I heard Sadie from the house. A voice worried and piercing enough to raise the hairs on every part of this jaded food writer’s body. We have a fairly child-safe house block, well fenced and secure. But Hedley had discovered a way out of the yard, by sneaking through the chicken coop, and had headed down towards the creek while we were doing chores. It’s a little creek, a winter creek as they’re called here, but it held water nonetheless. When Sadie saw Hedley, he was on a plank that we use to cross over the creek. And as Sadie sprinted down to scoop up our son, the ram decided he’d use the plank, too, and our two year old toppled over the edge. He was shaken, a bit damp, but unharmed. It was a lesson for us, one that ended with no harm done, but a lesson all parents probably learn: As time goes by, your child will become more agile, more adventurous, and more fearless. They, like pigs, will walk the perimeter on a daily basis. They’ll test every fence, gate and possible escape route imaginable, and a few you haven’t thought of yet.
We’re not the only parents on the farm. There have been a few births lately. The lambs. A single chick (and hopefully more on the way). The first calf of an anticipated three. I saw the mothering instinct in all its wonder with our first new calf of the season. Born early, he was planned but unexpected. Due in December, the previous owners believed, but born within days of arriving at our place.
Because the mother, Desley, is a Lowline Angus – a short, meat breed new to our farm – we didn’t pick up the signs of impending birth, like we might have with our more familiar Jersey cow or the pigs. Doing a headcount on the new farm, I ticked off seven dark heads, not six. Poking from the grass, with ears too big for it, was Freddy’s head, with a face that was new to the farm.
If you want to move an animal, or sell it, you have to have identification tags on your cattle. We needed to ear tag and mark Freddy before he became too boisterous, and hence too hard to handle, which we promptly did early the next day. What we didn’t know is that the process of grappling with the young boy and tagging him could affect the mother-child bond. As we let him out of the stockyards to go find his mother, the youngster was shoved aside by Desley; a cow looking for her calf; one that didn’t smell like us, as he probably did after being handled over much of his body. We watched, anxiously, while for two days she occasionally groomed the young chap, yet kept nudging him away from her teats. Desley would often leave the herd and spend time mooing as if calling for her lost child.
In that time, he seemed strong, but we never saw him suckle. That’s because he didn’t. By the time he was weak enough to carry, things weren’t looking good. We returned to the place where the trouble began. Up near the stockyards where we’d tagged him, Desley, his mother was still anxiously pining for her son. I’d read about catching some of the mother’s urine to put over the calf to enforce the bond. And we could always bucket rear him, but would make our lives easier if nature worked the way it should. We knew Freddy had suckled before we’d marked and tagged him, but our actions had somehow broken the fragile thread of instinct.
Back in the stockyards and locked up with nowhere else to go, Desley paced and sniffed every inch. She knew that’s where she had left her son. The calf that she’d rejected for two days in the paddock was then brought in, suddenly at her side, recognised and allowed to drink his fill. The maternal connection was in place once more. Instinct took over and the new boy is now as feisty as a puppy, sturdy as a brick and completely thrilled to be back in the fold.