Archive for May, 2013

Saturday, May 18:

   Some days just don’t go as planned; most days, in fact.  Sometimes the number of things undone leaves us feeling too tired to love what we are doing.

   Fortunately, that feeling passes off.

   The plan for today began – after chores – with some of us going up to the monastery to plant that extra hundred pounds of potatoes, and other of us taking receipt of three tons of fifty-sevens limestone and spreading it where the pad for the sawmill will be poured.  Thus far so good; these things we did indeed accomplish.  The area where the extra potatoes were to be planted was sprouting weeds and had to be tilled over before a second pass to plow the long furrows in which we plant potatoes; tilled, then a taut line run for each of the furrows and the plow run down the line.  This is to turn up a ridge on either side of the furrow, so that the potatoes may be dropped, sprout-side up, in the bottom, and the ridges raked down to cover.   The extra tilling set us back only a little bit of time, and with four people, two large and two small, we had the potatoes sown and covered in less than an hour’s time.

   Where time was lost was in the simple process of moving two of the weaned steers into the paddock with the milk cows.  What were we thinking? as we often ask one small girl in our family.  The dairy cows are paddocked behind a single strand of polywire, a purely psychological barrier.  One must always train an animal to electric fence before trusting him to stay behind it.  We forgot about this simple fact.  When we topped the hill pushing one small brown, one small brown-and-white, steer in front of us, and reluctance was in every step as they covered this new territory, something congealed.  For the eight cows and three steers in the monastery paddock that something was a sudden and intense interest in these two little bovines.  Motherly interest, perhaps; or the hope that the new arrivals brought with them some stories the older animals hadn’t heard before, or new smells delightful to the nostril.  They congregated at the fence nearest us, heads and ears inclined our way, snorting noses and flicking tails their only concession to immediate necessity as the flies were already bothersome.

   The little bulls we were encouraging with shoves and twists of the tail, on the other hand, were struck with a paralysis of shyness.  Encouragement was no longer sufficient; to urge them down the slope it was necessary that we propel them by main force.  The very last thing these little boys, like other little boys we have known, come to make the comparison, wanted from this assortment of mostly female adolescents and grown-ups, was their attention.  They were like the little boy who has been volunteered by his over-zealous mother to carry up the ring, peeking into the church at the critical moment and feeling his nerve turn blue around the edges.  It was time for the recital and our budding baby bulls wanted the back door.  We commiserated their feelings but wanted to go home to lunch and we shoved them in without ceremony.

   They walked right back out, ducking their heads and letting the harmless, because disconnected, electrical wire slide down their backs.  Pursuit and capture; more urging, more shoves and tail-twists.  The cows, fascinated, surged up to the fence at the most proximate point with questioning ejaculations.  This time we had a hand on the power connection, and as the two calves stepped into the paddock we threw it on, earning a howl, and then a growl, from a man standing too close to the fence line; then a mild expletive as the calves walked under the line again, skipping a little as it snapped on their spines but distinctly clear in their minds on the best way out of that paddock.

    The cows surged some more.

   This sequence repeated itself in varying forms, with an array of observations made by various interested parties whenever the calves took their leave of the cow’s paddock, sometimes sliding under, sometimes, when we had added a second strand of wire, snagging a hind hoof and pulling some fence down with them.  We added a third strand, which always makes moving electric fence awkward, as the strands are never equally tight, some sagging, some causing the fiberglass posts to sag by the sheer force of their pull.  Still the babies, anxious to escape interested snufflings of their older sisters and cousins, slid through, or under, the fence.

   An hour goes by.

   The calves are out for the seventh time, and now one or two of the heifers are following them.

   Expletive of the parlor variety (we try to keep it clean).

   The sun is hot and high, and the children who asked for a drink almost an hour ago are making plaintive noises as they bound through waist-high grass in pursuit of cows, small and medium, and one sorrel mini – Bridget has always to get in on the getting out — so, three hours early and in violation of the laws and processes of intensive grazing we turn the big cows into a new paddock adjacent to the old one, rearrange some line so the water tank is accessible to both areas, and embark on a final pursuit of straying livestock.  Two galloping heifers are driven, heels high as their heads, into the lane of the new paddock.  The sorrel mini is collared by a small girl, upon which the pony pretends she never meant to go anywhere and allows herself to be corralled as well.  The fence is closed upon them and then, and only then, may we put the two little boys in the old, now three-strand paddock.

   As fast as possible we connect the fence to its power source, and relish the backward leap of a calf whose nose makes contact.  The fight is over; with the ladies safely fenced away from them, the little boys are content.   Their noses drop to graze.

   The monastery bells ring the Angelus.

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Thursday, May 16:

   So, as for the final shake-down regarding metritis and retained placentas in cows, particularly and specifically, more-trouble-than-half-a-dozen-other-cows old Jerseys named Isabel:

   Summarizing the situation:  Isabel birthed prematurely a still-born calf two months before she was due.  Since she did not birth her placenta, a fact we were able to determine by internal examination, as not finding an afterbirth in the paddock was just exactly no proof there had been no placenta birthed, since the good Lord for reasons of His own but susceptible to ready speculation, has decreed that cows, as most mammals but not us, thank Him, may consume their placentas after calving; and anyway there are a great many large crows nesting in the woods north of the monastery pastures, and also vultures, so that any carrion of any kind might not wait around even twelve hours for us to find it but might be scavenged before we got there – since, as we say, Isabel did not birth her placenta after losing her calf, and since her temperature of one hundred-three degrees, taken after birthing, was marginally high for a bovine, although perhaps not one that has labored long under a bright sun, we were advised by our wonderful  veterinarian to treat her as though for a uterine infection.  Our protocol was as follows:

1)  twice daily doses of penicillin:  12 cc’s in the neck muscle (always put intramuscular injections in the least expensive cuts!);

2)  on alternate days, 5 cc’s of lutalyse intramuscular, or two iodine boluses, intrauterine;

3)  daily temperature recording (it was always thereafter under one-oh-three);

4)  twice daily, or when we thought of it, a little milking to stimulate uterine contractions.

   As has been reported elsewhere, this treatment did not produce a placenta, although it may well have contributed to Isabel’s fast recovery otherwise, i.e., that she was soon grazing, strolling, chewing her cud, etc, as though there was nothing at all wrong with her.  After a week of waiting without issue, we reported back to P., the wonderful vet.

   “She’ll be fine,” she told us.  “You’ll probably never see a placenta.  It will just rot and come out piecemeal; or she’ll have a sort of benign metritis, passing clots of what looks like a sort of pasty cottage cheese.”

   So that’s what that stuff was; we had been wondering.  Blobs of lumpy white stuff here and there in the paddock.  We are grateful to omit the twice-daily injections; they had cost us quite a lot in syringes and needles.

   But what a lot this one chancy cow has taught us.

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st. isidore

Wednesday, May 15:

   For Roman Catholics today is the feast of St. Isidore, a Spanish farmer.  He has long been a patron of our efforts, and we celebrate his day with steak fajitas and apple pie.

   After two days of cool weather we are back to temperatures approaching eighty during the day.  You can see the effect in the red-brown arms and faces of everyone whose work has had him or her out of doors.  Digging the foundation for the saw mill shed the heat drove some of the men to take off their shirts, and their native white skin was in sharp contrast to their farmers’ tan.  We who labored in the gardens instead have burned shoulders, and the backs of our necks feel sting-y.

  Today’s heat notwithstanding, the frost of Monday and Tuesday burned the emerging potatoes, some of them back to the ground; this is discouraging news, since there is a good chance they will have to be replanted.  To be on the safe side we bought another hundred pounds of seed potatoes, red and gold, before they could sell out of them at the feed store.  Even if the potatoes already planted do fine, we will probably take this opportunity to plant some more; there is no such thing as too many potatoes.

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Thursday, May 9:

   The sore backs in this house are of various provenance; but nearly everyone has one.

   Raymond’s is sunburn.  Tramping down to the big garden this afternoon he announced that the shirt thief had moved into our valley permanently, offering as evidence the fact that he, Raymond, had been baring his chest to the strong sun all day.  The little blush of pink, however, dates to yesterday when the boys took him creek-jumping in WV and didn’t put any sunblock on him.

   Shawn, and all the big boys who were home today, has the sore back of the ditch digger.  Swinging a pick is something they do very little during the school year, and now they are digging the footer for the saw mill shed, using pick and mattock to break up the packed slag and clay accumulated at the foot of the lane, hauling it by the lawn-cart load behind the small tractor up the steep slope to the garage, unhitching where one slip of a foot would mean the cart went plunging back down the hill and anyone in the way would be pulped, and by main force tipping the cart up to empty it into the gullies that crease the lane and make it, in rainy weather, into white water rapids.  Often, in an operation like ours, sheer muscle replaces expensive, and usually specialized, limited-use equipment, like the skid-steer-backhoe-bulldozer S-4 kept suggesting we go out and rent.

   And all the girls have sore backs of some degree or other – Mom, being old and beginning to stiffen, complains the most – from hours and hours of gardening today, mostly of the crouch-and-wish-you-had-a-magnifying-glass-and-a-pair-of-tweezers variety, pulling tens of thousands of tiny weeds from around hundreds of even tinier onion seedlings, carrot seedlings, adolescent snap pea vines, and middle-aged garlic plants.

    Much was accomplished, much is yet to be done, but a beginning has been made.  The saw mill shed is now a square hole in the ground and not just a drawing on graph paper; the garden, with only four beds of spring seeds planted. and three beds of winter greens – spinach, buttercrunch, mizuna, and claytonia – thinking seriously of going to seed, while we eat spinach by the bale and rub our hands in anxiety thinking of even one leaf going to waste – needs weeding and composting and tilling and someone to plant all those indispensable summer vegs.

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Saturday, May 4:

   This job includes a lot of things you just never thought you’d have to do.

   There is, we will admit, something liberating and exciting about finding that you can enter actively into the processes of nature and participate in a meaningful way, but we didn’t quite imagine that that way would be reaching up the hind end of a cow.  Yet God gave us opposing thumbs and the ability to image what we cannot see, so that when a cow can’t get a calf out on her own some human being with just a little knowledge, even though with none of the cow’s instinctive appropriateness of behavior, can, by a twist of the wrist, redirect activity into a more productive vein.

   We wonder how many more such experiences the future has in store for us.  We are being remade by the courses we are electing.

   Three days have elapsed since Isabel miscarried a very dead seven-month fetus.  We helped her to birth the dead baby, and carried it away to become new life on the forest floor via the activity of coyote, maggot and microbe.  We milked her, washed her, and administered iodine pessaries and lutalyse injections to help her cleanse herself internally.  We have waited these three days for her to pass the afterbirth, or placenta, of the dead, necrotic calf, and we continue to wait, because it just isn’t happening.

   This has led us to do some research into bovine retained placentas.  We find the condition to be much more common in dairy cows than in beef cows, or in humans, the mammal of whose birthing processes we have the most experience.  A retained placenta in a human mother, in our limited experience, usually means quick and decisive action to rectify the situation.  In cows it is within the range of normal that the cow may take three days to expel the calf’s afterbirth, and it can take a good deal longer without necessarily doing the cow any harm.  This is a great relief to us.

   We have been in contact with our wonderful vet throughout, and we share here with you the protocol she is giving us.

   Milk the cow to encourage her uterus to contract.  With a live calf on her this would not be necessary; his suckling would have the desired effect.

   Alternate two intrauterine iodine boluses on days one, three, and five, with 5cc’s lutalyse (provided by our vet), intramuscular, on days two, four, and six.

   Take her temperature daily; a cow has a fever, and consequently perhaps an infection, if her temperature goes much over one hundred three degrees.  If you suspect an infection a course of penicillin may be indicated; one cc per hundred weight, or about twelve cc’s for an adult Jersey cow, is what it says on our bottle.

   After three days if the placenta is still retained, a person may cleanse the exterior of the cow’s vulva, don a shoulder-length o.b. glove, and go in to see what is holding things up.  Is there a second calf in there?  Is the placenta detached from the uterine wall?  There should be no real oomph used in this investigation; while it is fine to help pull out a detached placenta, one should never force the detachment.  We just wrapped what we could around our hand and pulled gently, moving things but very little; then felt around again just to be sure what we were feeling, getting the impression as we did so that this placenta was still very firmly attached to the uterine wall.


   So we trimmed off what part of the afterbirth was already external to the cow – this is primarily a matter of sanitation – sprayed her off with some iodine wound spray, and administered lutolyse and penicillin.  Her temperature was a modest one hundred two point two.  We scratched her behind the ears and called it a day.  We’ll follow this protocol for another two days (the term until we run out of lutolyse) and then reassess.

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Friday, May 3:

   Since Wednesday we have been treating Isabel BID with penicillin, intrauterine iodine pessaries, and hormones to encourage her to cleanse – pass her afterbirth – with, so far, not too much success.  Tomorrow if she is still in this condition we call the vet again.  Yet Isabel is grazing and has no temperature, so her case isn’t dire.  Yet.

   Can you give Black Cohosh to cows?

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Wednesday, May 1:

   I am tired and inarticulate.

   Today is the feast of St. Joseph the Worker.  I suppose that since the father of the Holy Family is our family patron, along with our Blessed Mother, today is our feast day as well.  It is certainly James Joseph Benedict’s feast day, and Masha has made a cheesecake in honor of the day, or days.

   Otherwise the day has not gone at all as planned.  Oh, Shawn and Bud went up and shifted the cows onto a fresh paddock and milked Poppy, who is still seeing if she can avoid the whole process and dodges like a lineman when anyone comes near her head or looks like grabbing her halter; and I started the day as I intended to do, setting a cheese and washing a load of laundry.  But with my curds at about one hundred ten degrees Fahrenheit, and another fourteen degrees to go, the order of the day began to deteriorate.  Shawn and Bud came in with news.

   “Isabel looks like she is in labor.”

   Wrinkled brow and negative shake of the head.  Isabel should not be calving until July.  Concern.  Irritation.

   “Well, she does.  She has her tail cocked, and she keeps humping up and pushing, lying down and getting up again, humping up and pushing some more.”

   How can Isabel be in labor?  Her due date isn’t until mid-July.  Oh, wait a minute.  She was bred twice last summer, once perhaps as early as August – we were trying for a May calving, no doubt – then again in October when she seemed to go into heat again:  at least, she was riding on the steers and the A.I. guy, an amateur, now we come to think of it, expressed it as his opinion that she was indeed open and inseminated her again.  Now we do come to think of it, our experiences of the year have left us with some skepticism about the accuracy of palpation as a test for pregnancy early in gestation.  Hadn’t we ourselves palpated Sugarplum and Poppy and failed to detect their six- and four-month old fetuses?  Did that perhaps mean that Isabel could indeed be calving now, with a term calf from the first artificial insemination?

   We set off up the hill to find out, taking with us a torn beach towel, a small can of petroleum jelly, and a cell phone.  We might be needing the vet.

   Isabel was on her side when we reached the paddock, panting fit to beat the band and humping up and pushing at regular and frequent intervals.  She had flies all over her face and pelvis, and a swollen, slightly wet vulva.  Her udder was, as it had been the day before, swollen and tight.  As we approached she heaved herself up onto her knees, then propped herself up on her front feet and took a few steps west.  Her head dropped and she grazed in an abstracted way, like a commuter wondering if the eight-thirteen to Manhattan was going to be late again.  Again she humped up and heaved, without apparent result.

   An internal exam was indicated.  If we have to do it again we’ll take a bucket of warm water and some soap.  Nitrile o.b. sleeves wouldn’t hurt either.  No doubt, however, the bare hand is more sensitive, and well slicked-up with Dr. Naylor’s Bag Balm we gently reached past Isabel’s soft, swollen vulva.  All that straining should be producing some result; but this cow had a fifty-percent neonatal death rate.  Yep, that’s right, half the calves we had bred into her had been born dead.

   Why on earth do we keep this cow?

   In the birth passage we feel something rough and strange, something we can’t identify.  A gush of amniotic fluid and further probing.  A bubble of amniotic sac filled with fluid over something large and hard that was probably a head.  Isabel was definitely in labor, if that was still a question in anyone’s mind, and the calf appeared to be laid more or less head first.  Well and good, we’d back out and leave her to it.

   Half an hour.  Isabel lies down and pushes, gets up and wanders and pushes.  In between she grazes a little, appearing to forget between contractions that anything unusual is going on.  There is no change in externals.  We sit in the grass on the other side of the hotwire so that the mini, Bridget, and the more inquisitive cows, can’t reach us to ruffle our hair with their snuffles or probe in our lunch bag for apples and sweet butter shortbread.  We watch and wait, watch and grow impatient.  Periodic research – two more internal exams – reveal that while the big hard thing is indeed a head, and it is moving down the birth canal, but there are no feet in the neighborhood of the calf’s chin, where they ought to be.

   Then Isabel heaves onto her feet again, and now the head is gone, and there is a hoof, a single one, instead.  A long reach discloses that the head is flexed back and down, the other foot under and behind it.  Long ago we left a phone message for our vet — who checks her phone often but is a busy woman and much in demand — describing our situation and soliciting advice.  We have not yet heard from her.  Yet we know that vets, including ours, encourage farmers to give what assistance they can to a laboring animal with a malpresentation.

   A length of nylon cord and another slicking up with petroleum jelly and we go after the calf’s lower jaw, hoping to snare it and use it to bring the head around.  Isabel’s calf bed is roomy but she pushes against the inserted hand and arm, and we are operating blind on a subject half of whose anatomy is in a thick membrane bag filled with water.  It takes several efforts to drop the little slip knot over the calf’s chin and pull it tight.

   One man on the cord and one to repel the shoulder.  Isabel heaves against this pressure, there is gasping and sweating and scrabbling with the toes against clumps of grass and clover, more gasping and sweating.  We know in theory what is supposed to happen:  as the body of the calf moves away from the pelvis, light traction on the rope should pull the calf’s head around where it is supposed to be, pointing down the birth canal.  Only, what is to keep the rope from slipping off?  And can we move the little animal back far enough for his head to come around?

   The answer to the first question is, nothing, so far as we know; but the answer to the second is ‘yes’, and in a surprisingly short time the head is laid right.  Some fishing brings the front feet into position under the calf’s chin.  Now we should be in business, but Isabel shows signs of losing interest in the whole proceeding.  Not anxious that she should take all day to produce this calf, we stay involved and offer active assistance.  Tiny hooves are slippery handles but persistence brings first them, then a little black head, into the light of day.

   Time for a script rewrite.

   This calf is certainly premature.  No, this calf is not just premature.  It is not just dead, it is necrotic.  With four or five more contractions it comes fully to light, slick and black and complete in almost every part, but dead, pitted here and there by necrosis, abdomen perforated, with a twist of small intestine visible.  There is a faint, bad smell.

   Adrenalin and the knowledge that we have done some good and succeeded in carrying out the procedure we embarked upon keeps our disappointment in proportion.  After all, we knew with the head flexed back there was a chance the calf would be dead; we knew that since it was Isabel’s calf odds were fifty-fifty against its living.  All that aside, we had set out to help Isabel get that calf out and it was out, and so far as we could see it would have stayed in there all day if it wasn’t for our assistance.  We had been successful in a failed undertaking, and we felt pretty good about it.

   Only, the placenta was still in there, and as I write this it is still in there, and it needs to come out just as soon as possible.

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