Friday night the storm is raging–wind-rain-snow all at once. When we wake on Saturday, so does the golden sun, streaming through ice covered tree branches, dancing across dazzled white lawns, and illuminating a wafer thin full moon, hovering just above the horizon. It is beyond beautiful. And cold. It is the day we are to pick up our baby bulls.
It takes us half an hour to de-ice the car–scraping and melting and scraping frozen sheets from its surfaces. Thank goodness it isn’t a plane. Geoff crawls through the side doors to jimmy open the front ones. Finally the windows are clear and Geoff and Jordan are on their way. The rest of us stay behind to finish the pen preparations—washing grain and water buckets, and fluffing up bedding hay.
An hour later, the car drives up, as if it were an ordinary day. This time, however, the car is carrying cattle. The two rows of back seats are down and covered with blankets. And there are our bulls, of the Milking Shorthorn breed, cruising in casual comfort. Jordan has named them Bright and Blaze—two names, easy and related, and not to be confused with the handful of verbal commands they will have to learn to become a team of oxen.
Will I know which is which?
I peek in the front door. It is obvious. Blaze, the smaller of the two, is standing up, his red head gently bumping the ceiling. His brown eyes are fixed on me. Who are you? he asks. His face is flecked with white (or premature gray?) and marked with a large white cyclone splotch. Jordan reports Blaze rode on all fours the whole trip, lurching back and forth, surfing the winding roads of rural NY.
Curled up behind him towards the back is the slightly larger and redder bull Jordan has named Bright. He does not look so happy. He reminds me of Ferdinand. Each one has on a calf coat—somewhat like the ones you see on small dogs but larger—fastened around his front and back legs.
My first impression: oh they are so cute!
We open the trunk door and Jordan wraps his arms around Blaze, who has stepped over Bright to get to the door first. Jordan makes it a few steps before Blaze wriggles away, landing on his back in the snow, legs sticking in all directions, Jordan’s arms still around his neck. The two of them freeze there for an instant, wondering what comes next, before Blaze flips himself over and peeks curiously into the barn. Geoff carries Bright, and soon the two of them are nosing around their new home. Spacious! Cold! Nice view! And all these small people!
Blaze scampers about, running in crazy circles, kicking up his hind legs. He buzzes and hums with energy. Bright mopes in the corner and coughs slightly. I feel a grip of maternal worry. Already? They haven’t even been here five minutes!
So what are we going to do with these fine furry beasts?
Feed them. Steer them. Train them.
The feeding is introducing an element of competition to our otherwise overly abundant milk flow. The bulls drink cow milk, of course. They are only babies—4 and 5 weeks old. And the cow milk we have to give them is Daisy’s. We have been milking a little more than a gallon at each milking, twice a day. Each calf needs to drink a half-gallon, morning and night.
You can do the math. We are scraping the bucket! Still, we have a plan. We are feeding Daisy more grain and hay over the next few weeks to boost her flow, and then in another month or so, we will wean the calves to grain and hay themselves. At this morning’s milking, Jordan squeezed out nearly two gallons. Thank you, Daisy! Then in March, Precious is due to give birth and we will be milking two cows! So we are consoling ourselves. It is only a temporary hardship.
As for steering, it turns out that the best time to do so is right before puberty, which occurs around six months. Before then, the male hormones the bulls produce are actually helpful, fueling healthy growth. Only with puberty does testosterone turn testy. We will be sure to call the Vet in three months. Before then, the bulls will be bulls.
As for training, it has already begun, though it is not clear who is training whom. Ostensibly, humans train cattle, the first step being to shower them with affection–a resource we have in ample supply. In fact, figuring out how to allocate all that attention has been our first challenge. Each of the children wants to be with the calves, caring for the calves, feeding the calves, leading the calves, and not one of them wants to be left out. Each one of them is also convinced that the others want to leave him or her out. So one child slips out to the barn to give the calves a secretive pat, and the others howl with the injustice of it all.
It is a high quality problem, really, and one whose value I appreciate. How are the kids supposed to know already how to work together to take care of baby bulls?
When similar issues arose last spring with our horse, Marvin, I quickly figured out that I could respond with acute and exasperated frustration—my heart wretched and my face blue—or I could embrace the moment as an opportunity to learn. Let’s work together on working together!
We gather in a Family Council. Forty-five minutes of concentrated chat time later, we are on our way—each child knowing that he or she is an essential member of a calf-caring team, with Jordan as our captain. Each one appreciating the others as enabling him or her to have bulls at all.
Last night Jessica comes in from the barn after giving Marvin some hay. “Did you pat the calves?” I ask. “No,” she replies, “I didn’t want Jordan to feel left out.” I smile. OK, so we still have some small adjustments to make. I reply, “Jessica, if you are out there, it is fine to pat the calves. They need all the love we can give them.”
So who is training whom?
Once again, the farm is making its family. (See “Forward to the Farm,” Oct 15)