Anyways, this has been a brutal winter, especially February, here in Northwest PA. February brought something close to 3 feet of snow on top of what was already on the ground. Temperatures were frigid...we had lots of days where the high was in the teens, and probably more nights than not lows were below zero. Four or five nights were close to -30, and that was before you factored in the wind chill. (I believe it was warmer in Alaska for more than a few days this February!) Subzero temps make life harder on a farm. You can't stay in; the animals need extra attention to make sure they have enough food to stay warm, water that isn't frozen, dry bedding, etc. And sometimes it's REALLY tricky. It was the first week of February, and it was -6 as Dan and I were ready for bed. We had been keeping an eye on Pixie, one of our Dexter cows, as she was getting very close to delivering a calf. So while I am taking my contacts out before we retire for the night, Dan checks on Pixie, who has had a calf in the time since evening chores. As I close my contact case, Dan yells that we've got a calf in the snow. (Pixie had acted like being put in the barn during chores was probably going to kill her and refused to come inside, of course.) No time to worry about putting those contacts back in, so out the door I go, bringing warm dry towels as Dan fires up a heater in the workshop. Although Pixie had tried her best to lick it off, the poor thing was half frozen and crusted in ice. Dan carried our newborn into the workshop and we worked on rubbing him to dry him off and get his blood circulating. His legs were stiff and he was terribly uncooperative when we tried to help him to stand. This is something he needs to do to be able to nurse and get warm nourishment into his chilled, overworked little system.
There are few things as heartbreaking as trying to save a newborn animal and knowing that death looms over your shoulder, and may take it no matter how hard you try or how bad you want this baby to live. I continued to dry off the calf as Dan tried to corral Pixie. In my head, I put his odds at about 50/50 as far as making it through the night. A baby is always a heartbreaking loss- no matter how many calves or sheep or whatever are born, you want them to live. Being a farmer means you have a nurturing streak. But it also affects your bottom line- how many calves we raise this year directly impacts how much beef we'll have for the 2017 farm stand season- farmers are constantly looking at long-term pictures. And while it may sound horrible and cruel to think about eating this little blob of adorable, the truth is ALL meat starts out cute. And he won't be so cute in 2 years. And to make room for new babies each year, other critters must leave the farm, one way or another.
Dan returned to the shop, with Pixie still on the loose in the barnyard. We decided to let the sheep out of their barn and see if she will go in there. In the dark, I'm proud to say that even without contacts in, I could still tell which black cow was the one we needed. When most folks look at our Dexters, they see a bunch of black cows with horns, but I see a breeding program- bloodlines and birthdays I can recite without looking. They are named and well cared for, and I know them just as they know me. Dan and I worked together and got her in the sheep house. Then Dan carried her calf and tried again to get him to stand. He needed to eat soon, so we got a rope around Pixie's horns (yes, girl Dexters have horns, not just the boys!) and tied her up. Again, we tried to get the little one to stand and eat. At this point I ran back to the house, grabbed an old sweatshirt, cut the sleeves and attached a bit of elastic with needle & thread to make an emergency calf coat. While Dexters are incredibly hardy, this little guy had a rough start and needed every advantage we could give him. But still, nothing seemed to be working. The temperature was still dropping, he was fighting our assistance and still hadn't eaten, and the little strength he had was fading fast.
Eventually, we decide to milk Pixie and try to bottle feed the baby some of the precious colostrum milk, which is crucial to not only give him energy, but also get antibodies into his immune system. At this point, we decided to move him someplace a bit warmer, so Dan scooped him up in his arms and carried him up to the farmhouse, into our kitchen, next to the heat of our vintage metal wood stove. He was hypothermic and it took some time before he was warm enough to be hungry- he fought the bottle and refused to eat at first. He had been shivering the entire time, but now, even with towels under him and rubbing him and the warmth of the kitchen, the shivering escalated into something that more resembled a seizure. This was actually a good sign- he was warming up enough for his body to really know just how cold he was. We would rub him, try the bottle, he would maybe eat a little and the rest ended up on us. Eventually, he warmed up enough to be hungry and wanted to stand. After over an hour of fighting the bottle, he ate. The next decision was whether to put him back with his mom right now or leave him in the house overnight. At this point it was -12 out, and he'd been severely stressed. We decided to opt to leave him to fully dry and warm up overnight, and to reunite him with Pixie in the morning and hope for the best. How does a farmer create overnight moo-cow accommodations in the kitchen? Well, the floor is wood so we put some towels down. We put up a chair in the doorway to keep him away from the 35-gallon fish tank and Dan spent the night on the couch making sure he didn't get into too much trouble. Not a great way to rest up after spending 2 1/2 hours just trying to save the baby instead of going to bed, but farming happens at all hours of the day and night. After cleaning up birthing blood, amniotic goo and colostrum off ourselves, we could finally try to get some shuteye. In my own head, the fact that he was doing better and had eaten upped his odds, but I still worried we'd wake up to a calf that hadn't survived the night despite our very best efforts.
In the morning, he tottered over to the table and put his head on Dan's leg as the coffee was brewing. We suited him back up in his sweatshirt-coat since the sheep house was going to be chillier than the kitchen, but this time he was warm and dry, which made a HUGE difference. He wasn't exactly sure where to get breakfast, so in the interest of making sure his belly was full, Dan again milked Pixie and fed him from the bottle. Throughout the day I would check on him, hoping to see him nurse. Pixie didn't seem bothered that her little guy spent the night inside or came back purple. It helps that this was not her first calf. So it was a joy to see his head under Mama, tail swishing in the happy way of a calf getting a good meal. By the time he was about 15 hours old, I saw him running and bucking around the pen in the adorably wobbly way newborn calves will do. You would never know just how close he came to freezing to death- we were fortunate Pixie did not go into labor later in the night, or this story would definately not have been as happy.