My Farming Week: Cantankerous Cows, Birth and Death

Cows aren’t natural ballerinas or gymnasts. You probably knew that already. They can run fairly quickly if they want to but aren’t that dexterous. That creates problems if a cow decides to go for a dance or inadvertently slips and falls. If they fall, they are usually fine, just like a child gets up and walks on, they do the same. However, the odd one will ‘do the splits’ and go down. If they go down and can’t get up again, it’s not good news. Cows do lie down at times of course, they lie down to sleep and to relax and chew their cud and have a gossip with their friends but if they go down and can’t get up, it means they can’t digest their food properly, can become bloated and probably can’t eat or drink too well. Cows are pretty heavy so it’s not just a case of giving them a push to get them up. Doing the splits can also cause a fractured pelvis which is going to be painful and may not set properly.


We had a cow who did the splits a couple of weeks ago. She got up again and seemed okay, if somewhat delicate so she was housed in a small shed with two other cows. She didn’t seem to be getting much better and when moving the other two, we moved her into a house on her own. Some noise next door one morning (when we were loading three bulls to go to the factory) must have spooked her somewhat and she went down again and it was nigh impossible to get her up. We pushed her, we shouted at her, we got a winch to pull her into a more comfortable and upright position. She eventually got up but she really seemed to be in discomfort. Now, in some countries, farmers can turn a cow that is like this into hamburgers. In Ireland, no factory will take a cow that can’t walk into a trailer and off again and isn’t in good health. All we could do was ring the abattoir and ask him to come asap to put her out of her misery. It really isn’t nice seeing an animal in discomfort or pain so in some ways, it was a relief when she was put to sleep.

Cows will bully each other. The pregnant cows and heifers are in three separate batches at the moment. When we dosed them a few weeks ago, we separated them according to condition score and age. The heavier cows who were doing too well on the silage were put together so they could have silage mixed with straw as if they put on too much fat, they can have a hard time calving. The heifers (first time calvers) are in another shed and the remainder are in another. Cows started calving a week ago (only six so far but it’s going to speed up now) so as they come into the maternity unit from the three different sheds (which has room for about 18 cows) they will push each other around to gain supremacy. It’s a bit like the school playground where a few like to be the boss and the others give in for a quiet life.

Happiness is when a calf learns how to drink quickly

It’s unusual for a heifer to be dominant but we had one the other evening who became very aggressive while in labour. An older cow had slipped on the slats and as she was near to calving, Brian decided to get her over to the calving unit and thought she’d be safe enough there with the single heifer. He had phoned me to run out and ‘stand in the gap’ but I’d just had a shower and was in my PJs so Kate ran out. She was just back in when Brian rang again looking for me this time. So I pulled on a coat and wellies and ran up the yard. The heifer had attacked the older cow and sent her flying so Brian was standing in the middle of them, protecting the older cow and needed me to open the heavy door to let the cow out again!

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly most cows turn around to see their baby calf and immediately set to licking it, encouraging it to stand and standing quietly as it suckles. It doesn’t always happen like that though, some can be so hormonal they become aggressive and this can be dangerous for the farmer as well as the newborn calf. This particular heifer calved a few hours later and headbutted her poor calf around the shed. There was no way she was going to let it suckle let alone treat it with tender loving care so it was a case of getting the calf out of there quickly.

Full tummies, and a gambol before a good long sleep

Calving is starting steadily. We’ve had seven calves so far and six of them are heifers which is good news. There are three in the calving unit this evening and about 14 in the maternity unit. Kate always likes to name the first few calves and named the first AnnaBeth (after a character in the Rick Riordan books she is reading). We went pedigree with the herd last year so each cow family has a name. I’ve decided in order to help me trace which daughter belongs in each cow family, I’m going to call the calves their family name (although there may be numerous Primroses so I’ll have to think again once we get a few) . So far, we have Petunia, Skye, Lady and Primrose and I’ve to look up the others.

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