Valley Girl (foreground, right) and Ruby Mae with Thyme looking on

The Intrepid Valley Girl, Ruby Mae and Daisy

by Guest Blogger, Brigitte Ruthman, Joshua’s Farm

SANDISFIELD, MASS- Before the first calf was born at Joshua’s Farm in the spring of 2010, I made sure to call Matt and Ben Freund at their commercial dairy farm in Canaan, Ct. to ask if they might spare a bull calf for me to raise on the expected volumes of extra milk.

I got a call from Matt April 14, eight days after I pulled Joshua’s Farm Ruby Mae from her her mother, a first calf heifer. Cow and calf had persevered through a difficult labor. I pulled the sinewy film from her nose. Ruby was a beautiful, strong, red milking shorthorn with a forceful personality.

She was no “April,” a sweet name suggested by a friend. I changed it to the bodacious Ruby Mae. If her mother’s hybrid  personality in human form would have been to wear stilettos around the barnyard, her daughter would carry on in sneakers with a superiority complex as a leader in the herd, with resiliency, broader shoulders and hanks, and a tomboy’s healthy immune system fostered by her mother’s milk.

I left the farm truck behind to make the trip to Freund’s Farm in Canaan Valley April 15 in my compact Toyota Yaris. Matt had three calves, two bulls and a heifer that had been born a twin to the smaller of the two bulls. The heifer took my breath away. She had exactly Ruby’s markings, in black and white, a neat star on her forehead.

“I’ll take her,” I told Matt.

He made it clear the calf was almost certainly infertile. The reproductive organs in these freemartins are destroyed in utero by the Y chromosome. Nearly all the time. If she had been born twin to a heifer, they would both have been fine. Occasionally- seven percent of the time- a heifer will keep her own placenta and develop her own organs independent of the bull.  Her twin was much smaller, a good sign.

Matt scooped Valley Girl in his arms from the dark pen where she lay and placed her in the back seat of my car. I gave him $10- ten dollars.

The truck came to take the other two calves away within hours. With the price of beef down, the price of gas to deliver them to slaughter just about covered what they were said to be worth. With sexed semen expensive, at that time (and maybe still), 50 percent of calves were virtually worthless.

I delivered the calf home, and deposited her near Daisy, who promptly shoved her away. Undaunted, Valley Girl made a b-line for her udder. Daisy swirled around and shoved her away. She returned again, this time sliding in behind Ruby on the other side so that when Daisy turned to see who was back there, she saw only her calf. From then on, Valley Girl had access to a rear teat and thrived without any help from me. She even managed to develop football-like tactics to gain her rear entry.


Valley Girl Nurses from Daisy, Ruby Mae's Mother

Usually in a small herd, the smallest animal ends up being shoved around a lot. Calves without protective mothers are sometimes in harm’s way and must be kept separate. Not Valley Girl. After dipping and diving to get her fill, she walked to the farthest edge of the pasture and curled up in a ball in the sun, nearly invisible in the tall grass. Once or twice I thought she had been taken by predators before I could get the calves in for the night, but she always returned. It was amazing to me that as the offspring of so many generations of factory cows, she adapted to pasture and brutal winter wind and cold and had retained enough instinct to not only survive, but thrive.

Although I wasn’t clear whether she had been given the essential colostrum as a newborn, she grew into a stunning, long legged dairy animal, with a distinctively holstein narrow face. Ruby retains the shorthorn’s solidness as a dual purpose breed. Holsteins, that make up better than 90 percent of commercial milking cows, are bred for volume. Shorthorns are sometimes kept for their beef, or for pulling.

The calves received equal attention, but Valley Girl remained shy. She would keep one step ahead of me, but when my attention turned, she would be sniffing my coat. She is always the first at the door to be let in at night, for the reward of a scoop of grain waiting inside.

During the day, Ruby and Valley Girl play like children, and seek each other out. They butt heads and kick up their heels. When one wanders off, the ears of the other raise up, then follow.

During a vet’s visit last summer, Valley Girl was given a manual inspection of her reproductive status. Dr. Leahy declared her likely fertile. What that means is a better than 50-50 chance instead of seven out of 100. The definitive check would involve a blood sample, drawn and sent to a lab in Minnesota. The test cost $100.

The reality on a working farm with no room for large freemartin pets is a trip to the slaughterhouse if she can’t be bred for milk. So far though, this independent minded holstein seems to have plotted her own destiny. When the test is performed next month, I have a feeling she  will have figured out her way to survival. I already have a perfect shorthorn sire picked out for her.

Brigitte Ruthman is a part-time farmer in Massachusets, and a career journalist. She produces eggs from a flock of heirloom hens, raises pigs, and tends to several dairy cows. Her farm recently was issued a demand from the state that she stop supplying farm fresh milk to her cowshare holders.

See the blog post, Joshua’s Farm vs. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

See today’s related post, Herdshare Bill Needs Support in Massachusetts.