I look back at the days when I would spend an entire day in the University library studying hard for my degree and do wonder how I ever ended up as a calf rearer. This isn’t to say calf rearing is regarded as a job not worthy of a degree but it certainly doesn’t require one. Saying that, does anyone actually use what they learnt in their degree in the actual world of work? I certainly didn’t back in my corporate days and just for the record, I’m not denying the value of a degree. I don’t regret mine for a second apart from that black cloud of debt which I just so happen to conveniently forget.
So how did I end up here? Well I guess it all started in Australia when I took on a job as a Jillaroo, a cowgirl to the likes of you and I. I formed a love/hate relationship with my job in Australia’s intense outback but for me there is nothing more satisfying than working outdoors. I also liked the long hours and remote location which allowed me to save a bit of dosh, although this time round it hasn’t quite happened!
Getting horned by a bull on my last day of work pretty much put me off working on a farm/station/ranch (whatever you lot call it) but it was during my cycle tour around India where I rekindled my love for cattle. In India holy cows are everywhere and I missed the buggers. With this in my mind I put my CV on nzfarmsource.co.nz, a dairy farm recruitment website and to my surprise received a handful of job offers.
If I’m honest I had never heard of a calf rearer before and certainly didn’t know what the job entailed. That and the fact that most of the job offers meant a move to the most southern and coldest region of New Zealand in the depth of Winter. I couldn’t work out whether I was brave or just plain stupid. After watching a couple of YouTube videos about Calving to make sure I didn’t look like a total twat, I was on my way to Castle Rock Farm close to Lumsden.
Firstly, there are three things you need to know when working with cattle (we will use the term ‘cows’ to make things easier)
1. Cows are stupid
2. Calves are even more stupid
3. The calf rearer is sometimes just as stupid
Mum reckons my life goes like this
Wake up > eat > feed cows > eat > feed cows > eat > sleep > repeat
But my mum (or “bear with little brain” as we call her) is mistaken. In the peak of calving my routine goes like this:
1. Morning feed
2. Teach new calves to feed
3. Treat any sick ones by tubing electrolytes and injecting penicillin
4. Feed older outside calves using the calfeteria
5. Afternoon feed
6. Replenish hay/meal/salts
7. Cleaning jobs such as spray pens with disinfectant and steam clean feeders
Of course it is never always that simple and the little blighters cause equally much amusement as they do frustration. Calves really do have their own personality and it’s worth noting that not all are THAT stupid, like Googles, Peter, Bumble and Peg Leg Joe. Those who are don’t even warrant a name.
It amazes me how a calf can be sucking on a teat one minute and the next they haven’t a clue where the milk had just come from and start rummaging around beneath their mate’s navel. That’s one of the main tasks of calf rearing you see, teaching new born calves to drink milk from teats on the feeder. This is particularly hard if the calf’s already fed off mum before as a rubber teat is somewhat different to a cow’s udder. A lot of the time the calf is stubborn but it’s important to remind myself that it’s dismissal to feed may just be because they are missing mum.
Force feeding the calves by tube isn’t a particularly nice job especially when there’s a high risk of putting it down the wrong hole and in to the lungs which kills them instantly. It’s vital that newborns receive Colostrum Gold, the first dose of thick nutritionally rich milk from new mums, within the first few hours of their life and those who are weak or sick, are regularly tubed electrolytes. Thankfully I am yet to find myself responsible for the deaths of any calves and I’ve seen the wonders tubing electrolytes can make, however unpleasant it sounds.
Feeding time is pretty much a free for all and calves aren’t the most considerate animal. I’ve regularly had to drag a few out from the scrum who’ve been knocked down during all the excitement. Many climb on top of each other to get their mouth around a teat, and it’s not like there’s not enough to go around, they are just too caught up in the moment to realise the free teat next to them.
Some like to keep themselves to themselves while some like to get up close and personal. I had to rescue one calf after another fell asleep on it’s neck. It seemed pretty content with its mate having a snooze on top of it and no effort to move but ten minutes later I heard choking as the poor fella was suffocating. It baffles me why he wouldn’t just move.
Some get themselves caught in fences, tangled in wire and many regularly run under the wheels of my quad bike and continue to do so despite getting nudged. There’s no denying that calves are stupid. Some are smarter than others though and many of them know exactly what they have done wrong when they escape beyond the paddock’s fence line. In my strictest voice I regularly shout “get bac ‘ere you lil shit” praying that no passer by wonders what on earth this mad woman is up to. They certainly give me the run around and I had a handful of truckies and delivery drivers stop in the lane to give me a hand trying to usher the buggers back in. Crazy pom calf girl I’m probably known as around town.
The most important thing is for a calf rearer to know their calves. This helps identify any issues and illnesses and keep tabs on ages and how each calf should be progressing in life. I attempted to name them all but after a handful it all got too much. There’s a few familiar faces and those extra tame, naughty or a once sick have been lucky enough to get a name. Peter #183 is my favourite calf as since birth she has come up to me from behind and stuck her head between my legs. She stays like this when I walk and despite now being one of the biggest she never leaves my side. She’s now strong enough to lift me up and I’ve often found myself flying across the paddock on her back like something out of the Wild Wild West. I guess it’s good practice for the upcoming rodeo season and I’d be lying if I didn’t say we have great fun.
Sadly I can’t keep them all and there are parts of my job that are pretty gruesome. Not just being continuously shat and slobbered on but the harsh reality of farm life. It really is a brutal world out there but at the end of the day this is a business and although on my farm the animals are treated well, these calves aren’t bred to be pets. Some people ask me how I still eat meat knowing that my calves are tube fed at birth, processed for meat at just four days old and killed if they are sick or miss the truck. If anything it’s given me a new appreciation for animals, where our meat comes from and the extortionate amount of effort put into that burger we may scoff down at 4am while heavily intoxicated on a Saturday night. I think every young person should experience life on a farm and maybe then we will learn to treat animals with a bit more respect and think twice for taking food for granted.
Sadly my babies are growing up fast and once weaned off milk I will barely see them. I’ve tried to train them to respond to my voice and to run with me in the paddock, a bit like a dog, but no doubt that by the time they are weaned off milk and my presence no longer means food, I’ll just be that embarrassing parent who isn’t cool to be around. I’ll certainly miss caring for my calves as they’ve fulfilled my instinct to nurture as I step into my late 20’s this month, childless. Calf rearing is one of the most frustrating, demanding, rewarding jobs I have ever done and I wouldn’t think twice about doing it again.