Snicker and Hallie

What a week of ups and downs.  It started joyfully, with the birth of a Jersey heifer calf.  Born in the wee hours of Halloween morning, we named her Hallie.  Her entrance to the world was apparently easy, to Snicker, a seasoned cow.  By the time we awoke, she was cleaned off and contentedly sleeping.

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Our joy turned to concern the following morning.  One quarter of the cow’s udder was swollen and she moved gingerly.  We expressed the quarter to confirm she had mastitis, and then started her immediately on penicillin – the drug of choice for mastitis, despite many newer antibiotics entering the market since penicillin was discovered.

From both experience and research, an animal with mastitis will often not act sick and will continue to graze and behave normally.  However as the day wore on, it was clear this was not the case with our cow.  By evening she was down – and unable to get back up.

We grew concerned she had milk fever in addition to the mastitis, since the symptoms of one will mask those of the other.  So, when she still wasn’t up next morning, we called a vet out.  He administered a bottle of calcium.  If she had milk fever this would have acted quickly and she’d have been on her feet before he left.  Sadly, all we learned was that she did not have milk fever.  However the vet did tell us she has toxic rather than bacterial mastitis, which is not good.

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Turning to Google, we learned that toxic mastitis is often a death sentence.  Determined to do what we could for her, the next few days became a blur.  We treated by stripping the teat every 2 hours around the clock.  We started mammary infusions (shooting penicillin directly into the quarter via the teat) every 6 hours.  We massaged the udder and rubbed essential oils – comfrey, calendula and peppermint – into it.  We injected Dexamethesone, a steroid, and Vitamin B Complex once each day, and Penicillin twice each day.  We held a food bowl containing grain in front of her nose for as long as she would eat (our cows are normally grass-fed so grain is a rare treat we hoped would tempt her).  We hauled buckets of water to put in front of her.  We covered her with blankets at night to keep her warm, and rigged up shade to put over her by day to keep her cool.

In spite of it all, the cow grew weaker.  On day 3 she fell to her side, laying flat out, rather than sitting up.  We were unable to get her back up to a sitting position so sat with her, listening to her breathing become shallower and more irregular.  Periodically her legs paddled – a sign of imminent death.  We bawled.

And what of Hallie?  Bonded to her mom, she sat vigil with us.  We milked our other cow and taught Hallie to drink from a bottle.  She hated the bottle but needed the milk.  Still, as soon as she was done, she ran back to lie with her mom again.  She had occasional bursts of energy and ran around galloping and kicking, providing us the only comic relief and smiles in an otherwise dreary vigil.

After 5 hours lying flat out on her side, Snicker indicated a desire to sit up.  We enlisted the help of a third person, and between the three of us, lifted the cow (whose weight we estimate at 1000 pounds) back up to a sitting position.  We hauled hay bales to prop around her to help her remain sitting.  In spite of the bales, she went back down several more times, and each time it took three people to return her to a sitting position.

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At 2am on the morning of day 5, she again went down.  Once again, three people lifted her to sitting.  By now she was very weak.  Most of the time she was unable to hold her head up and let it flop to her flank.  When we offered food and water, she ate and drank from that position.

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As dawn broke that morning, we milked the other cow and attempted to feed the milk to Hallie in her bottle.  This time she refused.  Thirty minutes of trying every trick in the book achieved nothing and we finally gave up and left her with her mom.  Feeling miserable, we made a pot of coffee and fretted about this new development.  Losing the cow was tough enough, but to lose her calf as well was unimaginable.  But if she wouldn’t eat, how long could we keep her alive?

Coffee finished, we looked out the window to check on them and saw….a cow walking around grazing.

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I don’t believe in miracles but…we got a miracle.  Somehow, the same cow who 7 hours earlier was too weak to sit up by herself, had rallied the strength to stand.  My theory is that the hungry calf gave her the motivation she needed to make that enormous effort.  Amazingly, Hallie was playing nearby, no longer hungry.

I write this 36 hours since our miracle occurred.  Snicker is now out in the pasture, grazing with the other cows.  She is eating, drinking, nursing and playing with her calf, lying down and getting back up again – as though none of this ever happened.

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Are we out of the woods yet?  Not necessarily.  The toxic mastitis continues to eat away at the flesh of her udder.  We continue to strip every two hours around the clock.  Yet some of the flesh has turned black and cool indicating it has died and will likely slough off.  The fluid contained in the quarter remains a port wine color with chunks in it from the toxins inside.  It seems greedy to hope for another miracle, so we accept that she will likely lose the use of that quarter.

Incredibly, she appears to be making enough milk to satisfy Hallie, who is full of beans.

I wish I could explain how or why any of this happened but I can’t.  Even the vet – an older gent with decades of experience in dairy animals – is stumped.  Mastitis does not normally take a cow down as fast as this did and does not usually manifest within hours of delivery.  We may never know why.  But we remain thankful that Snicker is still with us and recovering as fast as she went downhill.

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Baby Daisy

Due to a WordPress glitch, the first part of this post went out prematurely and only half written.  I apologize for any inconvenience!

Our second (and last for the year) calf came into the world this week.  It has been, well, HOT lately (it is July after all) and the heat indices have been 100+ (38+ in Celsius) for several weeks.  A storm every 10 days or so assures that the humidity stays high and the poor heifer – enormously pregnant for the last few weeks – has looked quite miserable as she waddled back and forth between the barn and the pasture.

So when she went into labor 10 days early, we were happy for her pregnancy to come to an end.  We knew the calf was going to be a big one – this heifer looked bigger a month ago than the one giving birth then – so we assumed it would be a bull calf.  Watching her labor and attempt to push the calf out, we realized she wasn’t far from distress, made worse by the high temperatures.  She was laboring at the hottest part of the afternoon and though she was in a stand of trees, we knew she couldn’t labor ineffectively for long before it would become a problem, so we made the decision to move in and help her.

Here is where working with the cattle on a daily basis, handling them, scratching their polls, putting halters and lead ropes on and moving them around, really helped us.  Some animals in labor want nothing to do with humans but this heifer, Star, seemed happy to have our help.  We each grabbed a leg, and also used a hand to ease the head out of the vulva.  it took the combined efforts – a cow and two people – four contractions to pull the calf free.  Once the head and shoulders had cleared the birth canal, the rest of the calf came out in a rush of amniotic fluid.

Seconds after birth

Seconds after birth

The heifer took a short time to catch her breath before turning to see her calf for the first time.

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Labor forgotten, she was ready to start cleaning off the baby.

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Throughout this time she was relaxed having us there, but became anxious about the presence of the dogs – dogs she has known for six months and never worried about before!

Until now we had assumed the calf was a bull due to its size – it was a much bigger calf than Baby Rose, born a month ago.  So it was with astonishment that we finally checked gender and discovered the calf is another little heifer!  We couldn’t be more thrilled as, being Jerseys, a heifer is far more valuable to us than a bull calf.

Baby Daisy knew she had to get on her feet as soon as possible and it wasn’t long until she had gained enough control of those long, gangly limbs, to stand – somewhat shakily – and then take her first few steps.  She started looking for the udder immediately and found it soon after.

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We are thrilled that Star stood still to allow Daisy to get the hang of nursing.  Sometimes first-time mothers are not as tolerant and try to move away any time the baby latches on.  She is also being very protective.  We are simply happy to have a healthy heifer calf, even though it means yet another cow to add to the milking rotation.

Baby Rose

Great excitement on the homestead this week as our first calf was born.  When the cows arrived in January, the two heifers had already been bred via AI (Artificial Insemination) with one due in mid-June and the other due the end of July.  Sweetpea was due first and, two days after her due date, lay down, grunted, gave one big push and out shot her little calf.  Blink and we’d have missed it!

The calf is a little heifer we’ve named Rose.  (We initially considered calling her Zippy after her sire (Zipper) and her speedy entry into the world, but ultimately decided Rose is a more dignified name for the dairy cow she will grow up to be.)  Naturally we couldn’t be happier that she has arrived, is healthy and that Sweetpea is doing a fine job as a mama cow – and now milk cow as well.

Rose figured out nursing quickly and though the flies are driving them crazy, persists at the teat until she is full, even with mama stomping non-stop.  (I’m seeing a case for breeding for Feb/March babies so the bugs aren’t such an issue.)

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Wheyst Not, Want Not

Well, you knew I had to do it eventually, right?

The best part about having our own fresh, raw milk – as far as I’m concerned – is learning to make cheese.  I approached this with some trepidation, believing it to be complicated and time-consuming and have been pleasantly surprised to discover it is neither.  The ingredients that go into it are simple and the possible varieties of cheese, seemingly endless.  I’ve now made about a dozen batches of raw milk cheddar and we are thoroughly enjoying them – more and more as I get better at it.

But – as you are probably aware – the by-product of cheese-making is whey.  Lots and lots of whey.  Because it turns out, a gallon of milk yields a small chunk of cheese and a correspondingly large pot of whey.

As I always do when faced with “what do I do?” I turned to the internet, asking the question about how best to use the whey.  There are many, many answers out there.  “Feed it to the chickens”.  “Feed it to the pigs”.  “Feed it to the dogs”.  “Feed it to your tomatoes”.

I’m certain every one of these is a great option.  But my first thought was that if all of these animals like whey so much, why isn’t it fit for human consumption?  So, being the human guinea pigs that we are, HWA and I poured ourselves a glass each and tried it.  And guess what?  It is delicious!

HWA likes his straight.  Good man.  I like mine with a dash of ACV (Apple Cider Vinegar) added to it.  Sometimes I also add a teaspoon of raw honey.  Ahhhhhh.  So good!  The ACV makes it a light and refreshing summer drink and I’ve become so addicted to it that when we run out, I truly miss it.

Recently I returned to google to answer another question: “What is the nutritional value of whey?”  I liked the answer – it is rich in many essential nutrients.  In fact, it is so good for us that I feel practically virtuous drinking it.

So screw the chickens, dogs and tomatoes (we don’t raise pigs).  We’re keeping our whey for ourselves.

Don’t wheyt. Try it and whey for yourself wheyther tart, salty whey isn’t whey nourishing and refreshing on a hot summer day.  Finally, we’d love to hear what you think about this cheese by-product and/or puns.  Please whey in with your comments!

                                            Curds and Whey

Curds and Whey

Dung Beetles

This year, evidence of dung beetle activity is everywhere and – given my recent musings about poop recently – I couldn’t be happier.  Alas, I have no pics of my own to show you because dung beetles are nocturnal and I am quite the opposite.  But I can offer you this.  The work of the tunneling type looks not unlike the poop is turning into a pile of worm castings.  Here you can see a pile of goat or sheep poop that has been partially recycled. 100_1438   And another: 100_1432 While here the beetles – fortunately nondiscriminatory – have begun work on a cow pie: 100_1436 And last, here you can see a pile of poop that has been almost entirely “reclaimed”: IMG_0580

What we’ve learned about dung beetles is that this tunneling type lays its eggs under these piles of dirt, and the larva feast on the broken down manure until they are mature enough to fly off in search of a pile of manure of their own.  We are glad that we followed our instincts and left the piles of dirt undisturbed!  However even more exciting than the recycling of the manure itself, is the role that dung beetles play in parasite control.  The life cycle of the internal parasite begins when it excretes its eggs in the manure.  Once hatched, the larva crawls up a blade of grass where it waits to be consumed by the next grazer to come along, infecting or reinfecting the animals in the pasture.  However by drying out the manure and turning it into piles of dirt, the dung beetles interrupt parasite life cycles.  This is very good news for us, as we hope to reduce – and ultimately eliminate – our need to use chemical dewormers on our animals.

There a virtuous circle at work here in that the less we use chemical dewormers and insecticides, the more the dung beetles can help us.  It’s little surprise that oral dewormers result in poop toxic to dung beetles, but perhaps more surprising is that the sprays and powders we apply to our animals externally also harm dung beetle populations.  I love the idea that by not deworming, we can encourage dung beetles who will further decrease our need for deworming.

Needless to say we’re not complaining that the dung beetles have chosen to help us with our poop situation.

Well, Poop!

I’ve long imagined myself self-sufficient.  I envisioned an idyllic setting, perfect weather and beautiful pens filled with well-behaved animals.  At the end of each tremendously gratifying day on the homestead, I’d head inside to dine on a meal prepared entirely from food I’d grown and raised myself, then sit in front of a fire burning wood I had chopped, and read a book.  Probably about homesteading.

I dreamed the dream while living in the city and going to college and raising kids and finally achieved the reality when we moved out here to our little homestead a few years ago.  Now my days are as idyllic as I always dreamed they would be.  Oh wait.  There is one little thing that never featured in my day-dreaming.  Poop.

It turns out that homesteading is really 98% dealing with poop.  There is a book entitled “Everybody Poops” that is popular with parents of toddlers.  I may have even read it to my own kids.  Sadly it did not prepare me for the reality that Everybody Poops.  Including animals.  And it hit me the other day that homesteading really isn’t about self-sufficiency or producing food or going off grid.  It’s about poop.

I don’t think there is a single day – and I am talking 365 (sometimes 366) days of the year – that I don’t deal with poop.  I scoop the poop from the horse run at least once, usually twice or thrice each week.  I use a pitchfork to shovel cow poop out of the barn and from around the round-bale feeder every morning.  I shovel the poop-saturated bedding from the chicken coop on an as-needed basis – the need arising much more quickly than would be my preference.  I scoop poop from the cat litter boxes that the barn cats use at night between their rodent patrols, and each week on trash day (so that it can immediately be hauled away), I take a pooper scooper and scoop up as much dog poop as I can find from the area around the house where we spend the most time.  Before guests arrive, I scrape free-range chicken poop off the porch,  and before sitting in a lawn chair, I check that turkeys weren’t there first.  Every time I step outside the back door, I step over messes left by the ducks hanging around the downspout.  And mice poop, well, everywhere.  Amazingly – and contrary to all my fantasies – even the adorably cute lambs and goat kids poop – they really do.  Most of their poop becomes fertilizer for our pasture but their sleeping area needs to be cleaned and raked out regularly.

So it turns out that “homesteading” is really just a very nice word that means “dealing with $#!#”

Lest you think I’m having a down day or experiencing a more encompassing change-of-heart about homesteading, I’m not.  But I laughed aloud this afternoon when I hit me how much of this life I so enjoy is, ultimately, dealing with poop.