Monday, June 4, 2012

Easy-to-Make Catch Crate Simplifies Piglet Ear Tagging

This past weekend, we had to put ear tags on 17 weanling piglets and 2 young adult pigs.  We'd been busy and let the task wait longer than it should have---plus, the piglets from our sow Cerridwen have been growing extremely fast this time around---so many of these piglets were significantly bigger than they usually are when we tag them.

If you've ever tried to hold onto a thrashing, screeching piglet, you know that they are made up entirely of muscle, wriggle, and squeal.  I would much rather try to hold onto a 200 lb. ram or a 500 lb. calf than a 50 lb. piglet.  So Ken and I weren't really looking forward to spending an afternoon wrestling 19 not-so-little squealers.

That's when I came up with a plan for building a catch crate to help us catch and hold the piggies so the ear tagging task would go quicker and easier for everyone.  My premise was that piglets nip each others' ears all the time when playing, so the pinch of the ear tagger is not the traumatic part of the process.  The part that makes the piggies panic and scream is when you grab them and either hoist them off the ground or otherwise try to immobilize them.  So if our catch crate could let them keep all 4 feet on the ground, but still help us hold them still enough to do the deed, then it would be a win/win for animals and people too.

We walked out the the pig pasture with a yardstick and measured the height, width, and length of the pigs to make sure our crate would be the right size.  We didn't make it big enough to hold full grown adult pigs, but it will hold just about every size smaller than that.  (We raise American Guinea hogs, which are a smaller breed.  If you raise a larger breed, you may need to adjust the size of your crate accordingly, or else just make sure to take your piglets at a younger age)

Then we scavenged around the farmyard for scraps of lumber and fence panels that were no longer needed for any other task.  A little bit of discussion of how the whole thing would function, and then Ken set to work building the crate.  Because of its very simple design, it took very little time at all to put together, and used only materials we already had lying around.

Here's the result.  The framework and sides are made from 2x4s.  The boards on the sides are spaced about 3.5" apart, which is too small for a piglet to escape through, but wide enough so that lots of light comes in and prevents the crate from feeling claustrophobic and "trap like" to the pigs.  Our piglets were not at all scared to enter the crate when we used it, thanks to its light, open appearance.

The ends of the crate are made from sections of rigid metal fence panels.  They slide down between the 2x4 frame and some extra pieces of 2x2 screwed in specifically to hold the grates in position.  There is also a piece of fence panel forming a roof to the crate so no acrobatic piglets can jump out the top.  This roof can be positioned on top of any of the side boards, depending on the height of your piglets.  Because we liked having the roof panel be adjustable, we didn't fasten it permanently.  It is just tied on with baling twine.

The grates at each end slide up and down between  the wooden braces.  You slide up one end so the piglets can go inside, then close it behind them, catching them securely in the crate.  When you're done, you slide up the other grate to open the other end, and the piglet walks out.

Because we made our crate big enough to fit even our 7 month old young adult pigs, many of the younger piglets can easily turn and move around inside the crate.  But that doesn't end up being much of a problem because no matter what position the piglets are in, you can easily reach in through the sides or down through the top and get your hands on the piglets to do the ear tagging (or whatever other procedure needs to be done).

To decrease the amount of room the piglets had to squirm away while in the crate, we allowed between 1 and 4 piglets into the crate at a time, depending on how big they were.

 Our little dog Leeloo reluctantly agreed to demonstrate how the piggy crate works.

"Can I  come out now?  It's boring in here."

Thank you Leeloo.  Good job!

To use the crate, we used feed to coax all the piglets into one of the lambing pens in the barn.  Then we placed the crate at the entrance so that when we opened the lambing pen gate a little, the piglets would funnel themselves directly into the crate.  For the most part, they did this willingly with no coaxing at all on our part, but when the last few piglets were slower to approach another little sprinkling of feed encouraged them to come right in.

Because there was still some room for the piglets to move around in the crate, ear tagging was still a 2-person job, with one person helping to keep the piglet still and the other wielding the tagger.  However, nobody had to hoist any screaming piglets, and if one happened to slip out of our grasp, it didn't run away and need to be caught all over again, so the crate was a huge labor saver.  A few of the piglets did still struggle against being immobilized, but others were so busy eating the sprinkled feed, they barely even noticed when they got tagged.

We did find out the hard way that we had to be careful when reaching down through the top grate that we had to be careful not to gouge our arms on the sharp, just-cut end wires.  Ken says that if he takes the time to file the ends a bit, that danger can be removed.

Please note:  The crate does NOT have a plywood bottom.  It is just sitting on a piece of plywood for the purposes of picture taking.  We had thought about putting a bottom on the crate, but decided that it was heavy enough that the piglets would not be able to readily lift it with their snouts and escape out underneath.  In retrospect, we are glad we didn't put in a floor because while they were in the crate the piggies deposited a lot of piggy poop, which would have been a pain to clean out from inside an enclosed crate.  But without a floor, we could just lift the crate up and move it elsewhere, then clean up the mess left behind afterwards.

Finalists in the "Name This Piggy" Contest

Thanks everybody for all the great name suggestions in our "Name This Piggy" contest!  Now it's time to announce the finalists.  Voting will commence immediately and the name with the most votes at noon on June 11 will be declared the winner.  The person who submitted the winning name will receive a package of 4 of my luscious handmade soaps.  (If more than one person suggested the same name, credit will go to the one who suggested it first.)

There were lots of terrific suggestions and I had a fun time choosing the finalists.  I did have to eliminate several names that would ordinarily have made it onto the finalist list because they were names we had already used before for other pigs, other animals, or---in one case---the name of a family member!

Here are a few more photos of the piggy in question.  Which name do you think fits him the best?  Go to our farm's Facebook page to see the list of names and place your vote! 

Only one vote per person, but feel free to forward the link to your friends and family and encourage them to vote for your favorite name too.

Friday, May 18, 2012

"Name This Piggy" Contest

We have two litters of rare American Guinea hog piglets almost ready for weaning.  Our sow Cerridwen's litter is especially nice this time around, so we have decided to keep one of the boys as a future possible breeding boar.  I decided it would be fun to have a "Name This Piggy" contest to get all of you to help me come up with a name for him.  The winner will get 4 free bars of my homemade soap (possibly even some awesome new flavors that haven't been released yet)!

More about the contest in a moment.  But first, meet the handsome piggy:

His mother's name is Cerridwen and his father's registered name is Carmine (although we call him Magick).  He has white socks on both his front feet, just like his mother.  He's big and confident, with a bright happy personality.

Now, about the contest:

1.  To submit a name for consideration, simply put it in a comment on this post.  Be sure to include your name and a way to contact you if you win!     DEADLINE TO ENTER:  JUNE 1, 2012

2.  From all the names submitted, I will choose a collection of my favorites to be semifinalists.  The number of semifinalists will depend on the number of entries and how many of them I like.

3.  On June 4, I will post the list of semifinalists on the Ingleside Farm Facebook page.  Our fans will have 1 week to vote on their favorite name. Feel free to forward the link and encourage your friends and family to "like" the page so they can vote your name to the top!

4.  In case more than 1 person submits the same name, credit will go to the person who submitted it first.

5.  On June 11 I will announce the winner.  The winner MUST send me his or her address or I won't be able to ship the prize.

We have 17 piglets from 2 litters altogether, so some of the other semifinalist suggestions may be used to name other piglets.

If you are interested in purchasing one or more of these piglets, let me know.  They are $200 each, registration included.  The two litters are unrelated, so if you want a breeding pair you can get one from each litter.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Easy, Collapsible Chick Brooder

As the chick brooding season began this spring, I told my husband it was time to build a chick brooder.  I came up with the design, and he did the construction.

Before this, we've brooded several batches of chicks in cardboard boxes, but it's hard to find them in a large enough size.  Our heat lamp is pretty strong and the chicks need a big brooder to make sure they have room to move away from the heat lamp.  Another problem with cardboard box brooders is that they disintegrate when wet, so if the chicks repeatedly spill their water, your box won't last long.

I wanted a brooder that was large enough to comfortably house as many chicks as we were ever likely to have at one time, but it needed to be custom sized to the space where we wanted to keep it (the middle of our bathroom, where it is warm and safe from our 6 cats).  Plus I wanted it to be collapsible so that it would be easy to disassemble and store flat when not in use.

Here's what we came up with:

Here are the sides and bottom of what will become a plywood box.  Our brooder is 5' long by 2.5' wide by 2' high.

Then Ken added a framework of 2x2s around the plywood bottom and up the sides of the end pieces.

After that, he drilled holes through the plywood sides and 2x2 frame and attached the sides using bolts.

 When we're done using the brooder for the year, all we have to do is unscrew the nuts, remove the bolts, and all the brooder pieces come apart so that they can be stored flat, taking up much less room in the off season.

 Here is the new brooder all set up and ready for use:

 Just in time for the new arrivals:  a brand new batch of Blue Orpington chicks we just hatched out of our incubator!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

It's Time to Play "Name the Lambs" Again!

April is here, and on the farm that means lambs will start being born very soon.  If you've been following along on this blog for a year or two, you know that each year I name my lambs with names that all begin with a certain letter.  The letter for this year is "Z".

Since readers of this blog have done such a good job helping me come up with names for the past few years, I'm inviting you all to participate again.  What "Z" names shall I use to name this year's lambs?  I'm expecting maybe 30-40 lambs altogether.  I'll need girl names, boy names, matching sets of names for twins.


Monday, March 5, 2012

The Novice Milkmaid and the Family Cow: My First Five Months (Part 2, The Rewards)

After reading Part 1 of this post detailing the many challenges I faced during my first 5 months of owning my cow, you may be wondering why anyone would go to all that trouble.  What can possibly make it worth it?

Keeping a cow isn't all trials and tribulations.  There are wonderful rewards as well.  Some of them are emotional or spiritual.  Others are as practical as can be.  To me, they make it all worthwhile.

Reward #1:  The Cow

First of all, I got to know and build a relationship with a very interesting 4-legged "person" in the guise of my girl Thistle.  I never knew a cow before, and Thistle has far more intelligence, personality, and individuality than I ever expected.  She has certainly tested, frustrated, and challenged me, but she has also helped me hone my courage, persistence, empathy, and leadership skills, as well as my physical fitness.  She holds me accountable for my own actions and makes me own up to my mistakes.

She has, in short, become the sort of friend that challenges me to become a better, stronger, more self-reliant person.  I can't say as much for every human relationship I've ever had!

Reward #2:  The Replacement Heifer

After the enormous amount of time and effort it took to find and buy Thistle, it seemed like nothing short of a miracle to have Ivy be born just a few weeks later, and have her turn out to be a heifer.  It could just as easily have turned out that Thistle gave birth to nothing but bull calf after bull calf for years in a row.

Thistle is not an old cow, but she is middle aged, and I was always aware that she might not continue to be with us for a great many years.  But here, miraculously, is Ivy, who can be Thistle's companion while she is with us and her replacement after she is gone.  I don't have to hope and pray every time calving time comes around that I'll finally get my replacement heifer, because she is already here.

Essentially, by giving me this lovely heifer who is equal in value to her mother, Thistle has already paid for herself. 

I know for a fact that Ivy will offer her own array of challenges to me in the future.  She is already an opinionated, strong-willed little diva who wants what she wants, and she wants it NOW.  But she's also sweet, affectionate, playful, well-grown, and healthy, and beautiful.  I couldn't ask for anything more!

Reward #3:  The Meat Calf 

We already raise our own pork, lamb, chicken, and eggs, but even with all that variety we still crave beef.  By using Thistle's extra milk to raise a foster calf for meat, we will be able to be completely self sufficient for all of our meat needs.  We'll know that all of our meat came from happy, well-loved animals that got to live healthy lives full of grass and sunshine and never had to set foot in a feed lot.

Because Misha will be raised primarily on surplus milk and pasture, he will cost us very little to feed.  We will be able to put a year's worth of beef in the freezer for us and still sell a side of beef to another family.  Not only will this pay for the butchering fees and provide a small amount of profit, it will also offer another family the chance for humanely grown, healthy meat to feed them through the year.

For that great service and sacrifice, we love and honor our boy Misha and are grateful to Thistle whose milk makes this all possible.

Reward #4:  The Smiles

It is a joy and privilege to be able to share my time with Ivy and Misha---two vibrant, adorable little beings who are the epitome of youth and cuteness.  Who can NOT smile when seeing happy calves at play?  Who can stay sad when being lavished with rough, sticky calf kisses?  I'm lucky enough to get to do it every day.

Reward #5:  The Milk

Then of course, there is the lovely, lovely milk.  That's the whole reason I wanted a cow in the first place.  

I grew up drinking fresh raw milk straight from a local farm. When as a young adult I finally moved out on my own into a city apartment, I went shopping at the grocery store and bought pasteurized, homogenized milk for the first time.  When I took my first sip, I literally almost spit it out on the floor.  It tasted NOTHING like the milk I was used to.  I honestly thought that it had gone rotten.  My roommate tasted it and informed me that it tasted perfectly normal to her.

I couldn't believe that people drank that stuff willingly.  It had a horrible, artificial aftertaste.  It didn't taste anything like milk, it tasted like the container it was in.  I couldn't choke it down.  This, I declared, was not COW milk.  This was STORE milk.

After that, I gave up drinking milk entirely for 25 years.  I just couldn't stand the vile stuff from the grocery store.  Yet my body craved the dairy I was missing.  I became addicted to cheese, ice cream, yoghurt... anything that gave me some dairy but had flavor enough to disguise the yucky taste of the store milk.

As I reached middle age, the dairy cravings became stronger and constant.  Cheese was not enough anymore.  My body wanted that milk and it wanted it now!

Raw milk is not legal to sell in Virginia.  But because I am lucky enough to have this farm, I was able to do what was necessary to get the milk I so desperately craved:  I bought a cow (Thus proving that old saying about "Why buy the cow...").  Yes, it has been a LOT of effort, but the taste and healthiness of fresh raw milk is incomparable.

Here is a gallon and a half of Thistle's wonderful, clean-tasting milk, with the luscious rich cream on top:

Photos can't portray how much better the fresh raw milk tastes, but you can SEE the difference.  On the left is a glass of Thistle's golden milk, rich with beta-carotene from her grazing on fresh grass.  On the right is a glass of Store Milk, which tastes thin, industrial, and dead:

Reward #6:  The Weight Loss

During my non-milk-drinking years, I developed constant food cravings which led to poor eating habits.  Since my body wasn't getting what it really craved, nothing truly satiated.  I ended up feeling hungry no matter how much I ate.  I gained weight and my energy levels plummeted.

But now that I can have all the fresh raw milk I want, my insatiable cravings have vanished.  One glass of Thistle's milk per day, and my body is satisfied.  I don't feel the incessant urge to snack all the time like I used to, and I have much more sustained energy to get me through my active days.  Sometimes I even end up skipping meals because I still feel satisfied when meal time comes along.

In the first 3 weeks of milking Thistle and drinking her milk, I lost 10 lbs. without dieting.  Granted, part of that was because of the calories I burned doing the milking, but it was also because I was not snacking all the time.  Even more important to me than what it says on my bathroom scale:  I have enough strength and energy to do my farm work without feeling as if I'm 100 years old.

Reward #7:  Better Health

I don't have any proof of this, but I suspect that my regular daily intake of fresh raw milk during my childhood was one reason I was always so healthy.  I was almost never sick---I never missed a single day of school because of sickness during my entire teen years.  

It may have also helped me form very strong healthy teeth.  I never had any cavities as a child, even though I literally NEVER flossed.  In my young adult life, before I got a job that offered dental insurance, I went 10 years without any dental care whatsoever, and only got one very tiny cavity during that time.  To this day, my dentist always remarks on how strong my teeth are.

After such a healthy childhood, my middle aged years have been not quite so robust.  I have become prone to bronchitis, to the point where I dread every cold and flu that comes my way because it always progresses into my lungs and leaves me sick for a month or more.

This winter, since I've added raw milk back into my diet again, has been the first year in recent memory that I have NOT suffered any bronchitis symptoms whatsoever.

Whatever it is that milk offers that my body has been missing all these years, I'm delighted to have it back!

Reward #8:  The Dairy Delights

Of course, some of the delights of a plentiful supply of good wholesome milk are purely culinary.  With Thistle's milk I have been able to make homemade butter, cream, cheese, kheer, caramel, ice cream, and more.  As time goes on, I am excited to continue expanding my repertoire of delicious homemade goodies!

The sad, pale butter on the left is from the grocery store.  The amazing golden butter on the right is the first batch I ever made.  It took just a few minutes in my blender. 


The scrumptious treat below is our own homemade vanilla ice cream served with homemade hot caramel sauce (made from our own butter and cream).

Below:  Raspberry and cheese pastries made with our homemade cheese.

Below:  Maple hazelnut cheese pastry, made with our own cheese and served with homemade caramel sauce.

Reward #9:  The Compost

Cleaning Thistle's stall every day is a minor chore.  It doesn't take all that long, and it helps me make sure she has a dry comfortable bed to sleep in every night.  But that's not all.  It also provides us with an unending source of compostable material to improve our soil and help us build our garden area.  

Because of the cow, we will be able to turn our farm's hard, heavy clay into rich black soil that, once our garden is established, will provide us with all the fruits and vegetable we can eat.  Our farm's soil was very thin, neglected, and depleted when we moved here, so it will take us a while to improve it all.  But no worries---With Thistle, we have an endless supply of good wholesome fertilizer!

Here is the series of bins we use to compost Thistle's bedding and manure:

 And here are the beginnings of the garden beds we are building and filling with compost:

Reward #10:  Other Products

Other products also become possible with cows on the farm.  I've already made a luscious cream soap using home rendered lard from my pig,  milk from my sheep, and cream from Thistle.  It's wonderfully rich and creamy, and the first few people who have used it report that it has been great for their skin.  I like it better than the sheep's milk soap I had been making before.

We don't raise huge numbers of animals for slaughter each year, but when one does go to the butcher, I try to honor their sacrifice by using as much of their body as possible rather than letting it go to waste.  Therefore, when it's time to send Misha to the butcher, I'll save his hide, horns, skull, and bones.  The hide will be tanned either as a beautifully spotted rug, or else into leather with which I can make other salable products.  The horns and bones I'll use to make jewelry, buttons, and other salable items.  And the skull I'll sell for an "Old West" type of decoration.

Each of these items will add a little to the farm's income and help support the other creatures on the farm.

Reward #11:  Closer to Self Sufficiency

Adding Thistle to our farm has moved us much closer to self sufficiency as far as our food production goes.  Because of her we have milk, cream, butter, and cheese.  Because of her surplus milk we are able to raise Misha, so we will have beef.  Any extra milk or whey from cheese making goes to help feed our pigs and chickens.  And Thistle's manure goes to help get our gardens and orchards started.

Once all of these aspects of the farm come together, it is a very real possibility that we could, before too many more years go by, be producing ALL the food we eat, as well as having some surplus to sell for extra income.  Not only will we be eating healthier, more humanely raised food, but we'll be able to share that bounty with our community.

Reward #12:  The Bucket List

My whole life, I have wanted to learn the skills of self sufficiency.  Being able to take raw materials and transform them into useful items for survival fascinates me.  Preserving the old skills and being able to understand firsthand the ways our forefathers lived and worked is a deep and fulfilling experience.

Because of Thistle, I've been able to finally do several of the things on my "bucket list":  milk a cow, make butter, and make cheese.  Even if by some horrible chance I had to leave the farm tomorrow and never come back, it still gives me a huge sense of accomplishment that I have done these things.

Reward #13:  Income Potential

Thistle may not be earning any income right now, but as we settle into a routine together, the income potential is there.  I still plan to sell cow shares with her eventually.  When Misha goes to the butcher, I'll sell a side of beef.  In future years, there will be more calves to sell, either for beef or breeding.  I'll sell my handmade cream soap and other cow-related products such as hides, horns, etc.  And eventually, I'll have surplus fruits and veggies to sell from our cow-manure-fertilized gardens.

Keeping a cow is definitely not a road to fast or easy riches, but for a farmer with patience and determination, there's no doubt in my mind that it is an experience that can vastly enrich your life.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Novice Milkmaid and the Family Cow: My First Five Months (Part 1, The Challenges)

The dew sparkles on the grass on a balmy spring morning.  A glossy cow moos softly by the pasture gate, eager for you to come and empty her full-to-overflowing udder.  She's a gentle, affectionate creature who thinks of you as her second baby and is grateful for the relief when you milk her.  Fresh foaming milk hisses into your gleaming stainless steel pail, and your kitchen fills with glorious dairy delights:  cheeses, butters, and creams.

That's the dream, right?  That's the idealistic vision I pictured when I got my cow, a six-year-old Guernsey named Thistle, five months ago.  Sure, I knew that keeping a milk cow was going to be a big commitment, but I understood what I was getting into---or so I thought.  The seven months of challenges I faced just to choose and buy my cow should have been a reminder that nothing ever goes quite as smoothly as you might hope.

Like so many other prospective cow owners, I imagined that perfect relationship with an affectionate, motherly cow who wanted nothing more than to nourish me and my family like so many well-loved calves.

What I got was a 1,400-lb. bundle of beef, bone, and brains who tolerates me with the cool politeness usually reserved for overbearing mother-in-laws who insist on showing up for lengthy visits without calling first.  ("Oh, it's you.  Again.  How... nice.")  She looks forward to milking time the way city office workers look forward to Monday-morning rush-hour commutes---as a tedious impediment to her getting on with the rest of her day.  Far from being grateful for the relief I provide when I milk her, she rolls her eyes, sighs dramatically, and makes a great point of letting me know what an EFFORT it is not to fidget, and am I not done YET?

Although our story so far has been no fairy tale, I have come to like and respect Thistle quite a lot.  It amuses me that many of the ways she frustrates me most are the very ways that she is just like me:  reserved, stubborn, independent, stoic for lengthy periods but prone to dramatic meltdowns if pushed too far.

The challenges have been many and varied.  If I had done this when I first started farming, it would have been completely overwhelming.  I would have given up in despair and sworn never to keep a cow again.  But the past seven years of farming must have honed my confidence and determination, because despite the aches, pains, injuries, tears, sicknesses, and worries, at no point in these first five months of cow ownership have I regretted my choice to bring Thistle here to live with us.

Though there have been many more challenges than I had expected, ultimately they have been manageable---even if it didn't always feel like it at the time.  The past five months have been a crash course in what it is to own a cow...  only with a bit more actual CRASHING than I might have wanted.

Dreaming fairy tale daydreams about the perfect cow is wonderful when all you're doing is dreaming.  But if you plan to take the next step to try and make the dream come true, it's good to know ahead of time what the day to day reality can really be like.  If you've ever dreamed of buying a family milk cow of your own, maybe reading about my experiences might help you know what kinds of challenges you can expect during the difficult transition time of the first few months. 

So here goes:

Challenge #1:  Getting Acquainted

When Thistle arrived, my first concern was to get to know her and put her at ease with having me around so she'd be relaxed and easy to handle once it was time to start milking her.  I had the foresight to put her directly into a small paddock with an attached stall area rather than releasing her into a larger pasture area.  In her small paddock, she had no choice but to let me get close to her.

For the first couple of weeks, I spent as much time with her as I could, just hanging out and talking with her.  Bringing her apples, cleaning her stall, raking her paddock, scrubbing her water trough.  Letting her see, hear, and smell me on a regular basis, so I was no longer a stranger.  Not asking much of her except that she occasionally let me touch her.

I also spent lots of time watching her, trying to learn her body language, so I could understand when she tried to tell me things.  This was harder than I expected.  I've had many years of experience with horses, but I quickly learned:  Cows are not horses.  The body language and social interactions are very different.  Half the time I had no idea what Thistle was thinking or communicating, though I got the impression she was thinking quite a lot.  She's much more intelligent than I'd expected a cow to be, but in a reserved, self-contained sort of way.  She was not nearly as open about expressing her thoughts or as interested in obtaining my approval as a horse would be.  Or maybe she is, and I just can't read her yet.

I spent a lot of time encouraging her to let me approach and touch her.  I had no intention of letting her out of her small paddock until she gave me the impression that I would be able to catch her again once she was released into the larger pasture.

She was not thrilled with being touched or petted, but when I insisted, she tolerated it. There were a few itchy spots she like to have scratched, and apples made her very cheerful.  We were well on our way to getting acquainted.  Now we just had to wait for her calf to be born.

Challenge #2:  Calving

I didn't know exactly when the calf was due, only that it should arrive sometime in October.  As you may recall, I posted photos of Thistle's udder, trying to guess from her changing shape when the calf might be born.  Most of my more experienced cow farmer friends said it looked like Thistle was still several weeks away from calving.

That was my estimate too.  On October 10th, one week after I posted those previous photos, I planned to go out and take new pictures of her udder, and continue to take new pictures each week, showing her progressing development as her calving time neared.

However, when I went out that morning to take the next batch of photos, I got a big surprise:  There was the calf, already born!

(The calf is not filthy muddy as it appears in this photo.  All that black stuff is dry, clean stone dust sand that got stuck everywhere the fur was damp with birthing fluids)

As calving challenges go, this was an easy one!  Although I was not at all prepared for the calf to arrive so soon, the birth happened without any help or intervention on my part, and I didn't even have to spend days or weeks pacing around anxiously wondering, "Will today be the day?"

Challenge #3:  The Newborn Calf

It was not all going to go that smoothly, though.  The calf didn't get up right away.  I'm used to my Icelandic sheep, where the lambs are usually up and nursing within 5 minutes of birth.  I understood from some of my cow-owning friends that calves often take longer, so I tried to be patient and let nature take its course.  But it was a cool, drizzly day, and as the hours passed, I became concerned.

However Thistle, fresh from giving birth, was acting a bit wild-eyed and unpredictable, and I didn't feel comfortable going into that small paddock with her and her newborn calf, in case she saw me as a threat and felt she had to be protective.  I took a chance that once her placenta passed, her hormones would stabilize a bit and she would calm down enough that I could go in and help the calf without endangering my life.

Fortunately, I was right.  As soon as the placenta passed, Thistle lost that crazed look and returned to her normal self.  The calf had been trying to get to its feet, but so far had not succeeded.  In the cool, damp weather, it was also beginning to shiver, so I knew I had to intervene and get some colostrum into it as soon as possible.  Which meant the scariest challenge yet:  I, with absolutely zero experience, had to milk my cow for the very first time!

While I was gathering my courage for that very important task, I tied Thistle in her soon-to-be milking area and got my husband to help me hoist/haul/drag the heavy calf into the barn where it could warm up on a bed of dry hay under a heat lamp.

I also snuck a peek under the calf's tail, and was thrilled to discover:  It was a girl!  If I could help her survive, we'd have a gorgeous Guernsey heifer to go with our cow!

In hopes of getting a heifer calf, I had a name already picked out:  Ivy.

Challenge #4:  First Milking and Colostrum

A surgeon scrubbing up for a risky operation could not have been more anxious and serious than I was as I got all my milking supplies ready for the first time.

The brand new stainless steel milk tote stood ready on the kitchen counter, with the huge stainless steel milk strainer in place on top of it.  Did I put that filter in correctly?  I guess I'd find out once I poured the milk through!

My stainless steel milking bucket in one hand, and my tote of supplies in the other, I nervously went to the barn where Thistle stood tied in the milking area.  We don't have a stanchion, but since Thistle was an experienced milker, I figured (hoped!) we could get by just tying her next to a wall.

After some fumbling around, and a bit of dismayed astonishment at just how much hand strength was required to squeeze those full teats, I managed to start milking for the first time.  The colostrum was thick and yellow, with a gluey consistency that made it hard to get out.  Having seen Thistle's wild-eyed behavior just an hour or two earlier, I was also a little cautious about having to sit down and tuck myself right up beside that big wall of muscle and bone.  But luckily, Thistle had calmed down since passing the placenta and was perfectly well behaved.

Though, as expected, my hands got very tired, I managed to milk out a lot of rich colostrum.  Some I bottle fed to the calf right away, the rest I refrigerated to save for the next feeding.  This is what a half gallon of fresh Guernsey colostrum looks like:

Challenge #5:  Contracted Tendons

Even with the calf now warm and fed, we were not yet in the clear.  She was having the worst time standing up.  Again, I was mentally comparing her to the lambs, kids, and foals that had been born here, and all of them seemed to progress from wobbly newborn to frisking baby much more quickly than Ivy did.

Her ankles, particularly on the hind feet, had almost no flexibility, and the tendons were slightly contracted so that if we did help her to her feet, she had to balance on her toes with her heels slightly off the ground.  Her walk was stiff and wobbly, and even after a few days, she didn't seem to be getting any better.

When I asked for advice on the Keeping A Family Cow forum, someone suggested Ivy's problem could be selenium deficiency.  I'd seen selenium deficiency in lambs before, and it never looked quite like this, but I had Bo-Se (injectable liquid selenium) on hand in my veterinary cupboard, and I figured it couldn't hurt to try it.

Within 12 hours of administering the shot, I began to see some improvement, and within a few days Ivy was completely better.

Challenge #6:   The Great Calcium Drench Disaster

Before Thistle arrived, I had of course been reading everything I could about cow care.  In general, that's a good thing to do, except that after reading book after book and website after website discussing all the things that could potentially go wrong, I started to get a little paranoid.

I especially grew concerned reading about milk fever, which is more apt to hit mature cows.  Because Thistle is a mature cow and I didn't know much about her history, I decided to err on the side of caution and give her a calcium drench after she calved to hopefully stave off any chance of milk fever.

I had read that the calcium drenches can be kind of caustic, but I imagined that meant "sting the throat like a shot of strong whiskey" not "burn the throat like a glass of Draino."  Unfortunately, I imagined wrong.

The moment I poured that drench down her throat, my cow, whom I'd worked so hard to get to trust me, staggered away from me in terror, and for weeks afterwards, would run away rather than letting me anywhere near her head.

In addition, her throat was so sore from the drench that she stopped eating and drinking for 2 whole days.  She wasn't sick or lethargic, and she acted like she WANTED to eat, but it hurt too much to swallow.  I asked my vet about it, and he said, "Oh yes, that stuff is like battery acid.  It really burns!"  Great!  Now you tell me!  Stupid calcium drench!

In future, I will NOT give calcium drench as a preventative.  I will only treat for milk fever if and when actual symptoms appear.

Challenge #7:  Where's the Milk?

Naturally, with not eating or drinking for 2 days, Thistle's milk production dropped to almost nothing.  I diligently milked her twice a day at 12 hour intervals, for as much as an hour each time, but for days I got only about 1/4 cup per milking.  After that, her production began to improve slightly, but it was very erratic.  I might get a quart at one milking and only a few tablespoons the next.

On top of that, although she had no sign of injury or mastitis, one of her teats gave only blood for the first couple of weeks.  It was gory and gross.  The milk pail looked like something filled at a slaughterhouse.  As Thistle's production slowly increased, the milk diluted the blood and turned pink.  So even after all my efforts, the milk was still not drinkable.

I worked and worked and WORKED at it, but it took weeks before Thistle was giving even a moderately respectable amount of milk, and even then it was not predictable.  At best, she might give 2 gallons at a milking, but the next day she might give only half a gallon.

This was a problem because we had intended Thistle to earn her keep and help the farm make a little extra money by starting a cow share program with her.  But if I couldn't predict from one day to the next how much milk might be available, there was no way to figure out what would be a fair split for the cow share owners.

So for now we have had to abandon the cow share idea, and although she is rather costly to keep, Thistle is not able to help earn any income.  Perhaps she'll do better next time around, and if not, there's always Ivy, who will be ready to have a calf in a couple of years.

Challenge #8:  Bottle Feeding

Because of Thistle's nonexistent milk production in the first days after she calved, we had to break down and buy milk replacer for Ivy, and I had to bottle feed her twice a day.

This was not a terrible burden.  Ivy took to the bottle very easily, and I enjoyed feeding her.  By milking Thistle myself and then bottle feeding Ivy, I was able to keep track of exactly how much Thistle was producing and exactly how much Ivy was eating.  With all the problems they'd been having, it was good to be able to monitor them both very closely.

Before Ivy was born, I had debated whether I would bottle feed or share milk with the calf.  I had weighed the pros and cons and decided to avoid the biggest potential share-milking cons (enthusiastic calf cutting up the cow's teats with her teeth, and cow not wanting to let her milk down for her human milker if she knows her calf will be nursing later) by raising Ivy completely on the bottle, but feeding her with her mother's milk instead of formula, as soon as her mother was producing enough.

Challenge #9:  Tendonitis

Alas, even that painstakingly thought out decision was not to be the final one.  Milking a cow is hard work, especially for a novice.  Especially with a cow whose production is poor so that you have to really keep working at her to get any milk at all.

Twice every day, 12 hours apart, I would spend 45-60 minutes milking.  Imagine using one of those hand-squeezing exercise gadgets and doing roughly 5,000 reps per day with each hand, 7 days a week.  It was a workout!  I lost 10 lbs. in the first 3 weeks of milking.  My hands and arms ached like crazy.  I took soothing Epsom salt baths.  I took Advil.  Every night I slathered myself in BenGay from fingertip to elbow, hoping to ease the ache long enough for the muscles to get stronger.

But the trouble was, every 12 hours I had to go out and strain the muscles all over again.  They never had a chance to rest and heal.  When my fingers started going numb for hours at a time, I knew something had to change.

Challenge #10:  Share Milking

My solution?  Let the calf take over half the work.  If I milked the cow every morning and the calf nursed every evening, that would at least give my poor strained hands twice as long to recover before they had to milk again.

My cow-owner friends assured me that leaving Ivy with Thistle for longer periods of time would allow Ivy to nurse more often, which in turn would stimulate Thistle to produce more milk.  So for a couple of months I would turn Ivy out to pasture with her mom right after my morning milking and let her stay until just before bed time.

This did ease the pain in my hands somewhat, but it produced new challenges of its own.  For starters, now that Thistle had her calf with her, she saw no reason whatsoever to EVER come in from pasture.  Calling and rattling her grain bucket held no enticement for her.  When I would go out to try to lead her in, she would gallop in the other direction.

Ivy, having been bottle fed for the first several weeks of her life, still thought of me as her first mother and Thistle as her second mother, so it was possible to catch Ivy and lead her in, with Thistle following anxiously behind.  When Thistle got wise to that, however, she started deliberately herding Ivy away from me and teaching her to run whenever I approached.  Bad, BAD habit!

Challenge #11:  Where Does the Time Go?

I had known that getting a dairy cow was going to be a big commitment.  And I knew that, being a novice, I would have a steep learning curve before I was able to truly settle into a good routine.  But I really wasn't prepared for the sheer number of hours and hours and HOURS (and days and weeks and months) it would take.

Between the feeding, watering, stall mucking and bedding, moving the cow in and out of pasture, moving the calf in and out of wherever the cow was for her share milking time, washing up and preparing for milking, milking, cleaning up after milking, and taking care of the milk, it was taking me approximately 3 hours per day, 7 days a week, of chores that I had not had before I got the cow.  In other words, the cow took up more of my time than all of the rest of the animals combined.  And that didn't even count the time it took for me to actually DO anything with the milk, like making butter, ice cream, or cheese.

For the entire winter, the cow became the project that ate my life.  I fell behind on all my business correspondence, I fell behind on all my creative projects and sales.  For several months, I did nothing but try to survive the onslaught of COW.

Challenge #12:  Let-Down

Fortunately, share milking with Ivy did stimulate Thistle to produce more milk.  It also allowed my tendonitis to ease a bit, and gradually my hands and arms got stronger.  I have a killer handshake grip now, and you should feel my arm muscles!

But, true to form, this advance didn't come without a corresponding challenge.  I was getting about 1.5 gallons of milk at my morning milking, and Ivy was getting the rest.  But Thistle's production was still extremely erratic.  Occasionally, I might get 2 gallons.  More often, her production might mysteriously drop to only half a gallon, only to rebound up to three times that the following day. 

For quite a while, I didn't know what the problem was.  Considering she was getting exactly the same food, water, and milking schedule every day, I couldn't figure out what was going on.  I had read that sometimes a cow's production will drop when she is in heat, but unless Thistle was going into heat 4-5 times a month, that was no explanation.

Over time, I saw another thing that concerned me:  Just when Thistle's production should have been peaking, it was slowly, ever so slowly, decreasing instead. It wasn't that she wasn't getting enough to eat.  In fact, at a time when most cows are starting to lose weight, Thistle was actually getting fatter.

Finally it dawned on me that she was doing just what the "cons" of share milking predicted she might do.  She knew she was going to be nursing her calf later, so she was holding back and not fully letting her milk down for me.  But she had done it so gradually---as the weeks went by holding back a little more and giving me a little less, but always giving me SOME---that I didn't recognize that's what she was doing.

Discussions on online cow forums showed me a trick to get around this:  I would tie Thistle in the milking area, bring Ivy in and let her start to nurse, which would stimulate Thistle to fully let down her milk.  Then I would do my milking---what glorious abundance of milk was suddenly mine!---before turning Ivy out with her mom again.

Ivy, who had been getting way more than her share of the milk all this time, was growing super fast.  According to my Dairy Cow Weight tape, the average weight for a 3 month old Guernsey heifer is 177 lbs.  At 3 months old, Ivy weighed 300 lbs!

She did not like it one bit when I pulled her away from her mother so that I could do my milking.  She quickly grew to resent it very much, and made sure to crash around in the adjacent stall, making as much fuss as possible the whole time I was "stealing" her dinner.

Challenge #13:  Udder Injuries

Ivy's appetite continued to grow just as fast as she did.  By the time she was 3 months old she would nurse so aggressively I would regularly find scrapes on Thistle's teats from Ivy's teeth.  Sometimes I had to be careful not to squeeze a sore teat the wrong way, or Thistle would stomp and let me know it hurt.

Then one evening Thistle came in from pasture with a full udder, as if Ivy had not nursed all day.  Concerned about her overfull udder, I immediately went and got my milking supplies.  But when tried to milk her, she let loose with one hind foot, slammed me a good one in the thigh and knocked me off my stool onto the ground.  Alarmed by the racket, she started kicking the bucket, the stool, and everything in sight.

I yelled at her and spanked her for kicking, but I could see what the problem was.  Ivy had bit one of her teats too hard, gave her a big cut, and it was EXTREMELY sore, to the point that she hadn't let Ivy nurse at all.

I was badly shaken and bruised from this unexpected battle, and a little freaked out about having to go back and try again.  But leaving her udder unmilked was a sure ticket to mastitis.  So, after several unsuccessful attempts to milk the sore teat by hand as I normally did, two more large painful bruises from getting kicked, and a disastrously failed attempt to use my KickStop device which caused Thistle to go completely berserk, I finally dug out the Udderly EZ milker I had purchased several years ago for collecting colostrum from my sheep.

According to most experienced dairy people I know, the Udderly EZ is not really recommended for long-term use because it uses direct suction not fluctuating suction, which can put too much stress on the teat opening and eventually cause damage.  But in this case it was a lifesaver.  Because it uses only suction and doesn't physically manipulate the sore teat, I guess it didn't hurt as much, so she let me use it without kicking.

Twice a day, I was able to get most of the milk out of that teat with the Udderly EZ, while milking the other 3 quarters by hand as usual.  After a few uses, I did see that the Udderly EZ was beginning to cause stress on the teat opening, because when Thistle let her milk down, milk would start streaming out of that teat onto the ground, something it had never done before.

It seemed to take forever for the cut to heal, but eventually it did.  Fortunately, once this ordeal was over and the cut on the teat was healed up again, I was able to stop using the Udderly EZ.  After several days of normal milking, the teat stopped streaming milk at let down and went back to normal.

Challenge #14:  Mastitis

Meanwhile, the whole time this was going on, there was also a problem with the opposite quarter from the injured teat.  I don't know what happened to it, but on the same day that Thistle came in with the cut on her right rear teat, the left front quarter suddenly developed some hard places in it.

It didn't seem hot or sore at first, but the milk production from that quarter grew even skimpier than usual, and as the days passed the hard lumpy area got bigger and eventually Thistle started acting like it was a little sore.

I read up on everything I could find about mastitis.  I massaged the udder with peppermint lotion or cayenne/tea tree oil/lard salve at every milking.  I added extra selenium and vitamin C to Thistle's diet as a support/preventative measure.

The quarter never got hotter than normal, and the milk that did come out of it seemed perfectly normal, with no lumps or strings at all.  I did the California Mastitis Test, and got only the very faintest reaction from that quarter---just the slightest thickening that quickly disappeared.

I sent a sample of milk to a nearby lab.  The results came back with a moderate somatic cell count, but when they tried to test for bacteria to determine what was causing the problem, their culture came back with no growth. 

I bought a carton of the Today mastitis treatment, and treated the problem quarter for several days.  I was nervous about the idea of trying to squirt medicine up into the teat duct, but it turned out to be easy, and Thistle didn't act as if she even noticed that I had done anything.  However, the treatment didn't really seem to help, so I left off, and just continued with the peppermint lotion massages, which did seem to help a little.

Everyone told me that I should leave the calf with Thistle because the calf's frequent nursing would help prevent or cure any mastitis that was brewing.  Thistle would kick Ivy off the cut teat, but Ivy quickly learned to leave that one alone and just nurse from the other three.

I had mixed feelings about leaving Ivy on Thistle after all this, because she was still scraping up the healthy teats with her teeth from time to time and I was worried she would inflict another more serious injury.  But honestly, I was a little freaked out after getting kicked so badly that first day, and I figured if anyone was going to get kicked, better the calf than me! 

Challenge #15:  Weaning

It took several weeks, but the injured teat eventually healed and the mastitis in the other quarter was slowly subsiding.  I didn't dare keep Ivy nursing any longer, for fear she would injure her mother yet again.  Even though I hadn't planned to wean Ivy at 3.5 months old, now it seemed to be the safest course.

The trouble was, a calf weaned before 6 months can't survive on just grass.  She needs grain.  But even though Ivy was quite old enough to eat grain, she didn't like it.  She wanted milk.  I let her transition gradually over a few days, but ultimately I didn't want to risk Thistle's udder any longer.  Ivy would have to learn to like grain.

It was sad and funny watching her try to eat it for the first week or so.  Her lips would get this tense, disgusted curl to them while she would halfheartedly nibble on the calf starter grain.  It was like a little girl who had always feasted on cupcakes and ice cream for breakfast being suddenly forced to eat yucky old oatmeal.  She's such a little diva, she made a huge production of how sadly mistreated she was.

Of course, fast forward a few weeks, and now she leaps and dances all around with excitement when she knows I'm bringing her lovely, delicious grain.  Silly girl!

Challenge #16:  Foster Calf

But wait!  With Ivy weaned, and Thistle's udder back on the road to health, that left me once again having to take over milking twice a day.  Sure, my hands were stronger now and didn't ache quite so much as they did at the beginning, but before long the tendonitis reappeared and I started waking up in the morning with numb fingers again.

Plus, if Ivy was weaned, and Thistle's production was too erratic for us to start a cow share program with her, what was I going to do with all the milk?  Our refrigerator was filling up, and I just couldn't stand the thought of spending so much effort to get that milk, only to feed it to our pigs (who don't really need any fattening.  They are fat enough already!).  But milking twice a day in addition to all the other farm chores left me very little time or energy to attempt the long, time consuming recipes in my cheese making books, no matter how much I would have liked to.

I thought briefly about whether I should get a milking machine to ease the burden of time and energy that milking demanded.  But milking machines are very expensive.  I scoured the internet comparing different models, and the one I thought was best would cost me $1,500.  I just couldn't justify that kind of investment right now.  We don't really have a safe place to store one at the moment, nor a convenient place for the necessary cleaning they require.  Plus, I didn't go into farming because I liked to work with lots of noisy machines.  I may have to invest in a milking machine someday, but I decided that now was not the time.

Instead, I decided that maybe Thistle help could earn her keep by raising another calf for us, one that we would eventually put in the freezer for beef.  I searched around on Craigslist, and finally found a farm a few hours from here that had a 3-day old Holstein bull calf for sale for $75.

We figured he'd be a playmate for Ivy, who dearly wanted somebody to play calf games with, and he wouldn't cost us much of anything to feed, because he'd just be drinking Thistle's excess milk.

Challenge #17:  Scours

When we arrived at the farm to pick up the new calf---big surprise!---it didn't turn out exactly as we had hoped.  They only had one calf available, and he had obvious signs of scours.  Though I knew that scours in calves is very common (though Ivy had never suffered from them) and nearly always treatable, I would certainly have preferred not to take a scouring calf.  Still, we had just driven for 3 hours, and had another 3 hour drive to get home again.  I didn't want it to be for nothing.

So we took the little guy (whom we named Misha) home and hoped for the best.  We tucked him in the barn on a pile of dry bedding and shone a heat lamp on him to keep him warm.  Because Thistle was still not fully healed from her teat injury and mastitis, we had decided to err on the safe side and bought a bag of milk replacer to have on hand just in case the mastitis flared up again and for some reason Thistle didn't have enough to feed the new calf for a while.  So I gave him a bottle that first night and figured we'd let him meet Thistle in the morning.

The next day, sure enough, Misha's scours were worse than ever.  Since many types of scours are caused by bacteria or viruses that can be contagious to other animals, I decided against letting Mischa meet Thistle or Ivy until he was feeling better, and I tried to always wash my hands thoroughly between tending him and tending the other cows.

Unfortunately, my efforts weren't good enough.  For 2 weeks, Misha had scours nonstop.  In addition to bottle feeding him twice a day, I also had to go out 2 additional times a day to feed him large volumes of electrolytes to keep him hydrated.  Then Ivy and Thistle started scouring as well.

Then, worst of all, first Ken and then I caught the same bug.  Based on the symptoms of both cattle and humans, we figured it was probably e-coli.  The symptoms were the same for man and beast:  2 weeks of diarrhea, weakness, and total exhaustion.  I grew to have more sympathy for what the poor little calf had to go through.  At the worst of it, my exhaustion was so great that even just lying on the couch watching TV seemed to strenuous.  All I wanted to do was sleep.

So, my little labor-saving calf who was supposed to ease my burden by taking over my milking chores didn't exactly turn out to be labor saving.  It took probably about a month and a half for all of us to get back to good health again. 

Challenge #18:  Tantrums

The first night we got Misha home, it was already dark, but Thistle acted VERY interested in him as we hauled him past her paddock to tuck him safely in the barn for the night.

But by the time we finally introduced the two of them the meeting didn't go smoothly.  Once Thistle saw him in the daylight, she decided she hated him and wanted nothing to do with him.  I tied her up in her milking area and tried to get her to let him nurse there, but she threw an absolute kicking fit and I was worried she was going to kill him.

So now, instead of the new calf saving me time and easing my milking chores, instead I was going to have to STILL keep milking twice a day AND start bottle feeding a calf again.

To top it all off, Thistle was still so annoyed about the calf that when I sat down to milk her myself, she threw another complete tantrum and kicking fit at me.  Having already gone through this once before with her, I knew I could not let it continue.  This time she was not doing it because she was in pain with a sore teat.  She was just in a really pissy temper.

I'd already read all about how to discipline a kicking cow on the Keeping a Family Cow forum.  The cow has to learn that you are the boss of the milking area, not them, and that aggressive behavior is NOT acceptable.  When they kick you, you "kick" them back by rapping the offending leg with a dowel or broomstick.

So I grabbed a stick, and the next time Thistle kicked me, I yelled "NO!" and whacked her leg.  She kicked again harder, so I whacked her again harder.  And she kicked and I whacked and shekickedandIwhacked ANDSHEKICKEDANDIWHACKED until I'm sure we looked like a couple of angry drama queens having a drunken slap-fest.

When Thistle stopped kicking, I petted her, gave her a minute to quiet down, and proceeded to milk as usual.  Although, I must admit I felt like I was taking my life in my hands just to sit down next to her after the way she had behaved.

The next day, milking went fine.  The day after, it was Return to Bitch-Slap City.  By that point, between battling with Thistle and dealing with the sick calf, I was so completely overwhelmed with this whole cow thing, that after milking was done, I came in the house in tears.  Until you do it, you have no idea how stressful and frightening it can be to have to go out twice a day, 7 days a week and spend an hour putting your face and body right up within inches of a 1400 lb. animal that is intent on driving her hoof through your head.

And if you're ever going to make progress, you can't act any differently.  You have to pet her and tell her she's a fine cow and that everything is going to be fine, and you have to exude a sense of calm confidence, no matter how many purple hoof-shaped bruises you're wearing on your thighs from the day before.

That was our lowest point.  After our second knock-down-drag-out, we turned a corner in our relationship.  It took some time for us to regain the trust we'd lost.  For a week or two, I carried my broomstick with me and laid it on the ground by her hind feet as a reminder for her while I milked.  I couldn't help but flinch every time she lifted a foot.  Thistle would flinch and jump any time anything bumped the metal milking pail and made a clang. My flinching made her flinch and her flinching made me flinch, and neither of us wanted to go down that road again.

I would pet her and reassure her that it was okay, and I'd move the pail out of her way so she could shift her feet into a more comfortable position if she needed to.  Gradually, we started to relax and trust each other again.  And this time we were more in tune with each other's communications.  If she needed to rearrange her feet half way through the milking session, I'd stop and let her.  If I accidentally pinched or poked her in a way she didn't like while I was milking, she would gently swish her tail against the back of my head instead of trying to kick my face in.

And with this new found mutual respect, we even came to an understanding about the foster calf.  "He is NOT my baby," Thistle insisted.

I said, "I know he's not your baby.  He's not supposed to be your baby.  He is MY milking machine.  You don't have to love this calf and you don't have to take care of him.  But when  you are tied up in your milking area, you DO have to let him nurse."

For a while I would hold the broomstick in front of Thistle's hind legs while Misha nursed, so that if she tried to kick him, she would bump the stick and get a reminder.  Eventually, that was no longer necessary.  Thistle accepted my interpretation:  The calf was simply a more efficient milking machine than I was, so he got her through the milking session more quickly, which was not a bad thing.

Even after almost 2 months, I still leave her tied up while he nurses, and stay fairly nearby to take him away when he's done.  And true to my new communication ability with Thistle, I try to be alert to when SHE thinks he should be done and not leave him on her much longer than that.  In return, she usually remembers that she's not supposed to kick him, even if she thinks its time for him to stop.

Challenge #19:  Navel Ill

The exact day that Misha finally recovered from his 2-week bout with the scours, he came up with a new problem:  Overnight, a swelling suddenly appeared around his navel.  After feeling and poking at it enough to determine it was not an umbilical hernia, I was able to be sure that it was indeed Navel Ill.

Back to the internet I went to see what the recommended treatment was.  Based on what I found out, I embarked on giving him a course of antibiotics:  relatively high doses of Penicillin twice a day for as long as it took for the swelling to go away, which turned out to be a little over a week.

Penicillin I already had on hand, so that was no big deal.  But now that Misha was over the debilitating weakness of his scours, he was getting stronger and livelier.  Ken was away at work all day every day, and I was here by myself.  It was a challenge holding a large, active calf still enough to give him a shot twice a day, especially after he came to expect it and want to get away from me.

Fortunately, despite the difficulties, I managed the injections well enough, and caught the infection early enough that the infection didn't spread to Misha's joints or organs.  Eventually he recovered from this problem too, and became a frisky, healthy calf.

Challenge #20:  The Self-Weaning Calf

Unbelievably, things on the cow front quieted down for a while after all the previous problems subsided.  While I was still weak from my bout with e-coli, Misha had recovered from his enough that I was able to have him take over the milking chores for me entirely for a few weeks.  It was a nice break.

But just recently there have been a few days when Misha just plain didn't want to nurse when milking time came around.  After dealing with Ivy who would have been happy to live entirely on milk for the rest of her life, it was bewildering to see a calf that didn't really want any milk.

Misha has been a CHAMPION eater, ever since day one.  Even at three days old, suffering from scours and just introduced to a brand new home, when we snugged him down beside some hay bales to keep him warm, he turned and started eating them!

When I bottle fed him, he didn't care if it was formula or real milk in the bottle.  Either one was fine with him.  By the time he was over his scours and pastured with Ivy, he was eating grass and stealing her grain at every opportunity.  He would eat anything!

So his occasional lack of enthusiasm for milk was perplexing.  The first time it happened, I think he had just over-indulged in stealing Ivy's calf starter grain and given himself a tummy ache.  But it happened a couple more times shortly after that.  It seems that as his ability to digest solid foods increases, he happily stuffs himself with them all day, and so is less desperate for milk at feeding time.

So he has been getting finicky.  If he's not super hungry, he doesn't show much enthusiasm for nursing.  If Thistle happens to lie down on a pile of manure at some point during the day, and Misha thinks she smells like poo, he'll turn up his nose and walk away.  It's very odd.

When that happens, I have to be ready to jump in and do the milking instead.  Which is fine if I've planned it, but less convenient if I had planned to let Misha do it.  There's poor Thistle tied in the milking area, already letting her milk down, and Misha walks away.  Then I have to run in the house, wash up, wash the milking pail, get the hot soapy water for washing Thistle's udder, and rush back out to start the milking.  It's not exactly the most efficient way to get the job done.

And of course, it leads us right back up to Challenge #12 again, with Thistle not being willing (or able?) to let down her milk as fully for me as she does for the calf.  So I'm back to struggling and coaxing and nudging and squeezing, trying to get her to let down her milk.  Which, eventually will probably lead me back to Challenge #9 again.

I expect that in another month or two I'll have to decide AGAIN whether to get yet another young foster calf to help with the milking, or if I really do need to invest in a milking machine now.  I suspect that Thistle would have more consistent let down and production with a milking machine, but I just don't have the budget to get one right now.  On the other hand, there's a limit to how many foster calves my pastures can handle during the summer too.

In a normal year, Thistle would be half way through her milking cycle by now, and we'd be thinking about drying her off come August.  However, I decided not to breed her back right away, but instead milk her right around the year so that we could breed her back for a Spring 2013 calf instead of a Fall 2012 calf.  So whatever the challenges are with Thistle's milk production, I have to continue adjusting and readjusting as necessary to get us through another 10 months.

I'm sure it will continue to be an adventure!