3 years ago, when I was in the UK visiting my Dad with the boys, I got a message from Stephen saying “I just bought a cow!”. My response was something supportive like “You bought a what?!” until I eventually established that no he wasn’t kidding and yes he’d bought a cow. A real one. Granted the messages had been preceded by ones like “I’m at an auction!” and “They have cows here!” so I really should have seen it coming. When I told my Dad and he expressed surprise I said “Are you really surprised? Doesn’t this seem exactly like the kind of thing we do?”. He conceded this was the case.
I’ll admit to being unimpressed by Stephen’s mystery purchase and when he sent me a picture of a scraggly, skinny and frankly hacked off looking cow my spirits didn’t lift massively. It was when he told me that she was a bit underweight, a bit unloved and pregnant that the tide started to turn for me. I have a bit of a thing for bringing neglected things back to life (hence the purchase of 100 acres of derelict land) and she was just that; neglected, unwanted and now all ours.
A couple of weeks later our second hand cow calved out a still born calf, a truly sad outcome that hit us quite hard. She was boarding with our kind neighbour who looked after her perfectly, but he told us that with her being underweight and a bit neglected she was at a higher risk of losing her calf. On most farms that would have been the end for her, she wasn’t calving healthy calves so the road would have firmly ended. But not with us. That summer she ran with our neighbour’s bull and the following spring she calved out a beautiful bull calf for us. Quietly and without fuss she proved her Mama skills.
Devoted Mama that she was we bred her again and last spring she gave us Daisy, a beautiful Angus/Simmental cross, born in the pasture on a warm day in May. Again she showed what a devoted mother she was and raised up a strong and healthy girl. Our herd was growing and Morag was its centre, the others followed her lead and were kept in line by her firm but fair direction. She was the Queen Cow and, frankly, she was our favourite. Extra oats for Morag all winter? No problem. Someone wants their head scratched? Morag is first in line. She let us fuss her, for as long as she wanted and no longer, and had a judgmental stare a 17th century nun would have been proud of. We adored her.
When Morag first came to live with us we noticed that she never mooed. Now contented cows don’t have that much to moo about, but our other cow would occasionally let out a moo or two, maybe of greeting, maybe to alert us to the fact that a few more oats would be quite welcome thank you. But Morag never made a sound. Sometimes a raspy cough but that is it. But when her first calf came along that changed, a Mama needs to be able to call to her baby and that’s what she tried to do. At first her moo was harsh, like a voice that has gone unused for a really long time; but one day, when her little guy had strayed just that bit too far she let out a true Mama bellow. After that she could moo like a champ, like a lot of us she found her voice when she was a Mum.
Last summer we bred our top girl up to some primo Angus love juice. We were hoping for a lovely heifer to finally succeed her mother to the crown, years down the line we’d have Morag’s daughter to continue her proud heritage. She duly fell pregnant on the first try and munched her way healthily through summer, fall and winter emerging wide and very, very pregnant when spring finally dawned. With just two weeks to go we were excited about her calving out and enjoying the warmer weather that had finally arrived.
On Saturday morning we went out to find her ‘cast’, stuck on her side and unable to get up. We called our neighbour and then the vet to check the calf and help us get her up. We determined that she couldn’t stand, that her hip was either dislocated or broken, but either way things weren’t good. We managed, after much work and a very long day, to get her in a comfy warm spot where she could eat and drink and be warmed by the sun. The vet induced the calf as she was less that two weeks before her due date and we watched and waited. Stephen didn’t sleep that night, going out every hour to check that she hadn’t rolled back onto her side and managing to get her back over when she did. It was a real act of devotion on his part.
The next day, the hottest of the year, we waited and watched again. We hoped she would calve out naturally and perhaps the reduced load on her body would free her hip up to get back into place. We prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. As her labour progressed we had great hope, she’d birthed her last two with relative ease and calm; but time dragged on and even our neighbour began to be concerned. We called the vet again, hoping he could help to pull the calf or give her a jab to help strengthen her contractions. She was clearly worn out and the calf was at grave risk.
Within moments the vet pronounced that we had two choices, lose Morag or lose them both. Her pelvis had shattered as a result of what can only be described as a freak accident, and possibly compounded by her not being a young cow (we think somewhere between 11 and 16 at the outside), there was no possibility of recovery. We agreed to a c-section to bring out her calf and then he would end her life as quickly as possible.
I sat by her head as the vet worked, I stroked her neck and told her how brave she was. I promised that we would look after her baby for her, I told her what a good girl she was. Stephen helped to pull the calf out and clear her of mucus while I tried to keep Morag calm. She was not in pain but she was scared, I tried to help her feel better. I remembered how I had felt when my first boy came into the world via c-section; I cried while I did it and for a while after too. She saw her little baby girl come into the world, the girl we had so hoped for, but had never imagined she would be born like this. Born to trade places with her own Mama within moments. And then Morag was gone.
We tended to calf in the sunshine, rubbing her with towels and cuddling her. We sat with Morag while our neighbour dug a place for her in our woods, a peaceful spot under a break in the trees. The vet went off to get colostrum from a nearby dairy for us and so we sat together with our new girl and our old girl. I couldn’t seem to stop crying and even Stephen, my tough northern chap, had a suspiciously husky tone to his voice. It had all been so quick, so sudden and so terribly, terribly sad.
At that moment our sow, basking blissfully in the sun a few feet away, broke wind in a long and pleasingly full bodied parp. It went on for some time and seemed to make her even more satisfied. We turned and looked at her, laughing at the timing and watched her piglets bouncing around her, enjoying the sun alongside their Mummy. We laughed because it was funny and because, as the saying goes, if you don’t laugh you’ll cry.
Morag has stayed on the farm, she’ll always be here with us. We didn’t want her life to end this way but I’m glad her final years were spent as Queen of the Herd, pampered, adored, praised and loved. Her baby girl will grow up to be the rightful heiress to her kingdom I’m sure, we are already devoted to her, feeding, stroking, fussing and spoiling her. We decided to call her Wee Morag Silver Linings, because she is the gift her Mama gave us.
I told my neighbour, a kind but laconic fellow, a man of few words to say the least, that I could see she would be spoiled rotten in no time at all.
“Well,” he replied “Better spoiled than not I’d say.”