past spring, we discovered the MRY breed, (Meuse-Rhine-Ijssel) - a red and white dual purpose breed similar to the Normande, but from the Netherlands. The breed is noted for high protein milk, strong feet and legs, longevity, excellent body condition, calving ease, and fertility. These are all things we love about our Normandes, so it seemed worth a try. We bred Nina, Ciba, Toothpick, and Pippin, all Normande/Jersey crosses to MRY, and hoped for some good looking heifer calves.
Monday night, just as we were about to leave the barn for the evening, Nina’s water broke. Now with a cow, this is an event. It’s a LOT of fluid - and if you are around to witness it, you start thinking about raingear, and rowboats, and sometimes arks. We had expected Nina to calve in 4 or 5 days, so this seemed a little sudden. We put her in the calving pen with fresh bedding, food, and water, and left her for an hour or so to go eat dinner. When we got back an hour and half later, she was aggressively licking off a gigantic brown bull calf. Here was a our first MRY calf! and while we were disappointed he was not a heifer, and that he didn't look much like the swimsuit cover model cow, what a bull calf he was! Stocky, wide, tall, and large in every way - a little brown furry tank - and hungry! We left them together for the night, and headed off to bed.

Tuesday morning, Paul walked out on the pack to collect the cows for milking, and there on the pack, fresh and warm, was a cow placenta. A cow placenta is a tough thing to miss - for one thing, it’s the size of a 5 gallon bucket. Yep, pretty large. For the second, it’s bright red and white and shiny - not colors and textures you normally find in a barn, so it’s pretty distinctive. But the most important thing about a cow placenta is that it comes out of the cow AFTER the calf has been born. And Nina was put in the calving pen BEFORE her calf was born. Meaning? It wasn’t hers. So we looked around a bit, expecting to see someone else with a calf at their side. Nope. Everyone was giving us the big who-me? cow eyes, and heading for the milking parlor. Hmmm… And then we noticed a little bit of ruckus in the pen of dry cows. There, at the very back of the barn, scaring the pants off a bunch of bred heifers, was a seriously sturdy black and white bull calf. He was poking around at all those dry udders, and not only failing to get any milk action, but making himself pretty unpopular by sucking on knees, tails, and even the ears of anyone who dared lie down. We grabbed him, and dropped him back on the milk cow side of the fence. He tossed his head, mooed twice, ran straight to Ciba and began nursing. Mystery solved! Ciba seemed very relieved, since she had been apparently standing at the fence all night long, and, unable to convince her little boy to come back across, had lain down and given up.

In the end, Ciba ended up with a mild case of milk fever - a condition where a cow draws calcium to fill her udder from her muscles instead of her bones, and thereby causes a calcium deficiency in her muscles. A muscle without calcium can’t move, and a cow with milk fever becomes paralyzed. Jerseys have a breed tendency towards this condition. It can be fatal - their heart can stop if it’s not treated immediately - but Ciba’s case was mild, and it just caused her to lie down and not get up. Mostly it caused her to get a lot of extra attention, special treats like molasses and extra good hay, and lots of petting (as well as a calcium IV), but since she is a drama queen, and the matriarch of a line of drama queens, she loved it. She worked it for all it was worth, lying on her own special bed of hay for most of the day, before she finally decided that the humans weren’t pampering her enough anymore, and getting up and walking away. She’s fine now, and back to all her drama queen shenanigans.

So now we know, MRY crosses are born on the exact due date! And they don't look much like the cow in the promotional literature, either. But let’s hope Toothpick and Pippin have just as easy a calving, and the calves look just as big and healthy. Except they are girls!