Cacao should have calved on Tuesday. For weeks, I had been eagerly awaiting hearing the amazingly sweet and touching conversation that mom and calf have shortly after birth. It is a beautiful back-and-forth gentle mooing between the two, a little like the spaceships in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, only sweeter. But today, something was wrong.
I ended up with Cacao through a misunderstanding. I was purchasing two cows and knew them on paper. But when I went to look at them in a large herd, I thought Cacao was a different animal. I didn’t even recognize her the day she arrived on my farm.
When I first saw her, I was shocked. Jerseys are prone to being skinny, but she was really skinny and her whole body screamed “high maintenance”.
By her second day here, I was scared to death of her. Every time I brought hay out, she would practically maul me. I wasn’t even safe outside the fence. Twice, she busted right through it and then almost mauled me.
She was a demon in the milking stall, blasting through anything to get to the food. When I tried to get her back out after milking, she would kick viciously. I desperately wanted to send her back because I was so terrified of her, but her dire need of food, nutrition and positive attention pulled at my heart strings, so I persevered.
I learned to set up the hay for milking while the cows were away from the barn and couldn’t see what I was doing. I started milking Cacao first so she could come straight into the barn when I called them up. Once she was eating and milking, I would spend a few minutes of quality, peaceful time with her to get to know her. And I learned how to get her out of the barn relatively safely by saving the very best hay for outside.
With these arrangements, we developed an amicable relationship. Within a few weeks, she stopped running through fences and terrifying me. Within a few months, she had put on weight and we had become good friends. And she had the best milk I have ever tasted – ever.
But now it was calving time and I was worried. I had spent the last three nights sleeplessly keeping a watch on her. She had been displaying all the signs of a cow about to calve, only no calf. Cows can be very elusive about calving, but this was different. I knew there was something wrong.
Finally, Friday morning, the calf was being born. I was greatly relieved. The calf was in a textbook position, with her nose already out. Mom was lying down, rather then standing, which is not ideal but sometimes they do that. Convincing myself I had worried needlessly the last three days, I excitedly ran off to feed everyone else so I could come back and hear the beloved mom and calf conversation.
By the time I came back, Cacao was lying flat out on her side, with her hind legs sticking stiffly straight out. The calf’s nose was back inside the birth canal. I could see a very purple tongue hanging limply out. Cacao was shaking badly. Her eyes were rolled back in her head indicating extreme pain and distress. She was not in a position where she could ever get the baby out herself.
I immediately began pulling in time with the contractions. I got the calf out quickly, but it was too late. She had either suffocated or drowned. The calf was a healthy looking heifer, the same color as her mom. I cried profusely. But I couldn’t cry for long because Mom needed help.
The way Cacao was lying, on her side, with her legs so stiff, she looked like she was dead, except that she was shaking unbelievably and her face was showing extreme pain. The vet thought the muscles in her body and legs were still contracting, but without the normal release between contractions. She said it should subside in awhile.
I sat with Cacao, holding her head in my lap for more than an hour. She had not changed. I talked to another vet who thought she may have milk fever (an inability to mobilize enough calcium upon coming into milk) and I should go ahead and treat her for it.
I wet into town and picked up the treatment. By the time I got back, she seemed significantly better. She had less tension in her face, her legs had lowered a little, and the shaking was less severe. I gave her the solution anyway. Within the hour, she was able to raise herself up and lay in a normal cushed position. She still couldn’t get up, but the emergency seemed to be over.
Dairy cows are highly maternal animals. Sixteen hours after giving birth, when Cacao was finally able to get up, she staggered, fell down, and staggered again, straight over to her calf, whom I had left there so she would know what happened and not be frantically looking for her.
Despite her obvious physical pain, Cacao immediately began doing what is normally done within minutes of birth. She lovingly and meticulously cleaned and dried the calf and started the much anticipated conversation. But tonight, the calf was silent. Few things in life are as heart wrenching.
Cacao stayed with her calf through the night. I brought her food and water. By morning, she had accepted the situation and gently moved on, but she would periodically stagger over, just for a bit, to check and make sure nothing had changed.
The day was tragic, but Cacao’s motherliness was beautiful and will never be forgotten.