Delivering calves has always been one of my favorite jobs on the farm. You are helping to bring life into the world; is there anything more amazing than that? I admit that after I have pulled multiple calves in the span of a few days it becomes far less a romantic thing. Nevertheless, when that slimy, flopping creature is out and trying to sit up within seconds, you can’t help but be a bit enamored with it.
    I have memories of watching my dad do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a newborn calf and being extremely disturbed. I love cows, but not that much. We purchased a calf-resuscitator contraption years ago, and that wonderful invention has saved many a weak calf. The thing is, even though you know full well that you may get less than five dollars for that calf (depending on the market outlook), you cannot, in good conscience, let it die knowing you could have saved it.
    I remember our stall barn back when it had one big calving pen on the far end. I would prop youngest brother Tony up in the window with a bag of popcorn and tell him he must stay there and be good. He would be munching away and chattering questions to me as I pulled the pokey calf out. It was such a feeling of accomplishment to be delivering a calf; especially with my very own fan club cheering me on. Later into my teenage years, it became a great way to test a boy’s mettle. I dated one that was noticeably scared of cows and of no assistance when I asked him to help me hold a cow over to pull a calf. Uffda – now that should have been a bright red flag.
    I recall an evening in the barn when I was working on delivering a calf when I discovered that I had more feet than I needed headed up through the birth canal. This was way before the days of cell phones. My parents were gone and I needed guidance. I called dear Dr. Burch. This woman is so sweet and genuine in her compassion for all things. I explained my predicament and she coached me on what to do, giving me the confidence to follow through on my first labor challenge. I did as instructed, and I delivered two live calves as a reward. My favorite part of this story is that she called me back after a while to get the full report because she was worried. She is a gem, of the finest quality.
    There is that old saying, ‘Where you have livestock, you must have dead stock.’ What about those rare moments when those two things are jumbled together? I can see a younger version of myself standing next to my dad on the hill as he had one of the guys put down a distressed cow, while he sat crouched next to her with a scalpel in hand. She was cut open and we pulled out a set of live twins, lickety-split. It was incredible.
    Just before Christmas we had an extremely ill pre-fresh cow that was due to calve within days. We decided it would be worth a shot to try to get her calf out. It was a miraculous operation. The mud-colored fluid that poured out of that unfortunate cow as we worked our way towards the uterus gave us little hope of finding a healthy calf. Yet, as her body was failing her, her calf was protected and strong. After the trick of a cup of cold water poured in his ear, the bull calf was sitting up and ready to eat.
    Knowing when you should help a cow with her labor efforts is an essential part of farming. If you pull a calf too soon, without sufficient dilation, you risk injuring the cow internally. If you wait too long, the chances of a dead calf rise, in addition to having a cow with paralysis or one that wants to cast her withers from pushing for hours on end. On the flip side, knowing when to put an animal out of their misery is tricky as well. We ask ourselves these questions: Is she eating? Is she drinking? Can she move? If the answers are a resounding ‘no’ to these questions, her quality of life if very low. The opposite of the excitement of watching a calf take its first breath of life, is the depression of witnessing a down cow wither away. The decision to pull the trigger on a cow’s life, literally and figuratively, isn’t one taken lightly.
    Peter is most often our man for these types of jobs. He does not like it. He always takes a deep breath, touches the cow’s head, and silently thanks her for her life and all she gave to us. This is an intense and heart-wrenching thing to observe. Though deep down you know it is the right choice – as those big brown eyes beg you to take her pain away – it doesn’t make it any easier.
    Twenty years ago, we had a cow named Rudy. She was easily remembered due to her love of throwing feed over her back as she ate and her gentle personality. I adored her, and when she calved in on what was to be her last lactation, she came down with toxic mastitis. I pleaded with Dad to let me bury her, because I knew at her age she couldn’t handle another round of antibiotics, and I couldn’t sell her. I had a friend with a backhoe, and a chunk of lawn available. With gentle words of thanks and love, I walked her from the barn to the hole, left the men to do the rest, and ran back to the barn bawling.
    I always tell people I deal with life and death situations all the time in the barn. That doesn’t make me less excited to deliver a new calf, or less immune to the heaviness of ending a life.
    Jacqui and her family milk 800 cows and run 1,200 acres of crops in the northeastern corner of Vernon County, Wis. Her children, Ira (driver of anything with wheels), Dane (expert babysitter), Henry (wild boy with great hugs), and Cora (pint-sized cow whisperer), help her on the farm while her husband, Keith, works on a grain farm. If she’s not in the barn, she’s probably in the kitchen, trailing after little ones, or sharing her passion of reading with someone. Her life is best described as organized chaos – and if it wasn’t, she’d be bored.