After a 10-day getaway in New York and New Jersey, I was glad to get home to the farm. While I was away, husband Bruce and industrious farm workers Diane Hersey and Matt Roach fed the cattle, kept water troughs free of ice, and checked twice a day for newborn calves. No calves were born, although we’re expecting nine. Bruce even put shiplap boards on the kitchen wall, where he hung our pots, pans, and lids. It was a stunning design that I’d expect to see in Martha Stewart’s kitchen. All was good.
While feeding the morning after my return, Highland cow Gretchen was lying by herself apart from the others. She struggled to her feet as I approached, unwilling to put weight on her right hind leg. After eating a bucketful of grain, she hobbled down a little hill and through a gate to another pasture away from the healthy cows who wanted to steal her food.
Gretchen had been favoring that hind leg for about eight months. She had limped a little but was otherwise healthy. We’d moved her in with the younger cattle, where Gretchen thrived and got plenty to eat. Then we had the first real snowstorm of the season.
Sub-zero weather and wind can be hard on cattle, but with a place to get out of the wind and plenty of food and water, Scottish Highlanders are just fine. They prefer brutal winter weather to summer heat.
But then there’s ice. Cattle hate falling (who likes to fall?) and avoid ice when possible. Bovine hooves have no grip on ice; if a 1,000-pound cow falls, she can split her pelvis. There is no cure for a split pelvis. Cows need to walk, and the saying, “A down cow is a dead cow,” is so true. Gretchen had slipped on the ice under the snow damaging her right hip beyond repair. At first, she could stand for a minute or two, balanced on three legs, but then she stopped trying. She was down and wouldn’t get up.
The thing was, Gretchen was pregnant.
The vet palpated Gretchen and told me that the calf was about seven to eight months along (bovine gestation is nine months) but not ready to be born. Whatever happened to Gretchen, we could not save the calf. We had to let her and the unborn calf go.
Farmers make life-and-death decisions all the time, and they are always challenging. But this decision, despite no good alternative, was one of the toughest.
Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm (www.milessmithfarm.com) in Loudon, where she raises and sells beef and other local products. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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