Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Night watch

At 9:30 p.m. it’s dark out. The sun is down with not even a hint of light lingering in the west. Overhead a thin overcast hides the stars and mostly obscures a waxing crescent moon. The air is cooling and damp – about 45 degrees – and the forecast calls for overnight rain. The air is still, without a hint of wind. The quiet sounds of the nighttime prairie are all around; tiny clicks and taps of small animals, the distant yip of coyotes a few miles to the south, the sound of cows browsing a long, slow, evening meal.

My eyes have grown adjusted to the dark and I can clearly see the heifer whose birth progress I’m monitoring. She’s laid up in a dense thicket of last year’s sweet clover, hidden from close view but easily visible from my perch on a hill several hundred yards to the south. I’m far enough away to not be a distraction, close enough to see in general what she’s doing and how she’s progressing. Occasionally I raise well-crafted German binoculars to my eyes for a close, clear view. I cringe a bit when I think about how much I paid for the optics, but they were purchased with just this situation in mind. Over the years they’ve proved worth the cost.

The heifer’s labor began about 6 p.m. with the sun still well above the horizon and pasture bathed in late afternoon light. As the day began to close, the heifer struck out north, heading away from the herd and toward a quiet, sheltered corner of the pasture. She moved slowly with a waddling gait, tail cocked and slightly extended. I’d just finished weighing, tagging and vaccinating four new calves and was ready for my supper. I was taking one last spin through the herd on my way to the house when I saw her moving north with a purpose.

Close observation is one of the keys to keeping calving mortality low. For those fixed to do so, watching the herd closely during calving season allows the producer to catch problems early, before they can kill a calf, a cow, or even both. Though close observation takes time and fuel, both of which add directly to production expense, such costs are more easily borne in the context of live versus dead calves. As they say, you can't sell a dead calf.

As I watched her, the heifer was clearly agitated. She tried to graze, but would take only a few bites of grass before she'd pause and stare off into the distance. Then she would lower her head and sniff the ground, then quickly turn and look back along her flank in an effort to see what was going on back there. In trying to catch a glimpse of her bedeviler, she'd turn sharply in a circle, once, twice, three times – like a slow-motion version of a spinning rodeo bull. Finally she'd stopped, absentmindedly bite at a few dried sweetclover stalks, then abruptly lay down.

Soon she stretched out completely on her side, taking a position cows rarely take except when calving. Soon, I think, soon. Laying in tall, dried sweetclover as she is, it’s hard for me to see the details I want to see. But with my trusty binoculars I can see enough. Time for me to be patient.

In only a few minutes the heifer is back on her feet, repeating her earlier behavior, half-heartedly grazing, staring into the distance, looking back and spinning around, chewing on dried sweetclover, then laying down once again. A northerly breeze begins to flow across the prairie, waving the sweetclover and carrying the sounds the heifer is making to my ear. As she continues her parturition dance, she lows softly and repeatedly.

As I watch over the next three hours, the sun fades over the west horizon and night comes. I begin to worry a bit, wondering whether the heifer will need help or not. My fears are premature, though, for she has not yet produced the amniotic sac or “bag of waters,” let alone any sign of the calf. As the minutes tick by, I reach down at flick on the radio, allowing the magic sounds of nighttime baseball to fill the close air of my pickup cab.

Far away in Pittsburgh, on the banks of the famous Three Rivers, the Rockies and Pirates are tied as the ninth inning begins. I listen to the action, seeing PNC Park with my minds eye, the perfection of an emerald diamond and lush outfield dotted with white- and gray-clad players, surrounded by thousands of intense Iron City fans. I hear the fans roar at the crack of bat on ball, sigh and groan as ball slaps leather and another scoring try is defeated. I think of how remarkable it is that I can sit in a cow pasture 1,240 miles distant and listen in to the action taking place in a ballpark snugged in tight against the Allegheny River.

With baseball sounds and half-seen images as a backdrop, I watch the heifer get on with her business of ushering new life into the world. With the onset of true darkness, she seems to settle down and work with determination. Soon she’s straining with a will, and within ten minutes she’s produced a dark-wet calf. The pair lay still for a few moments, resting after their tremendous effort. Through my binoculars I can see the calf breathing, can see that its nose and mouth are clear. Soon it begins to shake its head and move its legs, which prompts the new mother to get up and investigate.

The cow sniffs the calf at first, then with a deep low of contentment, begins to vigorously lick and nuzzle her new charge. Within a few minutes the calf totters to its feet and makes its unsteady way to the udder. After a few moments its tail begins to flick back and forth as it finds the teat and rich, life-giving colostrum.

I smile as I watch, surrounded by nature’s beauty and the wonder and the magic of baseball. Spring is a wonderful time of the year.

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