It only takes a split second for everything to go horribly wrong, and a life spent working with animals teaches you how unpredictable they can be. There’s a time to step up and pretend you’re in charge, and there’s undeniably a time for self-preservation.
Our cattle spend the summer months conservation grazing the Pevensey levels. They see us driving through and glimpse the odd fisherman on the riverbank, but otherwise have little human contact. From their perspective it’s not surprising if they display some irrational behaviour when herded into a corral and loaded into trailers before being transported and then disembarked into a shed. It must be a huge culture shock, so expecting them to co-operate when being sorted into appropriate groups for winter housing is perhaps wishful thinking.
It was all working so well; youngest daughter was operating the gate on our command (when we shout at her), and other half and I were guiding store cattle towards it. The gate was open and the bullock had its head up travelling at speed towards it, when suddenly he changed his mind (proving it’s not only a women’s prerogative), skidded to a halt, whirled around and spied me blocking his return.
He leaped towards me and I had visions of being flattened. Impressed by my own reflex reactions, I thought I’d dodged him, but as his front feet landed he kicked out with both hind feet. One caught me on the left side of my chest and sent me reeling. Intense pain is reassuring because it means you’re still alive. A huge bruise and possible cracked rib takes time to heal, but I consider myself lucky.
All this shifting of cattle was in preparation for the dreaded yearly TB test, which went well. We had the benefit of a vet and bonus trainee tester who gained experience in reading skin measurements as well as efficiently filling in our paperwork. The cattle theoretically walk, or in some cases charge, down the race and hopefully trigger a self-locking headstock. But this doesn’t always work first time, so we put a bar behind them to stop them backing up. I took on this role, and one cow was faster at backing up than I was at getting the bar in position. It was an ‘ouchy’ moment when I realised my hand was trapped between the bar and the metalwork, so when the cow surged forwards again towards the headstock, I wondered if my fingers would still function.
After 44 years of marriage and several rings later, I’ve resolved to dispense with wearing a wedding ring as they simply don’t put up with the rigours of farm work. The main casualty was a macerated ring which had ripped an untidy and none too clean gash at the base of my finger. A while under running tap water, pain relief, self-applied steristrips and a temporary bandage enabled me to get on with the job.
One-handed self-suturing wasn’t a sensible option, so armed with a good book and hoping no one would notice me, I reluctantly headed to a familiar place. The receptionist was very excited to allocate my injury to a ‘cow-related column’ – first time she’d used it, she enthusiastically claimed.
I took a seat in a crowded waiting room and hoped my immune system was in good working order. Someone was sprawled on the floor periodically vomiting into a bowl. Retirement from the NHS does have some advantages, I thought, before losing myself in my book. I was given first class treatment and past colleagues recounted visits to the farm at lambing time, but mostly said they missed barn dances. Frontline staff certainly know how to party (dealing with death makes you appreciate life) so we decided a post Covid-19 barn dance would be fun to look forward to.
We had a clear TB test on Thursday, which is always a relief. The vet took some blood samples to test for BVD and PD’d the spring calving cows.
Why is it that our animals never seem to need emergency vet care within normal working hours? Sunday morning is a popular problem time slot; a Sussex cow calving, lying down, not straining but with a concerning amount of cleansing and clotted blood in evidence. On investigation, four feet, two front ones, two back ones, very tight and no accessible head. So now we had a dilemma. Should we tackle this ourselves or call in a vet? We chose the latter, but while we waited for the vet to arrive, which felt like forever, we agonised over whether or not it was the right decision; it was.
A young vet called Will arrived. We hadn’t met him before. He quickly got on with the job, starting by giving an epidural. The twins were then delivered, first normal presentation, second breach, both a really good size.
Unusually, it was the first one that needed stimulation to get going, with very bubbly breathing, while the breach was fine. When other half suggested hanging this calf over a gate to clear its airways, Will told us not to do this, as it is now considered to do more harm than good. I’m going to embrace this modern thinking, because heaving a slippery newborn calf over a gate isn’t easy.
I asked Will when his shift started, to which he replied “Friday evening”. Apparently they do a whole weekend of on-call emergency work. I remember when the doctors’ shift pattern was similar; unthinkable these days. Before Will left he advised us to make sure the twins got plenty of colostrum, so we tubed them both with some that we had in stock. We then headed off for an afternoon of disco dancing with the grandchildren and eating ‘Spot the Dog’ cake, celebrating Anna’s first birthday. When we returned, both calves were up and sucking.
Our finished lambs are making good money in market. The tups have been busy with the ewes, so we look forward to a new farming year. We’ve started filling in the 2022 diary with calving and lambing dates. Farming has its ups and downs, but I wouldn’t swap it.
Happy Christmas and stay safe.