Week 6, 2021|Kristin Kimball |February 12, 2021

In the wake of last week’s nor’easter Mark called just after sunrise to say I should hurry out with the car and pick up a calf he’d found in the beef herd. She’d been born in the storm and was chilled. When I reached him, standing in the snowy road with the calf at his feet, she looked a lot worse than chilled. We lifted her into the hatchback. “She’ll be fine!” Mark the optimist said, as he went back to plowing snow. “Listen to her moo.” I wasn’t so confident. The sound she made was not a moo but the flat tuneless blat that an animal makes right before it’s going to die. No volition in it, just air pumped over a mushy instrument. Her legs were paddling in slow motion, another dire sign. At the house, I flopped her out of the car and dragged her to the door. Inside, I rested most of her on the welcome mat and used that to pull her to the woodstove, leaving a streak of birth fluid on the clean floor. My heart broke a little at that. It was one thing to have livestock in the house before we renovated. Then, they just added to the patina. Now, it hurts. But it’s impossible to retreat, once you have begun. 

Near the stove the calf let out another of those depressing blats and the dogs heard it and came running. Oh my god oh my god oh my god, Mary’s eyes said. She is a very maternal dog. She has never had pups and now lacks the necessary equipment but has mothered all sorts of babies, including piglets and lambs, and once, a small mechanical toy cat that she carried around by the neck and nosed toward her empty teats in an attempt to make it nurse. These instincts are interwoven with her brittle bitchiness so that even as she laid into the intense job of licking the cold calf she glanced up at Quill with her eyes narrowed to slits, her upper lip twitching. MINE, she told him. Whoa, OK then, his eyes answered, as he backed away. He must have stepped too close as I ran upstairs for towels because I heard them explode into a fierce fight and when I came back down Quill was stationed under the table wearing an uncharacteristic expression of respect. 

The combination of dog fight and death blat woke the kids, who trundled onscene. Their eyes shifted like Mary’s when they saw the calf — less avid, but soft and fully engaged. While they petted and rubbed her, I was assessing her chances and they were not good. She made no effort to lift her head, there was barely a reflex when I touched her eyeball, and the inside of her mouth was freezing cold. The bottoms of her feet were still rubbery and entirely clean, meaning she had never stood, and had not fed. I tried to take her rectal temperature and it was too low to register. I tried the kitchen thermometer and it read 72 degrees. If not for the kids I would have given it up as hopeless at that point, but what the heck, they could learn about hypothermia for homeschool and do what they wanted to try to help. I had a stack of bills to review and Mark was calling again, with another chilled newborn he’d found in the snow, so I left them to it. Sofie, who is podding with us for homeschool, arrived, and joined the effort. 

The other calf was in better shape so I settled her in the barn and by the time I got back to the house Mary had dried large patches of fur with her tongue, Miranda was cradling the limp head, Sofie was rubbing the cold legs, and Jane was googling up treatments for hypothermic calves. To my great dismay the advice she’d found for severe hypothermia was to put the calf in a warm bath. 

The bathroom, renovated last year, is my safe space. I love everything about it. The clean white subway tiles, the big tub, the heated slate floor. Because I thought the situation hopeless, and because the thought of defiling my bathroom made me very sad, I nearly prohibited it. But Jane was determined, and I relented. 

We four carried the calf upstairs and laid her in the tub. The girls took turns holding her nose above the water. When that got tiring, they went to the garage and brought up a thick orange life preserver to float her head. The calf’s muscles twitched, the last vestige of a shiver. Hm. That was actually somewhat hopeful. She had not shivered before. But she would need energy to power her muscles, not to mention colostrum for immunity. My experience-hardened heart was reluctant to spend colostrum — liquid gold — on this calf who was so close to dead. I decided on a halfway measure. I sent Miranda to the barn for the esophageal feeding tube, and I went to the basement for a bottle of dextrose and a quart of electrolytes, which I combined and heated on the stove to one hundred degrees. The girls floated the inert calf into a good position and I threaded the tube over her tongue, down her esophagus. Tubing used to make me nervous – if it goes into the trachea and floods the lungs it’s game over — but I’ve done it a hundred times now, for calves and lambs, and am confident. As long as you can feel the rigid tube alongside the rigid trachea, you’re safe. In any case, I thought, in this instance, it wouldn’t matter, even if I did get it wrong. I was just going through the motions. I released the lock and the warm solution flowed into the calf. The water had turned a dirty yellow by then, and bits of hay and flaked off rubbery hoof made a ring in the tub.    

I left the girls to it and went back to other work. They monitored the water temperature, and the calf’s body temperature. When it was lunchtime, they ate on the floor of the bathroom. By mid afternoon we had run out of hot water and Jane was ferrying pots upstairs from the stove and the calf could hold her own head up. I relented on the colostrum, and gave her two quarts via tube. At last they lifted the calf out and cranked the heated floor to max. They took turns blow drying and brushing her so that by the time her temperature was normal she was clean and fluffed like a beauty queen. And she was pretty. A bright white wide blaze ran down her face, between two erect little ears. Herefords are different from the Jersey calves I’m used to managing. Jerseys are delicate, like a fine china teacup. This calf was a sturdy mug, thickmade. By then she’d acquired a name, Lena Waffles. 

She spent the rest of the day in front of the woodstove, sometimes sleeping, sometimes awake. The floor was too slippery for her to stand but by the time the sun set she was trying. Nick picked her up and drove her to the East Barn where the girls had prepared a bedded stall next to her half sister, Lisa, who had also gotten a dose of colostrum and was doing well. The two of them are a week old now, and thriving on all the love and attention they are getting from the three girls. They want to train them to a yoke and teach them to pull, so every day they halter them and walk them to the house to visit me. I’ve never been so glad to have been wrong. 

And now this note has gone long and I’m out of time to edit it, so I offer it as it is, the news from Essex Farm for this deep-cold 6th week of 2021. You can see pictures of Lena Waffles by asking permission to follow Jane’s instagram account, twogoats99, or on mine — kristinxkimball. Mark posts at farmerkimball and all-farm news hits the feed at essexfarmcsa. You can find us at 518-963-4613, essexfarm@gmail.com


-Kristin & Mark Kimball