Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dad's Cows

This past spring my father was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer. His treatment plan would involve him having surgery on the prostate. Because he had his prostate checked, the cancer was caught at an extremely early stage, meaning the surgery was the only thing he'd need to have done. While this was good the timing was particularly bad.

His surgery was originally scheduled in January but got bumped back to March. Traditionally dad starts calving out around the middle of March. Dad has been downsizing his herd for the past 5 years and he only has 8 cows left. (Plus a bull.) With my brothers conveniently working out of town or night shift, this left me to take care of my father's crazy cows. In March in Alberta this means tractor chores such as moving bales of hay and straw, in addition to doing calving checks.

The day prior to my dad's surgery he's outside bellaring for me to come learn how to feed the cows. You can imagine his surprise when he goes to teach me how to drive the tractor and I already know how. (I have all kinds of skills I don't always share with my father lest I get sucked into one of his backward and antiquated strategies for handling farm life.) Lurching off we go, and I successfully get the bales moved and strings cut. Meanwhile my dad's "cow" lesson continues. He points out a brown cow (they're all brown and look alike) telling me this one gets snuffy when she has a calf. Fabulous. Just what I wanted to hear.

While dad is in the hospital the calves start to come. Because I'm still working full time I do my only and final night check at 11 pm. This means the cows have to fend for themselves until I get up at 6. Not ideal but I'm one of those need a lot of sleep people. Normally the cows have no issues calving. Of course with my dad out of the action this year has to prove the exception. When Big Red calved she ended up dropping twins. Seeing she'd had one and she was cleaning it up, I went back into the house. An hour later I went out only to see her in a different straw pile licking a calf. Baffled I walked around the herd only to see the first calf lying where she left it. This got me to worrying. So using my handy rattle paddle I get the calves up, moving them into one of the fenced three sided shelters. With a wary eye on mom I get the whole family locked in the shelter. Pitch fork in one hand, paddle in the other I begin the tedious process of forking straw and hay into the shelter. Next job is hauling water by hand out to the cow. Finally I sit back to watch. Big Red didn't seem too interested in the first calf. So I call up Dee (a veteran of calving time) and ask about twins. Telling me not to worry too much, make sure both were sucking and leave them alone. Good enough.

The next day when I got home from work I noticed a cow with a dirty bum. (Afterbirth.) Only I couldn't find her calf. My dad who by this time was home and getting more mobile comes out to look with me. He kept trying to tell me one of the twins was hers, I kept trying to tell them they were both spoken for. Finally in the deep straw was a stillborn. The calf had clearly been born dead. My mom and I suit up, grab the sled and begin the grisly process of removing the calf from the corral. This is necessary to keep the predators away and to keep the corral space cleaner and more healthy. (Yes, after each calf I'd walk around with a pitch fork removing afterbirth.) We manage to get the calf on the sled and begin the hike up the hill in thigh deep snow to drop the calf a safe distance away from the yard. (Sorry no quad and my horse was at a barn that year.) It was a nasty and upsetting job.

As the weekend rolled around it was time to drop more feed and bedding for the cattle. My dad being mobile felt it necessary to come supervise. There I am on the tractor with a bale in front and behind me, ear protection on and watching my dad gesturing with a pitchfork to drop the bale here, no a foot to the left, a half a foot to the right. I'm sure the sky would have come crashing down if I'd put the straw anywhere else.

I'm not sure who was happier my dad or myself when he was once again well enough to do his own chores. Wondering about the snuffy cow, of course she dropped her calf first. Good times.

Photo: One of dad's cows.

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