The point of a farm is to grow. Produce. Create. Tiny seeds grow into 6-foot corn stalks; 11lb piglets swell up to 250lb hogs. Wobbly calves morph into hulking cows.
But there is always, always, the seed that doesn’t make it, the crop that gets wiped out. The piglets and calves that perish for a variety of reasons. Old McDonald storybook farms, with fat and smiling animals on rolling happy hills just don’t exist in the real world.
We try our best, but sometimes farming is ugly, and it’s hard. Working with animals requires a delicate balance, and sometimes the balance does not fall in our favor. Just a few weeks ago (before Blackie) a calf died in our basement. We made the old quilt nest and dried him off, but we didn’t even try to get him to stand up. It didn’t matter, anyway.
Not every calf lives.
I watched as Cass pleaded and cajoled and cursed the calf, trying to get it to eat from the bottle.
He smacked its belly, trying to get a reaction; a kick, a moo, anything.
He slid a feeding tube down its delicate throat, slowly pumping milk into the calf’s empty stomach.
It let out the feeblest moan.
You can tell when an animal is about to die. Their breathing is unsteady; shallow, then heaving. They gulp for air, then stop- you think This is it- and then the painful cycle starts over again. The small amount of milk he was able to force down came back up in awful spurts. We propped the calf’s head up with extra blankets. The poor animal blinked slowly.
“He’s going to die.”
“No, he’s not!” I said. Still hopeful, despite what was happening. I sounded like a child.
Cass went back outside to check on the other, healthier, calves. I went upstairs reluctantly. The calf was left in the basement, wrapped in quilts.
Twenty minutes later, Cass came back in. I heard his heavy boots thump down the basement steps. A sigh.
“Will you hold the door open for me?”
I held the screen door wide. My husband emerged from the shadows of the basement, his arms full of quilts. A tiny hoof was sticking out.
He squeezed by me- ohmigod don’t let it touch me- and rested the pile gently on the deck. He took it away later, but I didn’t ask where to. I didn’t want to know. I could see the calf’s ear, big and soft, through a fold in the blankets.
It was gone.
I went back inside.
Not every calf lives.