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Lessons I Didn't Want to Learn

I started writing this post from the comfort of a coffee shop, my mug steaming over with warming liquid, the fancy acai bowl with peanut butter I ordered filling my belly. It’s a scene I was once familiar with as a city dweller and one I gravitate to when I want to write. Coffee shops are a place to be with people during work hours when you actually have no colleagues, no office, and no internet at home (Yes, most of rural America still does not have wifi). A lively atmosphere without too many distractions; background noise without anything too jarring or attention-grabbing.

Cow and calf
A mama cow and calf, when things go well

The comforts of the coffee shop were in stark contrast to the previous day when we were in crisis mode on the farm. John found his favorite cow (#18) struggling to give birth to a new calf, the labor clearly having started hours before in the dark of night, the cow by then in a desperate state. The calf was dead, its head and one leg sticking out, the cow pushing with all her might, to no avail.

I won’t go into gory details about the event, although if you raise cattle, you will know what I mean when I say the situation was more gruesome than I could have ever imagined from the safety of my coffee shop life. Finally, when we got the calf out after at least an hour of struggle, the cow was laying on the ground with her head flat, breathing heavily. We gave her a shot of antibiotics to deal with the dirt and germs that had likely been everywhere, and she sucked down water as if she had just voyaged through the desert. Later in the evening, John fed her two flat Guinness beers, a trick a farmer friend taught us to help get some vitamins and healthy bacteria back into her rumen, the engine of a cow’s body.

This calving season has been a trial for us. The scene with the cow was not the only heartbreaking incident we have dealt with; the dead calf was one of six that we have lost this fall, a staggering number that has left our veterinarian, Iowa State University Extension, and other farmers helping us search for answers. It could be a bacteria endemic in the area, we are told, or more likely the result of intense heat that left the pastures and forage void of essential nutrients. The calf with its leg stuck was just a stroke of bad luck, the Vet commented, and an obstetrics problem (as opposed to a bacterial one, for example). But that is some bad luck with really bad timing on top of a lot more bad luck, and the odds are now feeling stacked against us.

Whatever the causes, fall 2022 has been a struggle, leaving us wondering what it is about our farm that is attracting such a series of events and anxious about the financial damage we will feel in two years when the calves would have been making us money. What will we do then?

Our new White Park calf

I would be lying if I said that there is an upside to all of this; I would have preferred to have never had to witness a cow in such a state of distress or to have seen this much death on the farm. And yet here we are, with the farm again teaching me more about its ups and downs than I ever wanted to know.

By the time I sat in the coffee shop sipping my mocha, the cow was back up and grazing on the pasture, perhaps trying to demonstrate to us that life just goes on. You have to get back up and keep on keeping on, lest the challenges consume you and you lay on the ground, head flat out, panting.

And just now as I finish writing this post, John texted that a new black bull calf was born this morning. We also had our first White Park calf born the other day, his white fur contrasting starkly to his black nose and feet, looking somewhat like a kind clown. Then there too is the new kitten, Abe, who likes to lay across my neck like a living mink stole.

Life ain’t all bad, it seems, even when it is pretty terrible. We will get through this, I know - I just wish I could look back on it from afar and know how it has all turned out.

Cat on my neck
Abe the Kitten lays on my neck as I work

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