There is an old, wise saying, “Closing the barn door once the horses are out, it’s a bit too late.”
The same can be said for calves. The hip-roofed barn which greets visitors to our farm stands as a testament to changing times. The barn, built almost 100 years ago, is still in use today. Even though the horse stalls, the milking stalls and the old interior silo are long gone, the barn serves a purpose. We use it as a neonatal unit or nursery for our newborn calves before we move them out to their own calf dome. The barn is also a passageway for the extra milk cows to walk through from the switch cow shed to the milking barn.
A few weeks back during a new moon cycle, Mark and I hung around after evening chores to help deliver a new calf which was born in the switch cow shed. It wasn’t a very difficult birth, but we were anxious to get things done and call it a day. Mark picked up the slick black calf and carried her to the old barn. There, he plopped her down in a big fluffy pile of fresh straw. Once she was snuggled down, we turned our attention to the new mother.  
We walked the fresh cow through the old barn on her way to an open stall in the milking barn. Within 10 minutes, she was done providing enough fresh colostrum for her new baby. We walked her back to the shed to rest over night. We were almost done. All we had left to do was feed the calf, give her a vaccine and dip her wet navel with iodine. Now, where was the calf?
In all the years we have been dairying, we have never lost a newborn calf by just walking out the open barn door. They’re generally too groggy and are content to lie in the straw while they get their bearings. Apparently, this new calf was a quick learner. While we were milking the cow, the calf stumbled out the front door of the old barn and disappeared into the night. It is virtually impossible to see a black calf on a moonless night. We figured it couldn’t have gone very far.
For the next 45 minutes, we walked all around the farm yard shining headlights and flashlights into every dark corner on the farm but still no calf. We even searched all the way to the end of the driveway and up and down the ditches. Our greatest fear was that she wandered into the corn fields lining both sides of the driveway and wouldn’t be able to find her way out.  She was too new to start bellowing for her mother. She just vanished.
We ended up doing something we have never done before. We gave up. There was nothing left we could do except go to bed and wait for daylight and hunger to bring the calf out into the open.
Unaware of our nighttime adventures, Austin drove into the yard the next morning as the dawn was breaking across the horizon. He thought it was strange for a calf to be laying in the front yard by the house. We thought it was a miracle and yet strange that we missed her out in the open. We don’t know where she spent her first night on this earth, but she hasn’t gone on anymore escapades.
So, you think we would have learned our lesson and closed the barn door when calves are loose in the old barn. Apparently, it takes some of us a bit longer to process a lesson learned. A couple of weeks later, in the middle of a large calf run, it happened again. Only this time, it was a double dose.
I had two newborn calves lying in the loose straw in the shed. There was no room in the nursery pens for them. I figured they would be fine while I went to get their bottles of milk. By the time I got back to the old barn, they were both gone. At least this time there was daylight and one of them was white. I assumed they hadn’t gone far and would stay close to the other animals or at least each other. I drove the four-wheeler around the yard looking for the calves. Nothing. Mark and our milker, Anna, were finishing up milking while I conducted my search.
For some strange reason, I thought I should drive over by the silage bags. As I drove past the far end of the bags, I caught a glimpse of black spots against the white bag. Snuggled down at the bottom of the bag was the white calf. She was exhausted by her long walk around the farm. I raced back to the yard and grabbed Anna. Between the two of us, we hoisted the calf up on the back rack of the four-wheeler and hauled her to the old barn.  
Now, where would we find the second calf? She wasn’t by the silage bags, but I bet they walked together in the same area. Since they were so little, there weren’t any tracks on the ground to follow. I continued to drive down the field road along the tree row. Anna and I both spotted a flash of black buried in the weeds under the trees as we drove by. Sure enough, there was the other lost calf. She was all tuckered out from her adventure. Anna grabbed the calf and placed her on the four-wheeler as we hauled her home.
It took a while, but I’ve learned to keep the barn door closed. Because, once the horses or calves walk out the door, it’s a bit too late.
As their four children pursue dairy careers off the family farm, Natalie and Mark are starting a new adventure of milking registered Holsteins just because they like good cows on their farm north of Rice, Minnesota.