The Tragedy and Triumph of the First British White Calf

Nathan Brummel

It was a black night. Lightning flashed in the north and west. My wife had noticed that one pregnant heifer was standing in an awkward position, tail up. My daughter and I went out to investigate whether we were going to have the first ever calf born at the Green Barn Farm.

About ten months ago we had purchased twelve British White Cattle. We bought one bull who was a little under two years of age. We purchased eleven open heifers that were 1 ½ to 2 years old. They are called “open heifers” because they are females who have never had a calf. Once a heifer has a calf, she is called a “cow”. My daughter bought one heifer that was bread to produce more milk. The heifer is 50% British White and 50% Jersey. Jerseys are known for producing rich milk. We just built a wooden milking stall in the old Green Barn on our property so that the heifer could get used to standing in the stall. My daughter lures her into the stall by giving her some corn.

Hopefully all our heifers are pregnant. Some of them are showing. One is so wide that we wonder whether she is carrying twins. On others their udders are beginning to grow and hang down more.

So, we had been watching the heifers, looking for signs that a birth was imminent. We counted out the days. We did the math. The gestation period for cows is 279 to 292 days. We had owned our cows for 281 days. If our young bull had quickly gone to work, it could be time for one of the heifers to give birth.

With my i-phone as a flashlight, my daughter and I were able to see a little hoof sticking out from under the tail of Morning Glory. My kids named all our cattle after flowers. Even the bull is named after a flower. I know that you want to know his name. I will tell you; he is named Buttercup. Just kidding. Can you imagine how tough a bull named Buttercup would need to be? Especially if he was around other bulls. He would be tough enough to face a Spanish matador. My kids named our bull Sweet William. Isn’t that nice? He is named after a flower and yet there is a masculine name included in the compound name.

My daughter and I went back to the farmhouse and told my wife and son that the calf was on the way. My wife decided that the whole family should view the birthing. Since a storm was coming in, we gathered hats and coats. The rest of the family got ahead of me as I searched for my GoPro. By the time I joined the family in the woods, rain drops began to fall. The heifer was still in the woods. She was making noise.

She wasn’t alone. I had heard about how when cows were ready to give birth that they would get away from the herd. They find a quiet place alone to give birth. But our heifers are inquisitive. If I set down a hammer while I am working on a fence, I come back to find cow slobber on it. They also have a powerful herd instinct. They followed Morning Glory into the woods. No privacy for the new mom. If I want to move the herd into a new field, all I need to do is to seduce one heifer to follow my bucket of corn or my call of “Come.” Then the rest of the herd will follow the one heifer. Morning Glory was not going to give birth alone. The heifers were not going to give her space.

It was dark in the woods. When I arrived, all I could see was the dim light from two flashlights. When the heifer saw me coming, she moved away. I had checked my weather app and seen on the radar that the bright red of an intense thunderstorm was about to reach us. Then the front hit. In a few seconds we were doused. The lightning was closer. Peels of thunder reverberated. And the rain fell. And my wife gave up. She, who had been so passionate about the entire family coming out to view the birthing, ran for the farmhouse. And we followed. All our pants and socks and shirts and coats were wet. The washer and dryer had work to do.

They say that April brings spring showers. We had received spring showers back in February and March. We had ponds in the hay fields. We already had experienced glorious spring weather in early April. We had 70- and 80-degree weather—abnormal for north central Indiana at this time of the year. Our pear tree had already blossomed. Leaves were bursting out of the birch and oaks. We waited out the thunderstorm.

In the storm’s aftermath we headed back into the woods. I heard an uproar. The pregnant heifer was mooing up a storm. I walked into the woods with a headlamp. Then I saw the calf. She was bright white against the dark background. A little ghost. A British White calf. Almost all white. Mama cow was making a lot of noise. She was butting another heifer which wanted to stand over her calf. The baby was already licked clean. The other heifers were so interested in the new calf—the first that they had ever seen. They all wanted a close look. Even the bull wanted to see at close hand what this new entity was. One heifer seemed to think that the baby was hers.

My daughter ran to get a bucket of corn. She would distract the rest of the cattle. The new cow was bellowing and fighting with the heifer and the rest of the cattle. Once my daughter began shaking the bucket of corn, the cattle all followed the bucket. We led the cattle into another pasture and closed the gate. But Mama Cow had also followed the bucket after a few moments of indecision. She abandoned her newborn in the dark woods. She kept trying to find a way to cross a fence to get with the rest of the cattle.

I went into the woods and lifted the calf. With the dim light of a head lamp that kept moving out of position, I carried the calf through the woods, along the fence line, and into our old green barn. The calf was wet and slippery. I suppose that it weighed around 70 pounds. The newborn had strong legs and tried to escape my arms. I set the calf down in the milking parlor. I forgot to check whether it was a male or female. My daughter came with towels and dried off the newborn.

Then we couldn’t get the cow to come by her calf. I had a gate to a back field open, and the cow kept running back there—hoping to get by the other cattle. We had to chase her back by the barn and then herd her with outstretched arms and yells into the milking parlor room. Once inside she wanted to stay by her calf. But she didn’t let it nurse. We wondered whether we should try to help the calf nurse, but the cow didn’t want anyone else by it.

So we went into the house to leave the cow and the calf alone. I came out some while later to check on the calf. I saw her lying on the ground almost hidden beneath some hay. My daughter had carried some hay into the room for the cow. Apparently, the cow had done something to the calf. The baby looked dead. Its eyes were open. A death stare? But it was alive. A few hours had passed since birth and the cow had not let her baby nurse. The calf had not drunk of the precious and life-sustaining colostrum. Colostrum is a milk-like fluid that is released from the breasts of cows after they give birth. Drinking it develops and protects the immune system of the calf and provides growth factors. The colostrum comes prior to the true milk becoming available.

I stepped into the stall to see if I could get the calf up. Mama cow didn’t like that. She butted the calf to the ground. I began to wonder whether we should separate the cow from her calf so that we could bottle feed the calf. But the cow would not leave her offspring. My son came outside. He tried to lure the cow outside the barn with some corn. But she would not leave her baby. Instead, she began butting the calf. The calf flew into the air and into the side of the barn. Then she chased the calf around the milking stall, knocking it around. She never stepped on it. But she butted the calf repeatedly.

I got a rope and tried to get it around the cow’s neck from outside the room. When I didn’t succeed, I entered the room. But as I tried to put the rope around the cow’s head, she came for me. She chased me into the milking stall. When she wasn’t trying to butt me, she went after the calf.

I climbed out of the stall. There was nothing more I could do.

I went to bed. My wife prayed for the calf. It was in the hands of the Lord.

The next morning my wife snuck towards the barn. She quietly peeked into the stall. The cow immediately looked up when my wife peeked around the corner. This was one alert mother. My wife saw the calf quietly drinking from the cow. Alive. A wonder. The bones of newborn calves must be flexible for this calf to have survived those head butts.

Sometime in the night the cow had stopped butting her calf. I don’t think she ever stepped on the baby. At some point the maternal instincts of the new mother kicked in and she let her calf nurse. Such it can be with heifers that are giving birth for the first time. They don’t have an opportunity to read a book about mothering. No one teaches them, except God through their instinct.

We let the two out of the barn and Mama and calf stayed close. Mama acted like she had always been a doting mother. The little calf is a good example of a purebred British White. The calf is all white except for black ears, a black nose, and black above the hooves. The calf does have a few speckles on the lower legs, like its parents.

And there is the calf. Skipping around. And exploring. How can it be that a calf that is a half day old has the inquisitiveness to explore its surroundings? Then the calf returns to the cow. Is there anything more pastoral and relaxing than the sight of a newborn calf drinking off her mother?

In the excitement and darkness of the night, I had forgotten to check whether the calf was a bull calf or heifer calf. Was it a boy or a girl? If it was a boy, we would need to castrate it the next day. If you wait too long, the calf gets too big to catch and hold down. To castrate a bull calf, you place rubber rings around the testicles. If we needed to castrate a bull calf, we novices needed help and advice. We also needed to put a tag on the ear of the newborn. I had bought the tools for tagging and castration. A friend from church, Josh, volunteered to help us separate the cow from the calf and to tag and possibly to castrate it. We lured the cow through a gate with some corn. Once we were alone with the calf, we soon discovered that we had a heifer calf. It was a girl. For the first time in my life, I punched the tag into a calf’s right ear. For some reason the heifers have a tag in the right ear, while our bull has a tag in his left ear.

We decided that now was as good of a time as any to introduce the cow and calf to the rest of the herd. I had moved the herd to a back area. So I let the calf through the gate behind the barn so it could be with mama in a large field. Immediately the day and a half old calf ran across the field and right into the electric fence on the western side of the field. We could hear the shock she got. It didn’t help her that she was standing in water. She had already experienced some shocks in the fencing around the barn. Shocked, she ran to the electric fence on the east side of the field and ran right through it. She didn’t go under it—but through the middle of the first and second strands. We had to get her back in the field and then she stayed by her Mom.

About an hour later I looked out in the field. I saw the cow wandering around. Like she was looking for a lost calf. Where was the calf? Maybe the calf had seen the cattle in the back field and had gone through a fence to be by them. I let the cow through the gate so that she could join the rest of the herd and collect her calf. But when we arrived in the back, there was no calf. Instead, the cow got into a dominance fight with a heifer. After walking around for the property for 15 minutes, my son called out that he had found the calf. She had crossed a fence and laid down in the woods to sleep. She didn’t know that she was lost. She wouldn’t let my son catch her, leading him on a race through thorns and small bushes and then ran through a couple of fences. We decided that we would need to carry her back to the barn. We carried her between us, and now I had calf diarrhea over my coat and gloves. The washer would have more work to do.

By the barn we have more than electric fencing, so we don’t need to worry about her running through fences. Apparently, she needs to get a little older to comprehend what happens with electric fencing. Then the cow didn’t want to join her baby because she was so into a head-butting contest with the heifer. The bull kept trying to break up the hostilities. He often plays the role of peacemaker among the heifers. We finally separated the cow and got her through the gate.

So Lucy, the name that my children gave to the heifer calf, was once again alone with Morning Glory. Since my son is into paleontology, he decided that all the newborn calves this season would be named after fossil hominids. Lucy is a famous fossil hominid. The kids claim that there are enough names to go around for bull calves and heifer calves. We have kept Morning Glory and Lucy by the barn together. Peacefully. Alone. The heifers gather along the fence and stare at the Lucy.

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