The saga continues.  Poppy the seven-year-old Jersey, borderline obese from a four-months’ break from lactation and all the good spring grass, dropped a pretty heifer calf one week ago, and the next morning was down and couldn’t get up.  We’ve been over this before, the protocol is two 500 ml bottles of CMPK or calcium gluconate in the jugular (not too fast — at least ten minutes per bottle), and up she gets, right?  And so she did, popped right up, came up for the evening milking, and the next morning was down again.  Two more bottles and a little wooden swearing and she’s up again, and then she’s down.  Repeat this cycle over and over again for five days, five tubes of oral Ca gel, and eight, yes, eight, count’em, bottles of i.v. calcium, and yet on Sunday not only is she down, but when we come home from church she’s over on her side and starting to blow up.  Ouch.  So we set her up and scratch our chins, what in time is the matter with this cow?  We’re beginning not to believe in the calcium, and while we’re fetching the tractor and hip lift she’s over on her side again, and then again.  In the lift she just hangs and groans, making no attempt to take her weight on her legs, so we let her down and scratch our chins some more.  The swearing is beginning to have some heat.

Thank goodness for the kind patience of our large animal vet, who taught us to run an i.v., sells us supplies like calcium, and lends us her hip lift.  We call her — eleven ack emma on a Sunday morning — and she walks us through it.  The problem is the calcium, that’s clear.  Take the calf off the cow, run in more calcium (three bottles more), and DON’T MILK HER.  At all.  When the options are milk fever and mastitis, choose mastitis every time.  Mastitis we can cure; milk fever will eventually kill her.  Funny how you sometimes have to hear someone else say it.  Every time we had boosted the cow’s Ca levels, we’d pulled them right back down by milking her out, and she just couldn’t take it.  Sometimes that happens.  As Shawn commented, WE were the problem.  Of course, we were the solution, too.  We put 1500 ml Ca in her and let her be (the calf is a mannerly little heifer, so we left her on her mamma to keep the pressure down), and that evening she was up and about.

That was last night, and she’s been fine now for 36 hours.  We moved her into a private paddock up by the barn where the ground is as level as any ground around here ever is, and took two pounds out of her most turgid quarter this evening, but that was all.  I think we’re on top of things now.

We live and learn, and if we’re lucky, the animals survive too.calf2



One of the psychological obstacles to this life:  complexity.  We are a culture of quick-fixes, cures-in-a-pill, meals-in-a-box.  When we first started this life, about twenty years ago, one of the roadblocks was that we looked for methods and resources that fit our cultural predisposition for single solutions.  But over time we have become comfortable with the many details involved in careful stewardship of the animals and plants in our ecosystem.  As for example, the supplies that went down to the barnyard this morning:  two gallons of water with cut garlic cloves in it, for the week-old meat chicks, the garlic a prophylactic for coccidiosis; also, a cup or so of curds left over from the last cheese we made, and about three ounces of ground beef liver, to boost their protein intake, guard them against leg problems, and offer some probiotics.  This in addition to their twenty-two percent protein, non-GM starter mash.  Sound complicated?  We can only say that over time, and with attention, this sort of care becomes automatic.  The farm itself teaches us, as it produces in one place the nutrients needed somewhere else, a surplus here to supply a deficit there.

Not complicated, just complex.



milk feverMaybe it’s the grass this year, which has been exceptionally rich and plentiful with  alternate warmth and cool, sun and rain.  Good grass means plentiful milk, so much we’ve had to begin making cheese twenty pounds at a time, and butter in a four gallon bucket, good things indeed.  But heavy lactation right after calving can trigger calcium deficiency, or ‘milk fever’, a nuisance at best, deadly if not dealt with, and we’ve seen two cases now, two for two this month of May.  We’ve got a crick from elevating i.v. bottles for twenty-thirty minutes a go, and a permanent case of the shudders whenever we see a hypodermic needle.

In the case of the seven-year-old Jersey cow Poppy, it’s just not fair:  we gave her prophylactic CMPK paste two days before she calved, and again twelve hours after, and still at about 24 hours she went down, and we had to drip six 500 ml bottles of calcium solution into her jugular before she shifted her freight — the first two, we might add, kneeling for an hour in a cold drizzle.

Makes you feel old and experienced, and pretty triumphant, and certain you’d rather never have to do it again.


Milk fever.

A single mistake is just business as usual, but when we string a whole line of them together, the results can be a lot more serious.  Honey, our five-year-old Friesian/Jersey cross, gave us a lovely brown-and-white heifer calf on Saturday morning, mother and child both in excellent condition.  When she came up to the barn as usual on Saturday night to be relieved of some of her colostrum burden, we did notice she was a little uneasy with her back feet, but passed it off as the natural effect of having to walk around a bag approximately the size of two large sofa cushions — our first mistake.  In the barn, we went to give her a routine, prophylactic dose of CalMagCo gel (comes in a tube like silicon caulk), only to find we had run out, and with guests coming for brunch the next day, we didn’t want to make a forty-five minute round-trip to the farm store right then, either.  We felt Honey’s ears, which were warm, and decided she could wait until the next evening for her no-doubt unnecessary but by-the-cautionary-book calcium supplement.  Second mistake.

Only, really, by then we’d stacked up quite a few mistakes, like not having checked our stash of calcium gel before calving season, as well not knowing exactly where our I.V. apparatus for administering emergency calcium was, or in what condition.  So that by Sunday morning, when Honey tottered up to the barn on distinctly unreliable legs, and a few minutes later collapsed, we were well and truly behind the eight-ball, and so was she.  It was classic milk fever, and while Honey struggled to rise with muscles that could not respond, Beth was home searching the veterinary equipment for her I.V. simplex (not to be found) and getting the vet out of bed to come dig us out of our self-inflicted difficulties.

Eventually the simplex was found.  Examination revealed that age and oxidation had made it nearly useless (the rubber cup wears out with time), but we jury-rigged it, and after some fruitless stabbing around (sorry, Honey) we got a needle in the cow’s jugular and dripped in 500 ml of calcium gluconate (yes, you could do this yourself at home).  Polly the vet showed up and administered another 500 ml of CMPK (remember your highschool chemistry?) which covered our backsides in case there was also magnesium deficiency involved (probably not, but we weren’t feeling too secure by that time), and after another ten minutes or so Honey got up and walked away, done and done.  Another case of Providence being gentle with stupid, careless people — but we’d be crazy to count on it.  Monday we cleaned out the Coop of all the calcium gel on the shelf, and we’ve placed an order for a new simplex.

sharing mineralsMaybe we should have asked for overnight delivery.


Determining paddock makeup is a balancing act, but not a tightrope walk.  How large an area any given number of cows, heifers, steers, yearlings, two-year-olds, and maybe the vacationing ram and the pet pony need for a set period of time depends on many factors, all of them in constant flux, but if the ideal exists we’ve never seen it, and, as Mr. Joel Salatin says, “Good enough is perfect.”  You don’t have to be an expert or have a PhD in pasture composition to practice rotational grazing; you just need time, some fence, and a ruminant.  Right now there are six brood cows, four lactating and two about to calve, plus a six-weeks’ calf and a retired ram, in one paddock at the monastery, and seven yearling steers in the other.  We split them up not because they need to be kept separate but because we don’t like walking a quarter mile round trip to bring the cows up to milk, so the steers get the back of the farm all to themselves, and the milk cows stay out front where they aren’t so far from the dairy.  As the grass comes in, we can see the dark spots of high fertility where last winter’s cow pats were unloaded; in twenty years, we hope the whole pasture will be that color.  Right now the brood cows get about forty by sixty paces of timothy/orchard grass/clover with a healthy admixture of weeds, or rather more, every twelve hours; the steers are on larger paddocks because the grass is generally thinner out back, and because we only move them once a day.  All the animals are on either rain water or spring water; city and well water don’t appeal to them.

As the summer progresses, paddocks will be calculated partly by what is in them, and partly by how fast we are trying to go around the farm.  In late July, we’ll start omitting areas from our rotation; that grass will be our stored stockpile for winter.


Chickens like milk, but they love clabber.  Like buttermilk, yogurt, or kefir, any thickened milk ferment is haute cuisine to your farmyard chicken.  We find that fifteen or so Rhode Island Reds will clear up a half gallon of clabber per day, leaving nothing to attract flies in the meantime, and lay more eggs to boot.

Likewise, while our hens won’t even look at commercial crumbles if there is any sort of whole grain to be had — our standard mix includes wheat, oats, barley, millet and sunflower seeds — what they really go crazy for is fermented grains, that is, whole, rolled, cracked or crimped grains that have been soaked in water for several days.  We fill a five gallon bucket three-quarters of the way with our mix, top it up with water, and shove a cover on it for three or four days before we start to feed it out.  Actually, we make two buckets, because you want one fermenting while you’re using the other, so you don’t run out.  Smells like a distillery or worse, but modern noses need exercise, and a break from petroleum-derived scents that probably predispose you for cancer anyway.  And the chickens just love it.  Maybe commercially compounded soy-corn crumbles will induce a bird to lay a maximum of eggs — and maybe they won’t, we don’t know — but fermented grains and dairy clabber are fresh, whole and local, not to mention a sight more natural than post-industrial processed-food waste and GM soy and corn.

With new spring grass thick in the pastures, such of our winter-weary dairy cows as haven’t been dried off in anticipation of calving have doubled or even tripled their milk production.  Consequently, the youngest member of our regular milking team (fourteen) has had trouble finishing her two cows by six a.m., but it was misguided to conscript the twelve-year-old to help her, and it is hardly surprising that within twenty-four hours two cows showed up with mastitis in one quarter.  Rich grass, high production, and incomplete stripping out are ample to explain the event.  But intensive rotational grazing establishes a basis of good health that provides insurance against these little blips.  Massage and thorough milking got rid of any symptoms of mastitis after just two or three milkings.  And as an added bonus for at least one farmer, the twelve-year-old gets an extra hour-and-a-half of sleep in the morning.


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