When I was at school, I took chemistry A level. I got the A level but I didn’t particularly shine. Still the practical lessons were interesting. On one occasion I was heating up this mixture in a flask. I’d done the usual agricultural level time and motion calculation and had worked out that by the time I’d put the flask down, made my way to the far end of the lab, collected a retort stand from the cupboard and walked back, I’d have finished boiling the flask anyway.
As I boiled the flask the chemistry master walked past and commented, “I trust that life holds out better opportunities for you than to be a retort stand.”
Anyway back in the real world, there is a cow calving. She’s a big lady, and in human terms might be said to be carrying a bit more weight that she should. Only she’s not calving, she’s faffing about and not getting on with it. So after a few hours it’s obviously sensible to check, just to make sure there’s nothing wrong.
There are all sorts of things that can go wrong. Unlike human babies, calves come front feet first. Think of them as ‘diving’ out. Now they can have a ‘foot back’ which means they cannot get through the gap. Or they can have a whole leg back from the shoulder. In these cases you’ve got to get your arm in and gently get all the limbs lined up properly. There’s a knack to this because you have to cup the calf’s foot in your hand as you gently straighten the limb so the foot doesn’t damage mother. Remember all this has to be worked out by feel because there’s no way you can see anything. You can also have the head back, which needs bringing forward. That can be a bit tricky. But ‘in nature’ these are all things which would mean the calf couldn’t be born and both calf and mother would die.
Or, as in this case, you can have the calf can be coming backwards. Now coming backwards, (A breech birth) isn’t necessarily a major problem. In fact the calf’s hips can be easier to get out than the calf’s head and shoulders. But once the calf starts coming backwards, it’s got to keep coming. This is because when a calf comes forwards, its nose is soon out and the calf can breathe naturally. Coming backwards the nose is a long time coming, and when the calf is about half way out, the umbilical cord parts and the calf is no longer getting air from mum. As an aside, you can tell when this happens because the calf’s tail starts wiggling rapidly. At that point you’ve got to pull the calf out rapidly to stop it drowning.
Anyway back to our large lady. She did everything but push. She contributed about as much to the miracle of birth as a paperweight does to the good running of an office. So we had to pull, slowly and carefully. Finally with the calf’s hips about to come out, the cow noticed that something was going on and finally started to contribute. So between us we got the calf out before it started running into problems with lack of oxygen.
To be fair to the cow, she was pretty good at the next part of the process, enthusiastically licking the calf down and being motherly. So far so good. Now because she’s a big cow and not perhaps as young as she was, she’s a prime candidate for hypocalcemia (also called parturient paresis but on farm even vets call it milk fever). This is where the cow runs low on calcium. It’s just that older cows can have problems with metabolising calcium when they calve. Their bodies need more because they’re starting to produce milk. Again in the wild, it would probably not be a problem because in nature they’re unlikely to live to be old enough for it to be an issue. So we give them the calcium in an easy metabolisable form to carry them over until they get their own systems up and running.
Now the calf needs milk as soon as possible. The calf depends on the antibodies in mum’s milk to provide it with immunity and to kickstart its immune system. So we take mum into the milking parlour. There she gets some feed (and warm water to drink). We take some milk, (just enough for the calf) and I put the contents of a bottle of calcium borogluconate under her skin to prevent milk fever. To do this you have a long flexible tube. It has a needle at one end and a flutter valve at the other. You fit the bottle into the flutter valve. A flutter valve allows air into the bottle so that the contents of the bottle can then run quietly and steadily down the pipe and into the cow. It’s not a fast process but it doesn’t cause anybody any stress. The cow happily kept on eating whilst I got the calcium into her.
Now the whole thing works better if you have the bottle as high as possible about the cow, so the pipe is almost taut. So it means I’ve got to stand there with my hand pretty much as high about my head as I can, holding the bottle. And as I did this I heard again my chemistry master’s comment about ‘life holds out better opportunities for you than to be a retort stand.’
Still I have interesting co-workers
As a reviewer commented, “Another excellent compendium of observations from the back of Mr. Webster’s quad bike in which we learn a lot more about sheep, border collies and people. On the whole, I think the collies come out of it best. If you fancy being educated on the ways of the world, with a gentle humour and a nice line in well observed philosophy, you could do a lot worse than this.”