Ten pairs of eyes followed me with friendly interest as I served up their evening meal with a pitchfork. Vegans now, these calves are off dairy. During their first six months, they were nursed and taught by their mothers how to be well-behaved cattle. Now the calves no longer depend on their mothers; they depend on me.
December is weaning time at Miles Smith Farm. That's when we separate the spring-born calves from their mothers. Regular readers with excellent memories might recall a calf named Jazzy who was born in a ravine behind the farmhouse during a May snowstorm. Another one called Henry, was born in the same protected spot. Well, they are the two of the calves being weaned in the Class of 2018.
Calves are born in the spring by design. A bull is put with the cows from mid-July to August so that calves will be born nine months later-in April and May the following year. It's timed so that the nursing mothers have plenty of delicious (and free) grass to eat all summer.
Providing milk for a 400-pound nursing calf, as well as nutrition for a fetus, can be stressful for the newly-pregnant cows, so we wean the 6-month-old calves in December. Mom gets a break, and I get to know the calves better.
I already know that Allie and Ferdinand like to escape from the pasture and hang out together in the feed bunker to sleep in the soft hay. Francesco prefers the company of the older cows. Henry, another escape artist, can squeeze himself through the narrow space next to the water trough to get out of the holding pen. But to achieve rapport with calves, you have to be in among them.
At first, calves who have never known the touch of a human or the feel of a halter just want to run away. But once they realize the halter is sturdy and escape is not possible, curiosity takes over. I put my head down, and Jazzy, who had been fighting me a minute before, sniffs my hair. When I do the same with Felix, he pulls my hat off. Rather than run off in fear, after a few days of handling, the weanlings let me walk behind and around them; they let me pat and scratch them. These calves, who were so wild and skittish just days before, accept me in all my human strangeness as part of the herd. (I guess it doesn't hurt that I feed them.) The peace that radiates from them seeps into my soul and calms my spirit.
Weaning is also the time to scout for talent. Which calves will make effective oxen? Which heifers will make good mothers? And which might become one of Miles Smith Farm's famous riding cattle? It's all part of savoring their personalities as the calves reveal them to me.
If you're ever in the neighborhood, why don't you stop by the farm and meet some of my lively and winsome associates? You'll get some idea of why December is my favorite month.
* * *
Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm, where she raises and sells beef, pork, lamb, eggs and other local products. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.