birth and death

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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