Updated: Feb 20, 2019
We don’t bottle feed our Dexter babies. They are raised by their mamas on the rolling hills of our East Tennessee farm . . . enjoying mama-made milk, napping on the breezy hillsides, head-butting a ~more than tolerant~ bull, and frolicking across sunny pastures with their spunky Dexter siblings.
At least that’s always the plan.
“You should have some powdered colostrum on hand,” experienced Dexter owners told us. “Just in case you end up needing to feed a newborn calf. You will likely never have to do that, but it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.”
We also don’t over-manage Dexter birthings. Dexter cows are quite self-sufficient when it comes to having babies. That’s one of the things that attracted us to the breed in the first place: easy calvings. We do love watching babies come into the world. It’s so amazing. So miraculous. But we pretty much leave the mamas alone to do their thing.
At least that’s always the plan.
“Even if you never use them, go buy some calving chains,” we were advised. ”Learn the correct way to use them. And you should also learn to do an internal examination on a cow in labor . . . to check for correct calf presentation if things seem to be progressing too slowly. You will likely never need these skills, but it’s better to have the skills and not need them than to need the skills and not have them.”
So of course we did those things because we wanted to be responsible Dexter breeders. We bought OB chains and learned to use them. I learned how to properly do internal exams on cows in labor, learning what “correct presentation” felt like. And I had 2 bags of powdered bovine colostrum dutifully stored in the farm-stuff-cabinet in my office.
Just in case something unforeseen happened.
And it did.
Six days before Christmas, 2014.
Its official name is dystocia. Difficult calving. And since this faithful cow was not a first-timer, I totally didn’t expect “dystocia” when she went into labor on a chilly December afternoon. I fully expected an adorable Dexter calf, born quickly and easily, that I would give an adorable Christmas-y name.
But sometimes my expectations don’t pan out.
This was one of those times.
It wasn’t any one thing that signaled to us that we were looking at a difficult birth. Mama cow was calm. Contractions were regular. And we even had her comfortably bedded in a stall for easy observance. All seemed perfectly fine. However, after several hours of labor, we still had no adorable Dexter baby napping in the stall. Something was wrong.
As I began to think we may need to consider intervening in this Dexter birth, our vet called. He had some lab results from a recent test we had run on THIS cow. We told him that THIS cow was in labor at the moment. He said that THIS cow . . . according to some lab results . . . likely had an infection.
“Ummm . . . what??”
A slightly-panicked discussion with a firm-but-totally-compassionate vet was what happened next. And I didn’t like his advice. But we followed it. Because we wanted to be responsible Dexter breeders. And sometimes that means following good advice.
We needed to separate mama and baby at birth.
We needed to bottle feed the baby.
We needed to do some additional testing on mama so we could effectively care for her.
But . . . okay.
I thanked the vet, promised that I would follow through with his advice, and turned my attention back to our laboring cow. Why was this birthing taking so long? I decided to do an internal investigation to ascertain if this baby was presenting correctly. I actually did THREE internal investigations. I’m not an expert. It took me a few tries to figure this thing out. Goodgrief . . .
Observations from Investigation #1:
I can feel a baby.
The baby is waaaaay back there.
The baby is moving (that has to be a good thing).
The baby has no head . . . it only has legs.
Call the vet.
We either have a headless baby, or it is trying to come into this world backwards
So I called the vet. He was at another farm, but he agreed to come to Kirkhaven next. And I called a Dexter friend. I needed some emotional support . . . and some expert Dexter advice.
Then I decided to do another internal investigation . . . just in case I had drawn the wrong conclusions with the first one. It would be embarrassing to pay for the vet to come here and observe a perfectly normal birth.
Observations from Investigation #2:
I can feel a baby.
The baby is still waaaaay back there.
The baby is still moving . . . thank You Lord . . .
The baby still has no head . . . only legs . . . oh wait . . .
The baby DOES have a head!
The baby is coming into this world upside-down, with front legs and head presenting first.
Standing in the barn WET, wearing no jacket, on a cold December evening wasn’t fun .
I mention to my dear husband that this baby might need some assistance. My husband reminded me that recent thumb-joint-reconstruction surgery precluded any activity that required hand strength or hand dexterity. So I decided to do one more internal investigation before declaring to my husband that HE would birth this baby (THIS is a man who has pledged to NEVER get ~THAT~ up-close-and-personal with a Dexter cow).
Observations from Investigation #3:
I can feel a baby.
The baby has progressed a little more into the birth canal.
The baby is still moving . . . keep up the great work, God!
The baby is still upside-down . . . oh wait . . .
The baby is politely TURNING . . . without any effort on my part . . .
My husband said the expression on my face at that precise moment was priceless
SO . . .
We waited no longer. I gently-but-firmly pulled on 2 tiny Dexter legs with mama’s next contraction (there was no way I was letting go . . . this baby was coming into the world NOW). When two tiny Dexter feet, one tiny Dexter nose, and one lick-y Dexter tongue came into view (the tongue thing always makes me laugh), hubby and mama cow brought the rest of the baby onto the fresh, clean hay of the stall floor.
Then baby was carried to her own stall.
Mama was cared for.
Baby was cared for.
And we began our first bottle-feeding journey.
I hated separating mama and baby.
I cried as I tried to dry this beautiful little heifer’s shivering body.
Mama SHOULD have been doing this . . . not me.
I would never do as good a job as her.
I hated hearing mama mooing, calling for her baby.
I cried as I looked across the barn into her confused eyes.
She SHOULD be bonding with this little one . . . not me.
I felt the weight of trying to become a cow-mama and worried that I wouldn’t do it right.
I hated feeding this gorgeous calf out of a bottle.
I cried as she latched onto the pink nipple.
She SHOULD have been nudging mama’s udder . . . not my knee.
I wondered how a bumbling farmer would ever be able to meet these baby’s needs.
Sometimes things just don’t turn out the way they SHOULD.
And some Christmas blessings are wrapped in unexpected packaging.
So I dried and fed this beautiful heifer calf while my husband fed and brushed her mama. We left the barn with the expectation that we would be checking on both of our charges throughout the night. And we finally walked back into the house utterly exhausted. Physically and emotionally.
All was well . . . but everything felt broken.
As my husband gave me a reassuring hug, I told him, “I don’t know whether to cry or to rejoice. We have a beautiful, new heifer. But it’s so very heart-breaking.”
His answer resonates in my soul even now:
That’s the choice we always have to make. In every trial. To rejoice or to cry.
So I decided to rejoice.
It’s okay to cry. And it’s okay to even mourn. There are times when life just becomes heart-breaking. But in the midst of difficult times, there can be more than mourning.
A joyful heart is good medicine
But a broken spirit dries up the bones.
One of my sweetest Christmas gifts of 2014 was the gift of rejoicing . . . in the midst of brokenness. There is such a fount of beautiful living there.
So we call our short, red (carries dun), polled, A2A2 little heifer Bitsy because it’s such a fitting endearment. But that's not her “real” name. I named her:
Kirkhaven I Rejoice
Because it was Christmas.
Because joy really can eclipse sorrow.
And because I never want to forget . . .