Week 42, 2022｜Kristin Kimball｜October 21, 2022
The rhythm of a dairy cow’s calving is usually predictable. Her udder swells, the shape of her tailhead shifts, she separates herself from the herd. 95% of the time, she calves on pasture in the still part of the night, in privacy, and we greet the new pair in the morning. With Bertha this week, it didn’t go the usual way. Two days past her due date, all the signs were there, but nothing was happening. She just stood, tail slightly raised, with a concerned expression in her wide, liquid eyes. Yesterday, after milking, Mark helped me get her into a stanchion, and I put on one of the thin plastic glove that reaches all the way to my shoulder. We very rarely encounter problems with cows birthing, but I’ve assisted so many ewes at lambing that the terrain is very familiar, just at a much larger scale. Rather than the two front hooves and nose of a normal birth, I first felt the flop of a calf’s ear. I noted the landmarks out loud: there’s the hard round ridge of skull, the rubbery nose, the unmistakable teeth. Then, sweeping down to the side, along the shoulder and deeper still, a forefoot, tucked along the side of the body. A live baby, when nudged, will nudge back, or at least give your hand a firm feeling of its own primitive sense of volition, a seeming desire to assist in its own birth. This one was inert. I stretched, to cup my hand around the hoof and bring it forward. But wait, what’s this, way down at the limit of my reach? The smooth hard skull again? The unmistakable teeth? For a moment I was disoriented. Then, the truth: twins.
Twins are the norm in sheep but unusual in cattle. Statistically, 4% of dairy breed births are twins; here, we’ve had only three sets in over 200 births. We waited for Bertha to stop straining, and I gently pushed the first twin out of the bony chute of the pelvis, to make room to manipulate the legs and head into place. When they were ready, Mark helped me gently pull, not straight out but curved down toward the hocks, until the calf came, whole and still. Then back in, to find the other calf deep, deep in the body of the cow. For a while Bertha wasn’t pushing, and it was strange to move around that voluminous uterus without resistance. I fished for the legs and drew them up. Once the twin was in the pelvis she pushed again. This one came easier, but no more alive than the first. So we focused our care and attention on Bertha. Jackie and I took turns filling buckets of warm water for her. She drank and drank, ten gallons, fifteen, filling the space left empty by the calves.
We looked, finally, at the gender of the stillborn calves. One heifer, one bull. Well. This is another reason twinning is not a good thing in cattle. 90% of the time, when a heifer is twin to a bull calf, she will be a freemartin, infertile. Interesting old word! Free, as in exempt from reproduction, and martin, linguistically related, perhaps, to an old Gaelic word for cow. Scientifically, freemartins are intersex: phenotypically female, but genetically chimeric, with both XX and XY chromosomes. This happens in twin cattle and not other species because the fetal blood supply usually intertwines for twin calves early in gestation. Bertha is doing fine, just tired from the ordeal of gestating and birthing twins, and I’m glad to have one more bit of experience in the bottomless sea of farm challenges. Thanks to Mark for assisting and to Jackie and the whole dairy team for good care.
What more? Fields are still pretty wet from the rain, and we’ve seen several light frosts but no deep freezes yet. Thank you to Ana Moore for making last week’s member potluck a lovely affair, and to everyone who attended. It warms my heart to have delicious food and good talks around the fire. We might be finished with outdoor member parties until spring, but who knows? Thanks also to Leora Fisher who was with us for the week from her family’s horse powered vegetable farm, Natural Roots, in Conway, Massachusetts. Leora is taking a gap year between high school and college and it was delightful to have her perspective as a young adult who grew up on the farm, not to mention her good company at our house plus her leadership skills in the field. We envisioned this as a farm exchange, so hope to have Bethany on the way to Natural Roots for a work week sometime soon. Thanks too to the crew of 5 from Brooklyn who’ve been here this week helping with the bulk harvests! The giant job of cabbage harvest is now officially finished. The augmented team brought in 8 tons of storage cabbage this week with another half ton of napa for kimchi.
Welcome to this week’s new farm members, both local and in New York City! So glad to have you as part of the Essex Farm family. We are eagerly accepting new local members for the last 10 weeks of the year, so please help us spread the word. This is a chance to try a membership at annual pricing without a year-long commitment. Text me at 518-645-4658 and I will help potential new members navigate the details.
Mark and I are working hard on pricing and structure for the 2023 share now. We want to continue to make food affordable for the community while also covering the increased cost of labor, inputs and transportation. Stay tuned! And that’s the news from Essex Farm for this leaves-falling 42nd week of 2022. Find us at 518-963-4613, firstname.lastname@example.org, on Instagram at essexfarmcsa, or on the farm, any day but Sunday.
-Kristin & Mark Kimball