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A Feeble Calf and a Fun Weekend

August 23, 2022

Milly, a Scottish Highlander calf, started nursing on her own three days after her birth. Until then, with permission from Francine, her mom, I helped her little mouth grab onto a teat. Smaller than most newborn calves, I was able to pick up and carry Milly with ease.

Typically Miles Smith Farm breeding is timed, so calves are born in early spring, so their mothers can get an entire season of abundant green grass to produce plenty of milk for the baby. But when you buy a pregnant cow, the calves arrive when they arrive.

Three calves were born two weeks ago and another last week. In keeping with our farm custom, our Airbnb guests name newborns, so Katharine and her children named our new heifer calf Milky Way. I call her Milly for short.

The morning after her birth, Milly's stomach was sunken, which means she had not yet nursed. Just a tiny little thing, not more than 45 pounds, she didn't have the energy or the strength to latch onto her mother Francine's teats. She did drink from the bottle of raw milk I offered, but she needed to nurse to get colostrum from her mother's milk, which is vital for good health.

Francine Approves

Milly had the right idea, nuzzling Francine's udder, but she could not quite grasp a teat. I had to help but first needed Francine's permission. I was a bit nervous because I needed seven stitches on my cheek a few years ago when Francine hit me with a horn. I reasoned that as long as the calf was calm, Francine would not bash me again. Francine wanted Milly to nurse as much as I did and stood still when I ran my hand over her flank, reached down to the nearest teat, and squirted milk toward Milly. Francine, not tied with a rope or halter, swung her head at me once as if to say, "I don't like you there, but I'll accept your help." After that, she held still and waited as I continued squirting her milk into (or close to) Milly's mouth.

Milly licked her lips as milk dripped down her chin. A few times, she moved forward, licking the milk off Francine's teat. Finally, on the fourth try, I managed to slip the teat into Milly's mouth. She sucked feebly at first, then more strongly until she was slurping down colostrum-rich milk.

Milly needed help grabbing a teat throughout her first and second day but now is strong enough to do it independently. Hooray. Not sure she'd gotten enough colostrum, I administered penicillin to keep her healthy. As much as I get joy from helping a newborn survive, the miracle of birth is enough drama for me. Here's hoping the five impending calves arrive alive, healthy, and don't need help nursing.

Martha's Vineyard Ag Fair

This weekend husband Bruce and I are at the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Fair, showing our oxen pairs and our riding steer Curious Bleu, who will participate in the Parade of Oxen on Thursday morning. Oxen are cattle (usually steers) who work in a yoke, a wooden crosspiece fastened over their necks and attached to a cart or log.

Once again, we are camping on the fairgrounds because we could never afford a $5,000-a-night room. (Off-season, that same room might rent for $200, which is still pricey for me.) So camping is perfect unless, like last year, a hurricane interrupts the festivities.

I'm excited to return to Martha's Vineyard, where canopies of leaves shade most roads and the speed limit is never more than 45 mph. It would be hard to drive faster on the narrow, winding roads lined with well-maintained stone walls tall enough to contain sheep or cattle and where there are no big-box stores or four-lane highways. Just as welcoming as the landscape are the people. Last year the fairground staff treated us like honored guests. They stabled our cattle in comfy box stalls and helped feed and water them.

The cattle might not win awards this weekend, but my real prize is four days on a magical island with my cattle (and husband).


Carole Soule

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