Calving in season and out

farming Vermont

For the eight years that I've had cattle at Fat Chance Farm, I've always managed to keep our calving dates "in season," that is during Vermont's warmer months of May through October. Warm season calving is better and less stressful for all involved, cow, calf and farmer! When calves are born, they don't know what season it is, they're born with a summer hair coat no matter what the weather is like. Since they are wet when they're born, if not dried off promptly they are susceptible to chills and frostbite, even hypothermia! Which is why I was a little frustrated to see one of our heifers, Radish, get bred back in late March 2023. Cow gestation period is around 283 days, so that put us right in for a December/January calving.

Had all gone to plan, Radish would have been bred in late Summer 2022 for a May/June calf. Why didn't that happen? Well, either she was still getting her fertility cycle sorted out since she was still young, or she lost the calf very early in the pregnancy and then didn't cycle back until early spring.

So as her due date approached, I waited and watched and checked the weather. I told Radish many times that during one of our 40 degree spells would have been an excellent time to pop the calf out. Since we don't have an enclosed barn, only a three sided cowshed, I prepared an area for her as the cold weather settled in. Despite my careful preparations of a comfy warm stall for her, sometime on the morning of January 16th, Radish sauntered out of the cowshed, plopped her calf in a snow bank and then went back to eat hay without licking her off!

This was another issue with this particular winter calving. Radish is a heifer, which means she's never had a calf before. Sometimes heifers will get a bit confused about what their job is and just run away from the strange wet, bawling creature they have created. Usually those mothering instincts kick in eventually and they get the hang of it but on a cold winter day, there's no room for this kind of error.

Given the circumstances, I had been checking the cows frequently, so I found her quickly and began my role as mama cow. Once nice thing about winter calving is that I can use my utility sled to move a calf easily over the snow. Newborn calves are heavy and uncoordinated and often seem to be doing the opposite of what you would like them to do. But I managed to get Radish's chilly, wet calf into the sled and then took her for a ride back to the house.

Along with our first winter calf, was another milestone, first calf in the house! Once she was vigorously toweled dry, I was relieved to find that her internal temperature was 100 degrees, which is normal for calves, so she was not hypothermic. Though, unfortunately, she did have some frostbite on her ears. For mammals, it is very important that they get a good amount of first milk or colostrum, within about 6 hours of being born. This milk helps them build their immune systems and sets them up for a healthy life. Since I keep some frozen colostrum on hand, I was able to bottle feed the calf while she enjoyed the luxurious warmth of our mudroom.

a small red calf sleeps on a black mat in a very cluttered mudroom

Later that afternoon, it was time to see if Radish had come to her senses about her parenting duties. Before I headed back out, the calf got some more warm milk and a dashing custom made calf bonnet to protect her frostbitten ears. Luckily, calves are pretty laid back about the world at this age so no attempts were made to remove this stylish headgear.

a small red calf stands on hay bedding in a shed, she is wearing large white ear covers, tied around her face with blue fabric, she looks ridiculous

Thankfully, Radish decided to redeem herself for her earlier neglect. She mooed at and licked her calf in a proper motherly fashion and was very patient with both me and the calf as we trained her that milk also comes from udders, not just bottles. I was very impressed that Radish stood still and let me hand milk her as I encouraged a still uncoordinated calf to figure out where the milk taps are.

Now fairly confident in the bond between mother and calf, I left them out in the cowshed together, though now shut in with a gate to prevent snowy wanderings. I must say I have been reminded why I'm happy not to have kids. One night of waking up to check on a young mammal every couple hours is quite enough for me. (Though I imagine no one has to put on full winter gear to check on a baby!) At each check, the calf was curled up in a deep pile of dry hay, with a warm nose, no shivering and ear protection in place.

What about a name? I hear you ask. At the suggestion of a friend, I looked through the names of polar explorers. Since the calf is female, she should get an "R" name, like her mother. So I was excited to learn about modern polar explorer Rosie Stancer. Not only an R name but also on the red theme and she and calf also share their birth month. Perfect!

a black horned cow stands on hay bedding in a shed while a small red calf nurses

Now we just have even colder weather to look forward to this weekend. I've been learning more about cold weather calf raising and the benefits of calf blankets, so Rosie is now also sporting a dashing homemade calf blanket to match her ear muffs. Alas, Hyde Park is seemingly not enough of a cattle raising hub for our local stores to have calf ear muffs or blankets on hand, the DIY versions will have to do until the better stuff arrives.

I hope you enjoyed the adventure of Rosie the snow calf. I am hoping to never do winter calving again!


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