Friday, June 6, 2008

Flashback Friday: Calf Feeding


Yep, you got it, that time again. Go check out 42 for more Flashback Friday posts; if you want to join in the fun, follow the directions.

About seven years ago, my then-husband for some reason decided that we needed to move to bum-fucked Egypt so he could fulfill his heart's desire and get back to his roots and work on a dairy. Which I thought was odd given the fact that he had never been a "country boy," had never been exposed to the day-to-day life of working in the dairy industry, but being the dutiful, obedient wife I was at the time, I said, "Sure! What a great idea! Let's go!" So we moved out to this place that was (is) about 45 miles from anywhere, and he started working at this dairy. It was only about a year or so before he decided that it was, in fact, work, and "accidentally" got injured at work (which was more than half his fault, because he wanted an excise to sit on his ass and get fat and take pain pills), so in order to keep our employee housing, I had to go to work at the dairy. First, I was a milker. Yep, I was one of those people who shuffled the cows into the sheds and hooked up the little milking machines, surrounded by the smell of iodine and shit and milk (and the smell does NOT go away. To this day, I can tell who is a milker by the smell, no matter how clean they are!). But within a few weeks, I was "promoted" to the job of calf feeder.

And it was basically exactly what it sounds like: I fed calves. Although there was much more to the job than that. I would get up at the butt-crack of dawn and head over to the dairy, where I started the day out by mixing the milk; basically formula for baby cows, mixed up in a 50 gallon tank. There was a big black hose coming out the end of the tank, and to actually mix the formula, I had to fill the tank with boiling hot water, add the mix, and put the hose IN the tank and turn it on high in order to agitate the mixture. This was easy to do, but also a very precise operation; if you turned the tank on TOO high, the hose would totally take off and spin all over the place, popping out of the tank and spraying boiling formula everywhere. If you didn't turn it on high enough, the stuff wouldn't mix right and it would get all clogged up with lumps.

So; off to feed. Parts of it were actually very neat; the little babies would hear the motor of the four-wheeler and start coming up to the bars of their cubicle and bellow like they were starving to death. I would fill the bottles and put them in the holders and they would just go nuts. The newer ones needed to be taught how to suck, and also how to find the bottle once you put it in the holder, which was very time consuming; it was always a relief when they got about a week old and I could just plop the bottle in the holder and move on to the next one. We had them all grouped by age, though, so by time I got to where the oldest ones were, I could go down the row and put the bottles in, then turn right around and take the empty ones away.

I was also supposed to be a "doctor" for the babies, though, which was hard. I had only a few days of training, a very brief overview of what medicines did what, is I was really spending a lot of time just guessing. I am actually quite surprised that I didn't kill more, because I would look at one who was sick, think, hm, I haven't used THIS med before, let's see what happens. I learned how to give shots, make them swallow liquid meds, even insert IV's, which was kind of cool. When it started getting hot, some of the little ones who didn't feed well yet and certainly couldn't drink out of a bucket had a tendency to get dehydrated, so I would have to give them IV fluids and electrolytes; it is amazing how quickly they got better. I would go in to the cubicle and start running a line into some calf who was prostrate with heat, and before I was done, the little bugger would be trying to get up and fighting me every step of the way.

Some of it was fun; I learned how to drive a forklift with a 1 ton bale of straw on it, to lay fresh straw in the pens. I learned that chewing tobacco can pretty much clear up any kind of intestinal problem, and I learned how to jab a knife into the stomach of a bloated baby to let the pressure out (though believe me, sometimes that can be really, really disgusting). A lot of it was NOT fun. In the summer, when it is 110 degrees, the babies tend to get sick because of the flies, and even though we had a Bug Guy who came and sprayed weekly, there was no getting around it. I dreaded having to get into the pens with the newborns, because immediately I would be covered with flies; gross. Also, If the Maternity Guys didn't get the umbilical cords clipped and disinfected properly, flies would get in there and multiply; few things are more disgusting than checking a cord site and finding it full of maggots; too often, those babies would die. I had to early on harden my heart, too, because even though the owner of the dairy was very conscientious and ran a tight, healthy, clean place, it was still a business, and the animals just another commodity. You do what you can, you save the ones you can and try to keep the rest healthy, and when they die (as some inevitably did), you drag the carcass out to the pit and wait for the guy from the mink farm (they fed them to the mink) to show up once a week and pick them up.

I don't think I would choose to do that again; I didn't really CHOOSE to do it that time, either, come to think of it. But I also learned a lot, I liked many parts of it, and I love to be outside and actually WORKING, which was definitely a benefit of it. I am not a big person, so it was something special for me to get strong enough to throw a 60 lb. newborn calf over my shoulder and carry it to the pen, or sling bags of grain around and be able to keep up with the guys. I liked the fact that I was basically on my own, with nobody looking over my shoulders. At that point in my life, I was really struggling with my marriage (the beginning of the end came when I was working there), so it was really healthy for me to be out there and have no one to talk to, no way to distract myself in order to avoid having to contemplate the state of things or face the inevitable future. So in addition to providing a home for my family, the job offered me a chance to try to figure out what I wanted and needed, independent of what was expected of me.

I can't say as I miss the job, but it was a good thing for me while it lasted. Also, I very rarely have to take any of my pets to the vet, because I know now how to give them their shots, make them swallow a cigarette (kills worms WAY better than the medicine does!), and stitch up a cut with dental floss and a needle.


FreedomFirst said...

Wow, I had no idea tobacco was good for something! I'll keep that in mind when I get a dog. Mwahahahaha!

Anonymous said...

What a wild job to have! I can honestly say that I'd never be strong enough to do that... not physically strong, I mean emotionally strong. I always thought I wanted to be a vet when I was younger... until the day I had to put my dog down myself. No way I'd be able to deal with the sick and dying babies.

My respect for you grows with each post.

Anonymous said...

Talk about a trip down memory lane! My aunt's husband's parents (lol, you follow?) owned a dairy farm in PA, and every summer we would make a trip back there to visit. Since my family (and everyone they married) are into the whole "manual labor builds character" thing, we never did just go to visit, we were fully expected to pull our weight when it came to taking care of the farm. Which included helping out with the calves and the milking. And playing on the four wheelers. In the fields of corn that they grew themselves :). We were also always responsible for "accidentally" knocking down a row or two. Which of course garnered more chores to help out with.
I also remember the attitude towards the calves, they were willing to hand feed them and do everything they could to save them, but if they didn't make it, oh well, there's always more. I don't think that attitude will ever make sense to me, I just enjoy critters to much.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I forgot - on the tobacco thing - you can also unroll a cig in your palm, spit on it, mix it up, and plaster it on stings and bites. It helps take the burn and itching out. You can also feed a wad of it once a month to dogs and cats to worm them.

janey jay said...

Who says the blog world isn't educational -- I totally learned about half a dozen new things reading this post.

And I must echo what CableGirl said -- respect and awe for you.

April said...

Wow. In all our conversations over a year now, this is a completely new one to me!
I know I wouldn't have lasted a week in that job, but it sounds like, as with many things, you found a way to make it into an experience that made you a better and stronger person.

Maggie, Dammit said...

My best friend growing up lived on a dairy farm. Spending the night at her house meant we worked - HARD. I've always thought that everyone should have to spend some time on one.

MarĂ­a said...

I'm gonna start chewing tobacco now.

Sully Sullivan said...

Wow. I'm not sure if there's any amount of love that could first make me move to the country and second...take the reigns of the cow milking business. I admire your courage and understanding. Could you please talk to my girlfriend?

About that ghost post yesterday...needless to say it was sort of a bad day. I sort of regret not leaving the post up, but I don't think it really fit in with my whole theme. Hi, I'm Sully Sullivan and I like to understate things. Anyhow, I'm glad a few people got a glimpse, but ultimately I decided that I've been working pretty hard on that little blog and I didn't want to turn anybody off by going emo, even if for the briefest of moments. That's a post for another blog in another decade. Look for it coming soon to Sully Sullivan's Sadness and Angst Black Make-Up blog. Should be launching sometime near the apocalypse. For what it's worth, it was totally from the heart though.

Martin said...

You really are a wee mine full of story!

Great dinner guest material!