Parched earth

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It is incredibly dry on the farm right now. We haven’t had a drop of rain since April and that after an unusually dry summer. Farmers never seem to be happy with the amount of rain they get, but this really is a drought. One which could have devastating consequences if it doesn’t rain soon. What is normally considered a quiet time on the farm has now become a daily struggle to make sure our animals have enough food and water. Many of our dams have been depleted to pools of mud so water has to be brought in by tractor twice a day – a very laborious and time consuming process. Fully functioning boreholes and windmills are precious commodities right now. Sadly not all of ours are working, which limits grazing options especially in the tracts of land on top of the mountain. There are spots of green where wheat is growing, but the crop is definitely a failure since the germination rate was only about 30%. The landscape would be pretty monotone brown if it wasn’t for the willow, poplar and oak trees! Nevertheless, life goes on and Quentin is making the best of a depressing situation carefully eyeing the weather forecast each day for rain. Hopefully it will come next week or at least before the end of October.

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Calving season has been in full swing since August, which is usually a joyful experience. We have many different groups of cattle sorted according to age and type (Boran, Angus and cross-bred animals). This year, our heifers (cows calving for the first time) have been very labour intensive because they are still quite young so many of them are having trouble giving birth. The heifer group is checked twice a day so that problems can be picked up quickly. I can’t count how many times Quentin has been called out to go an “pull” a calf or rescue a weak mother stuck in the mud. Sometimes it feels like he is a gynaecologist rather than a farmer! The calves are eternally cute especially when they have just been born and stand up on wobbly legs in search of their mother’s teats. One often has to look carefully to find the calves because their mothers hide them away from predators during the day. Most of our cows should calve by mid-November and then if it has rained, attention will turn to the planting of summer crops. It is amazing how the same cycle of activity can feel so different each year depending on the weather. In the three years I have lived at Vastrap I’ve experienced both extremes of too much rain and too little… is it too much to hope this time for a Goldilocks season that’s just right? Only time will tell.

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Motherly Affection

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The Boran have extremely strong mothering instincts, which make them very protective of their calves. Perhaps this has something to do with their heritage in Kenya of grazing in the veld alongside wild animals (see The Boran: God’s Gift to Cattlemen). I saw this first hand one day when I was walking the dogs and came across Hope MHB 07-12 who had been separated from her new born calf. Some how the calf had landed up on the other side of the fence from her. She was going crazy and started charging the dogs! I quickly got them out of the way and went to call Quentin to help. It was quite a struggle to get her through the gate without being charged, but all she wanted was to keep her calf out of danger. She was perfectly happy once they were reunited.

Below are some beautiful photos capturing special moments between Boran cows and their calves.

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A Calf is Born

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I posted these photos on Facebook in May before I started this blog. They received such an overwhelming response that I wanted to share them again. In fact, this series of photos is part of the reason why I decided to start this blog, because I realised how many special stories there are waiting to be shared about our life on the farm.

I originally planned to share the photos in early August at the start of calving season, but then events overtook us and we ended up with the little calves in our kitchen last week (see Calving Season has Begun! and R.I.P Little Calf). Hopefully this will be the last calf-related post for a while and you can rest assured that this story has a happy ending! It is also apt because Ashley is visiting us at the moment and she was with us when we watched this little embryo calf being “pulled” from its surrogate mother. It was a real miracle and we were so privileged to witness it.

Quentin arrived home in a very big hurry one afternoon in late May shouting for Ashley and me to come with him. There was a cow in distress and she needed help with the delivery of her calf, which was in a breach position. This was the first I had ever heard about “pulling a calf” so I was naturally intrigued. The calf would not have survived without help and Quentin really wanted to make sure that he/she was not harmed, because it was the first embryo calf from his prize Boran cow Jackie MHB 05-08. We prayed that he/she had not been in distress for too long.

Francis is the hero of this story. He is one of the chief mechanics and drivers on the farm, but he also happens to be an expert at pulling calves (go figure?). He kept his cool throughout and took such care to make sure that everything went smoothly. Notice too that Ashley was in her favourite farm gear – her flower girl dress from our wedding that she did not take off all summer while she was visiting us! I just love this series of photos and I hope you appreciate them too.

Two hooves peeking out…

Francis is the expert at pulling so he takes the lead.

The strength of five men…

… pulling hard on the rope tied to the calf’s legs!

It’s a girl and she is breathing!

Francis checks to see if she is okay.

Mom says hello with a lick.

Say hello to Jackie VST 12-04!

Ashley takes a closer look.

Hip, hip hooray for a job well done!

R.I.P. Little Calf

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It’s been a sad few days here at Vastrap. Ashley arrived at the farm on Sunday for her monthly 10 day visit. On Monday an extremely severe cold front swept through the country causing snow fall in all nine provinces. I was in Johannesburg for a night on Monday and when I drove back to the farm on Tuesday it was starting to snow quite heavily in the city. The last time I saw snow like that in Joburg was in 1981 when I was six! Anyway, I got back to the farm and everything was covered in white.

The rose garden.

The mountain.

Ashley and Quentin with their snowman.

As beautiful as it was, and as much as the kids enjoyed the snow, it was not a good time for the little calves that I wrote about in my last post, “Calving Season has Begun!”. Quentin was extremely busy on Monday and Tuesday with the hoof smith who was checking all the bulls and cows for hoof problems and genetic faults. He didn’t have time to check on the calves until late Tuesday afternoon just after I arrived home.

He came home in a state, because the little calf that we had found in an aardvark hole on Saturday had almost frozen to death. Its tail had been eaten off by a jackal and its one eye looked like it had gone blind. He was too weak to stand and drink milk from his mother. In addition, Quentin could not find one of the calves that had been perfectly healthy on Sunday (the one with the black cow mother in the previous post) and another had died during child-birth.

Quentin brought the sopping wet calf without a tail home. We immediately put the little thing in front of the Aga stove and spent ages blow-drying it. We also tried to feed him a mixture of ideal milk, egg and milk, but he did not eat much and looked very weak and traumatised.

Drying the baby calf.

Ashley saying hello.

With Sibella and the dogs.

Trying very hard to get it to drink.

He looked okay the next day, but still wouldn’t eat much and struggled to stand.

Lying in front of the warm stove with Paris.

We took him outside for a walk and a wee. The dogs were quite puzzled by this new arrival in the house and kept sniffing the wound on his tail.

Resting on the grass with Coco.

Then Quentin arrived home with another little one whose feet had frozen during the night. She couldn’t stand or walk and would’ve died left like that. We immediately got the blow dryer out to thaw her feet so that she could go back to her mom as soon as possible. It was obvious that she was much stronger than the other little one.

And then there were two!

Fortunately she got up quite quickly and started stumbling around the kitchen island. After a few rounds she was walking more confidently and ready to go back to her mom. We checked on her this morning and although she looks quite weak she is drinking. Phew!

Eeck! There’s a calf in my kitchen!

Curious Coco.

We carried on trying with the first calf, but he really was not looking good. He just wouldn’t drink from the bottle so eventually Quentin had to pour the milk down his throat just to get some sustenance in him.

It just wouldn’t drink from the bottle.

That night we knew that things were not going to turn out well. He was not getting up and his breath became more and more laboured. All we could do was put him in front of a warm fire and stroke him.

Sleeping in front of the warm fire.

This morning he was gone. Hopefully a more peaceful death than he would have had out in the cold night. The kids were sad, but all along we had said that he might not survive. We all agreed that the best thing to do would be to put him back with the elements and let nature take its course. Perhaps we shouldn’t have interfered in the first place.

My father-in-law says this is the coldest weather he has experienced on the farm in his 60 years of farming. I think the main difference is that we usually have dry cold, which the animals can handle, but as soon as it is wet and cold they really struggle. In total, Quentin lost five calves in the past few days – one disappeared before anyone saw it, two disappeared after birth (suspected jackal), one died during birth, and one died on our kitchen floor in front of the Aga. R.I.P. little calves. Hope you enjoy it up there in calf heaven.

Calving season has begun!

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It’s calving seasons at Vastrap! Since the end of July little babies have been arriving all over the place keeping Quentin, Abraham, Tshidiso and Molantwa very busy recording each birth and checking to see that there aren’t any problems.

We have three different types of calves at Vastrap. The naturally bred Angus and Boran calves and the Boran embryo calves born to surrogate mothers. For the natural breeding season the cows are with the bulls for about three months between December and February – about 3 bulls to every 100 cows. A cow’s gestation period is the same as a woman so the calves are born between the end of July and October. The timing of the breeding season is determined by the fact that we are a summer rainfall area so the grazing is better from October through to March.  Also, our winters are very severe so a cow cannot raise a calf in the harsh months of May to July.  While food is still scarce in August and September, the newly harvested maize fields provide an extra source of sustenance.

This was the first Angus calf born this season. Its mother had bottle teats so it could not suckle properly. The mother had to be milked by hand to reduce the swelling so that the calf could get his mouth around the teats.

Angus cow with “bottle teats”.

Just born Angus calf with her mother.

Embryo calves are born throughout the year depending on when the surrogate mother is implanted with an embryo. Using embryos allows us to increase the size of the Boran herd more quickly, but we only use cows with the best genetics to ensure that the quality of the herd improves over time (see The Boran: God’s Gift to Cattlemen). In the past one could only multiply the best genetics through the sire by using artificial insemination (AI), however advances in embryo technology now allow dam genetics to be propagated too.  Embryo technology is a lot more complicated and expensive so it is used only with really top genetics.

This weekend I helped Quentin to check on the embryo calves being born and to document them. For each new calf we take down its mother’s number, date of birth, sex, colour and weight. The new babies are so cute and soft! It is quite funny how they look so different from their mothers. Some of the calves are full brother and sister because the embryos came from the same sire and dam.

Surrogate mother and her new Boran calf.

A cute little white one.

Surrogate mothers do a great job with their little ones.

A group of full brothers and sisters from Jackie MHB 05-08 & Co-Jack CI 08-030.

Things don’t always go according to plan. On Saturday evening we found a little calf that had fallen into an aardvark hole. The poor little thing would have died if we hadn’t been there and hadn’t got out of the car to look around. It was getting dark so the photos aren’t that good, but he was really squashed in there!

Stuck in a hole.

 Helping him stand on his numb legs.

His mother also had an injury to her leg, but she ran away when we had saved the calf. We spent about half an hour trying to herd her back to the calf so that she would bond with him and feed him, but she kept running away on her funny leg. In total frustration Quentin said this is where the saying “stupid cow” comes from!

Early on Sunday morning we went back to check on the calf and took a bottle of milk with in case it had been abandoned. He seemed fine and warm, but his mother was nowhere to be seen.  We tried to chase her back towards the calf, but she didn’t want anything to do with him. Just in case we fed him the milk and tried again to get her to go to him. We’ll only know tomorrow whether this mission succeeded. At least she was standing close to him when we left, but she still didn’t seem that interested and we hadn’t actually seen him drink from her. These things sometimes happen when heifers calf for the first time. They just need a little bit of help to learn how to be good mothers.

Feeding the little calf a mixture of milk and egg.

Lapping it up!

Too cute!

Stupid cow ignoring her little calf.