24. Heifer delivery (dairy farm)
The delivery of a cow involves having a forty-kilogram calf pass through the birth canal. The dilatation of the birth canal therefore requires quite some time, particularly in heifers that are delivering a calf for the first time. But if the hooves of the calf are already protruding from the vagina in the evening, then waiting until the morning is a very long wait.
It is half past one in the morning when the phone rings: a heifer has gone into delivery. The animal had been agitated all afternoon: she would repeatedly lie down and then get up again and the first thick milk, the colostrum, was dripping from the taut udder. The amniotic sac broke during the evening milking session. The farmer checked on her in the barn a few times. At eleven that evening, the calf’s hooves were visible. The farmer had felt inside the vagina: the calf is in the right position, but the legs are hefty: this is probably a heavy calf. Pulling on the legs has little effect. Now what? Waiting until the morning may mean the death of the calf. But it is after eleven o’clock, and so the more expensive nightly rate of the veterinary surgeon already applies. Maybe everything will work out. So he decides to set his alarm for half past one.
Loose housing barn
I exit my car in front of the large sliding door of the cow shed and grab my delivery case. It is autumn and already cold. The cow shed is a large hall with high walls in which around ninety cows are roaming. They are divided into three sections with a feed alley in the middle. Most of the cows are ruminating on a concrete elevation along the side of the shed. Each cow cubicle is marked off by clamps. Two cows are standing in a feeding box and are being fed the pellets to which they are still entitled today according to the feed computer. A considerable amount of corn chaff and silage lies in front of the feed railing. The milk quotum is 750,000 litres and to reach that each cow must produce more than 8000 litres of milk per year. That is not possible on a diet of grass alone: this also requires concentrate and corn. The cows must particularly eat huge amounts of roughage, both day and night. And a milk production of that extent also requires the cows to drink huge amounts: a couple of thousand litres of water is consumed every day in the cow shed.
And so a lot of manure and urine is produced as well. This falls through concrete grids into a deep space beneath the barn, the slurry pit. A depth of two metres and a surface area of 800 m² corresponds to a capacity of 1600 m³ of slurry. The slurry has to be stored until February. Only then are farmers allowed to spread manure across their land or to inject it to boost the growth of mainly corn and grass. There is no straw in the barn: that would only obstruct the grids and lead to problems when pumping out the pit. Sawdust is used to keep the cubicles dry. Hazardous vapours are generated in the slurry. There have been a few incidents in which farmers died while working in the slurry pit. It is therefore essential that these vapours are continuously extracted from the barn. An open ridge in the roof across the entire length of the barn ensures this. Both sides of the barn are open, allowing fresh air to come in: a wall of netting breaks the wind. It is not really windy in the barn, but it is cold. Everything in a modern barn of this kind is rationally and efficiently organised to be sure, but it is not comfortable or cosy.
grid floor and cow cubicles; the side of the barn is open
But I must now get to work and quickly: remove my outer clothing and put on my plastic work clothing. I am none the warmer. Next washing my hands and arms in a bucket of water with betadine. A half-length wall serves as a partition in the corner of the barn. A heifer is lying on her side in the cubicle; she is pushing forcefully and bellows with each contraction. The front legs of the calf emerge up to the pastern joints. I squat and rinse the heifer’s behind clean, then make my arms smooth with a lubricant. The head is resting on the front legs in the birth canal. The calf swallows when I apply pressure to the back of its tongue with my finger. To penetrate the birth canal even deeper, I have to lie down on my side. The farmer has placed a piece of plastic on top of the grids behind the heifer. My arm is inside the birth canal up to my armpit; my head against the tail. The cervix is dilated. Using my other hand, I grab the delivery strings from the bucket. They are not really strings, but rather small finger-thick plastic cords. I make a loop around each front leg of the calf in the pastern socket, beneath the pastern joint. A short PVC club is attached to the other end: “Go ahead and pull, Toon”. He braces his heels between the grids and is hanging on the cords. In doing so, he pulls the shoulders of the calf against the entrance to the heifer’s pelvis. I measure the space with my fingers: it is going to be close.
In order to be able to exercise more pulling power, a calving jack is used to deliver a calf; an often maligned yet indispensable aid. The jack has replaced the helping neighbour of days past. With one hundred and twenty births per year, you simply cannot help someone out every single time. Especially if the neighbours themselves also have lots of cows and heifers. The jack is a steel pole 2 metres in length. The pole has a clamp at one end that is placed against the butt of the cow. The space within the clamp is large enough to have a calf pass through. The handle sticks to the back in line with the cow. The free ends of the delivery strings are hooked onto a movable clasp. It is positioned around the handle of the jack and is moved backward using a lever.
calving jack with clasp, delivery strings and clamp
The farmer is squatting down and operating the lever. “Wait until she pushes before you jack, Toon: yes, now!” The calf slides through the birth canal, with brief pauses between the contractions. As soon as the head is out, I begin to twist the animal: my arms between the front legs of the calf and my hands on its neck. With the intend to have the backside of the calf made a quarter turn. Because a cow’s pelvis has a bit more room internally in the vertical direction, whereas the widest part of the calf is its hips, so in a horizontal direction. The cow pushes a few more times and the delivery is completed. And the calf is alive. But behind me I hear a whole-hearted: “Nondetjuu!” (corruption of the French 'Nom de Dieu'). The farmer is apparently dissatisfied.
If you think farmers do not speak foreign languages, think again: that was pure French. Well, perhaps not the purest, but still originally French. And he blurted it out without even thinking. But what on earth is wrong? He has a live calf and an unscathed heifer. What else could he possibly want?
After turning the calf in the birth canal, the rest of the calf came out on its backside. The rear legs fell open and the young bull provocatively exposed its genitals. And that is precisely the problem: this is the 80th calf to be born this year and the 70th bull calf! In his disappointment, the farmer probably exaggerated these numbers. Still, there have been many more bull calves born on this farm than heifer calves, that much is clear. Shouldn’t there be an equal number of both? Well then!
The implication of the above will not be clear to everyone. This farmer is to miss out on an important part in his herd of cattle. And a continuous milk production requires an harmonious stock structure. For a dairy farmer to make a living, there must be milk in the tank. His income is largely determined by the milk quotum. It seems everything will turn out all right, as the next year saw a surplus of heifer born on the farm. But that leads to a different problem: bull calves are sold and transported off the farm when they are about ten days old. Heifer calves stay and are raised on the farm. The sheds were built to provide an average capacity. There is some wriggle room, but overcapacity costs money. And so there is no room for a large surplus of heifer calves.
A modern dairy farm generally has three separate sheds: one for calves up to the age of around three months. A young cattle shed for the older calves and yearlings up to an age of around two, and the cow shed. There is also a shed where the tractor(s) and farming machines are stored. And finally there is the family home on the street side. That is often an original all-in-one hall farmhouse. And to complete the picture: there are two or three silos with concentrate next to the cow shed and a supply of roughage on a concrete floor can be found behind the sheds. These are two elongated mountains about forty metres long, ten metres wide and three metres high. One consists of corn chaff and the other of dried grass. That is what an average dairy farm in Brabant looks like in the year 2014.
A cow calves once a year. But if you milk ninety dairy cows, you will still expand by about one hundred and twenty calves per year. This is because around one-third of the cows are removed from the farm and replaced by heifers. And they need to calve before they can produce milk. This explains the thirty extra calves. Because the ratio between bull- and heifer calves is generally fifty-fifty, the birth of approx. sixty heifer calves in the course of the year is taken into account upon building the sheds. An unexpected large surplus of heifer calves means that some must be sold following a selection procedure. But the proceeds of a new-born heifer calf is lower than the price of a bull calf. These two baby booms therefore cost the farmer money twice: the first time when the surplus of bulls disrupted the structure of his stock and the following year when the sales of the surplus heifer calves did not yield enough money: “Nondetjuu!”
© Leo Rogier Verberne