Finally it's February, the days are getting longer and Christmas is well and truly behind us. Dawn is breaking earlier and the struggle to get out of bed is made much more bearable by the fact that it could be very nearly light while I stumble around in the early morning trying to button up a clean work shirt. It often becomes apparent at about 2pm while i’m stood in the queue at Barclays bank with one trouser leg turned up, one trouser leg rolled down and stuck in my boots, that I struggled in vain at the whole button thing. With time on my hands to look about, I often find the origin of a strangling collar and a shirt that refuses to stay ‘tucked in’. The cause of course is that I've somehow managed to not only misalign the buttons with the holes, but also buttoned one over the top of another and missed out some all together. This wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't been to several different places running errands, the vets, the butcher, the chemist, grain dryer and feed stores. What’s even worse is that you can’t unbutton and then re-button your shirt whilst stood in a long line of people that are facing three cashiers behind glass screens in a room full of security cameras, I'm pretty sure if I tried it would result in being placed in a shirt that I couldn’t unbuckle without the help of nurse.
There is also Valentine's day to contend with and this year will mark five years of Mr Farmer and I’s everlasting love. I knew it was love at first sight as I saw him walk up the high street on our blind date, I knew it was him. He knew it was love when I climbed over a gate at the hinged end. Our first date started with a casual coffee and then a tour of his farm which wasn't so very far away. Coming from the hills I started pointing and asking stupid questions about things that were new to me. “What's that?” pointing at some oil seed rape, “what's that for?” pointing at a calving gate. The jewel in the crown was most likely when I asked “where are all your walls?” as I clambered over yet another fence. I’d never seen so many fences, there wasn't a wall in sight, how did the cows stay in? At home we struggled to keep fifteen cows contained behind miles of drystone walls, surely they must be galavanting about all over the place without any walls? Thankfully Mr Farmer just smiled and pointed out that they used fences in the lowlands and they worked quite well. Five years later I'm glad for the fences, it means I don't have to spend hours rebuilding sections of walls, only to find the next section of collective stones got jealous and threw itself on the ground in the night.
Our second date consisted of taking a bull with a broken penis to the abattoir, romance can reach dizzying heights and regardless of the impending doom for the creature towed behind us, we had a thoroughly enjoyable time. As you can guess, farming and romance are not two things that fit well together. There are odd romantic moments but I do wonder if I'm just imagining them. Leaning on a gate together looking out over the hay meadow, while the river meanders around the snowdrop wood and the spring sun shines on us both; I rest my head on Mr Farmers shoulder and savour the moment. It's also quite possible that Mr Farmer feels the same, it is also quite possible that Mr Farmer is trying to remember how many metric hectares converted from imperial acres the field is and how many metric kilos of fertiliser converted from imperial stones he spread on it last year.
After a bad week at work, I finally spat the dummy out and walked out on my overstressed boss and underpaid colleagues. It all started with a customer throwing a 500 gram block of mature cheddar down the checkout at a trainee and it all ended with four cages of ice cubes that got stuck in the lift, defrosted and then short circuited the whole shops electric. Now I work part time feeding and bedding cows for another farmer, not a block of cheddar insight. This leaves me time to continue with the never ending tasks at home.
The pregnant ewes (lady sheep) have recently been scanned with an ultrasound to determine how many lambs she is going to have. There’s no ooo’ing and ahh’ing over the black and white picture as you're too busy trying to shove more sheep up through the pens to the scanner man while someone behind your keeps driving more sheep down the yard at you. Each sheep is marked accordingly, a ewe expecting a single lamb gets a blue mark, a triplet a red, and twins are left unmarked. If a ewe has an orange neck it signifies that she is not expecting anything; mutton anyone?
The singles, twins and triplets are all separated into groups and fed accordingly, it helps use your feed wisely and it stops greedy ewes that are expecting a single lamb gorging themselves until the they are so fat and the unborn lamb is so big that it becomes unlikely you'll be able to pull it out at all. It works the other way around too, ewes that are expecting triplets are not bullied out of the feed troughs by the greedy fat ewe expecting a single and don't become so weak that they haven't got enough energy to grow lambs, sustain their own lives and start producing milk, this lack of energy is dubbed twin lamb disease from the days before scanning and when the flock was run all together.
Calving starts around the 20th for us, our cows give birth in three batches at different times over the spring, starting with the heifers. Approaching two years old, heifers are like teenage mums. Giving birth is a new experience, they spend a lot of time standing back up after laying down to look behind them and see what on earth is going on. When the calf is eventually pushed out, it's an important time, if left in the sack from the womb it can suffocate. Hormones should normally take control of the situation as they surge around the young mums brain - telling her that she needs to eat the sack and then lick the slimey wet thing she's just dropped on the shed floor until it stands up. It can take a little while for these hormones to find the right place and in the meantime Daisy might retreat to the other side of the shed away from whatever strange things have just happened behind her. Sometimes another heifer, whose hormones have switched on three hours too early will start licking and trying to mother the other cows calf. This is normally the point when all Daisy’s hormones hit her brain all at once and she charges through the straw and starts head butting the other mother. Heads down and seemingly superglued together they circle round the shed scattering other heavily pregnant heifers to the walls. Now is a good time to send in the cavalry to prevent them trampling on the newborn calf, by cavalry I mean one of us with a stick and a very loud shouty voice. The stick is for self defence as Daisy might interpret the man whose shirt is all buttoned up wrong as a threat and turn on him.
The next two calving batches have all had calves before and sometimes they push them out, lick them and get them to drink like clockwork. A calf is born with enough energy to get it up on its feet and find which part of its mother the milk is available from, some think that they are elephants and spend a lot of time nuzzling around the front end of their mother until they learn they are not elephants and that the buffet carriage is at the rear of the train. The first milk from the cow is luxuriously thick and creamy, it contains heaps of goodness, energy and antibodies that stop the calf becoming ill from any nasties found on the farm.
Some cows make a meal of it, pawing at the ground, pushing, laying down, standing up and so on and so on, these cows will normally calve on their own - but they choose to do this just as you're about to head to the shop before it closes because there is only an out of date tin of pilchards and a mouldy bread bun left in the cupboard for dinner. The choices are as follows;
Stay and watch for thirty minutes until the cow gives birth naturally and unaided, drink tea without milk, go to bed hungry.
Visit the supermarket, return home to find the cow laid on its side groaning as it tries to push out the biggest calf you've ever set eyes on. Fetch ropes, equipment, call for backup, call the vet, go to bed after midnight exhausted and still hungry because you're too tired to tear the film of that ready meal and microwave it for three and a half minutes.
Amongst all this excitement, a routine of bedding the sheds with straw daily to keep the cows clean is in operation, enough hay and silage is left out for them to eat and routine maintenance of tractors and machinery continues. No wonder every farmer that passes the ‘book now for Valentines night’ sign outside the pub frowns.