Last night Paul and I experienced our first tragedy in four years of farming: Roxy's heifer calf was stillborn.
I still cannot fathom how it all went down. First, we didn't think she was due until October 1st, but given the size and completeness of the calf, there was no question she was due now. In hindsight, what with her being a giant barrel with legs, and me noticing her pin bones feeling a little looser and her udder a little firmer on Tuesday, and Paul saying, "I think she'll calve within two weeks," we should have known.
We went for dinner last night, and decided to drive by and check the cattle on our way home, stopping first so Paul could fill a 5 gallon bucket with apples for them. It was sometime after 7:00. As we pulled into the long gravel driveway, we noticed we could see four animals, not five. Who was missing? Roxy. Where was she? We got out and called and called and called...and then noticed that while Clyde, Xoe and Cowboy had all come up to the gate, Sara stayed behind, and kept looking back toward the creek. Uh, oh. Finally, Roxy's head appeared in the tall grass, but she seemed to be busy, possibly with a new calf. We thought, then, she'd calved already. We dumped the bucket of apples and then entered the pasture and walked across the creek bridge to where she was. Paul saw her contract (I missed it). We walked toward her, and then she started walking toward us, stopping periodically to push. Oh, shit!
We had nothing with us...no calving supplies, no halter rope, not even binoculars. I saw a hoof sticking out and an alarm bell went off. We drove up the driveway to the house, asked for binoculars and then Tom jumped in my car and came back with us. By then, she'd crossed the creek on the other side and was booking across the hayfield toward the tall grass along the road. I whipped down the driveway and around the corner to park so we could look. I grabbed the glasses: one hoof, upside down. Holy crap...this baby was turned around backward!
I left Paul and Tom there to figure out how to get her to the corral (back across the hayfield, back across the creek, and a long way through the pasture) while I raced home for our supplies. I grabbed towels, our vet kit (which includes obstetrical chains, lube and iodine), my homemade manual (and then two cattle books once I realized the "pulling a breach calf" diagram I was looking for wasn't in my manual), but forgetting a halter rope.
By the time I returned, the guys had Roxy almost to the corral, but had to stop often so she could push. Hindsight, we should have staubed her to a tree in the hayfield and pulled the calf right then and there...what were we thinking, wasting all that damn time?!
We did finally get her into the corral, tied her off at the opening of the wooden chute (after realizing she was going to do her best to kick me each time I touched her vulva). Paul had already pinched the calf's foot and gotten no response, but I tried it, too...the calf was not moving, and even though Roxy appeared to be pushing hard each time, only the one foot was visible...nothing else was happening.
I lubed up my hand and arm and slid it in alongside the calf's foot, and several inches in, found the other foot. The right leg was crossed under the left and wanted to stay there. I felt up further a few times to make sure what I was feeling was two rear legs and a butt (and a tail, which I should have pulled down and under the legs instead of leaving it up over the back, again, hindsight). It was extremely disorienting...thank God I'm a visual person and had seen many different calf birthing diagrams, so sort of knew markers to check for.
I finally got those legs uncrossed and the right foot nearly as far out as the left, and held on with all my might as Roxy continued to push. Finally, I started to pull, and oh, my God, was it hard. It took Tom and Paul, finally, to pull the calf out, but not before Roxy laid down, making the angle in our tight quarters very difficult. Backwards is an awkward position for a calf to be in, especially when it's already dead.
She was beautiful, Roxy's little red heifer. Long eye lashes, pretty red Highland coat, no hint of brindle from either parent on her nose pad. We thumped her chest and pinched her and held her upside down, but it was no use. She'd probably been dead some time.
Roxy cleaned (i.e. passed the placenta) right away and ate the placenta, then turned around and started cleaning her dead calf. We stood there, covered in meconium (baby's first stool, passed during stress), Roxy's poop, mucus and blood, stunned, devastated and completely unsure what to do next.
After cleaning up at the house, we decided to pull the baby further into the corral, then open the gates so the other animals could witness and also help Roxy fend off any predators overnight. All five animals were very quiet, which, especially for the boys and sometimes Xoe, was unusual.
Tom buried the calf this morning in their calf graveyard up by the barn. (See, they ran cattle for years...when you do this for years, you inevitably have hard times. They had five.) I called the vet this morning to verify that Roxy is fine and doesn't need antibiotics or anything. We do need to watch her for mastitis, since her body doesn't realize the baby won't need it.
On my way home from work today, I drove the long way and checked on everyone. It was quiet; the calf had already been buried, and all five cattle were under the trees near the creek. As I stood on the deck, Roxy started to moo, and pretty soon all five animals were back in the corral. I left then, stopping by the gate to say hello, Roxy mooing softly, sniffing the spot in the grass where her baby had been.
The hardest part for me about this entire ordeal is that I feel responsible for it. I dutifully wrote down each heat cycle for Sheila, Roxy and Xoe last year in my dayplanner. I noted that Roxy was close to heat the day we brought her and Sheila home to be with Eiger (November 19th). If I had noted her earliest possible due date, I would have seen that we should have started watching her in late August - she was due around August 27th. Instead, I held steadfast to the vet's prediction - based on rectal palpation of the calf - of an early October due date. (I forget he's made that mistake before...Highland calves are smaller than he's used to.) If I had noted both dates, I would have been checking her physically much more frequently, noting changes. If I had been paying attention to that date, Tom would have thought much more of Roxy going off by herself a couple of times, and would have let us know that he saw her doing that...but heck, we should have had another month or so, so he didn't.
And...if I'd kept my wits about me for two seconds, I would have remembered that posterior-presented calves need to be delivered right away or they can either drown in the amniotic fluid collecting by their little mouths, or suffocate as their body pinches off the blood supply from the umbilical cord they're likely to be lying on.
But no...and so, where we were expecting three calves this time, we're now hoping for two. You can bet I'll be all over Xoe when late September hits. After all, her earliest due date is October 8th, two full weeks before the October 22nd date predicted by the vet.
From now until Xoe's calf is safely on the ground, our orange vet kit will remain in the back of my car, along with both books, my manual, a halter rope and some clean old towels (as soon the meconium-stained laundry of last night is clean). I won't be caught unaware again. This is too pricey a mistake for both farm account (in lost beef, live sale or breeding stock income) and heart.