Life got off to a tricky start for Lilly, but things are great now

2013-10-02 00:00

LILLY is a beautiful Sussex heifer. Her rich, red coat shines like my Jim Greens did when they were new. And she is fat. Three weeks old, she is twice the size of her peers and more playful. An advert for health and vitality, she will soon outgrow her Bonsmara mum, who hovers protectively around her.

A Sussex heifer with a Bonsmara mum? Let me tell you the story.

Robyn was called out to a cow having difficulty giving birth one beautiful spring morning some weeks ago. The cow was a member of a small Sussex herd grazing in a small pasture on what is, predominantly, a large sugar cane and timber farm in a lush and fertile valley near Wartburg. She was lying on a thick bed of kikuyu foggage, too weak to rise, too tired to push after a night of straining. Her race was all but run and the Angels Of All Things Sussex were hovering.

Her cervix had not dilated adequately and was creating an impassable barrier for the birth of the calf, which, remarkably, was still showing faint signs of life in its uterine prison. The ultimatum was given. Birth by Caesarian section or euthanasia to stop the suffering, a decision faced regularly by stock farmers during the calving season. On this farm, the cattle play a strictly utilitarian role and passengers are unwelcome. Considering her condition, it was likely that she would require some considerable post-operative management if a Caesar was elected and there was a realistic chance of complications as well. After some discussion, the farmer decided to put her out of her misery, which created a philosophical dilemma regarding the calf, which was still alive at this stage. Euthanasia of the mother would kill the calf as well. An alternative option would be to shoot the mother and immediately cut the calf out, racing against time to save it. But the farmer did not want the inconvenience. Would Robyn take the calf if it survived? You bet!

So the deed was done. The poor mum was consigned to a far more celestial medium, and as her eyes closed and her soul departed, so the calf was cut from her like a pip from an avo. It soon lay on the green carpet next to the carcass of the mother as the vet tried her best to conjure life into the tired little body. And gradually the miracle unfolded. First a faint heartbeat, then a hesitant breath, a flicker of the eye and, eventually, a reluctant cry. By the time she was bundled into the back of the pick-up, she was already trying to take her first wobbly steps. On the way back to town, Robyn made a diversion past a dairy farm near Camperdown, where she was given frozen colostrum, that life-giving essential first milk, full of the immuno-proteins required to fight all the parasitic invaders to which the newborn would be exposed in the future. She was too weak to suckle so the warmed colostrum was run directly into her rumen via a rumen tube and eventually she could close her eyes and sleep a deep, untroubled sleep, tummy full and content in a heated ward at the veterinary hospital.

This was to be her home for the next three days. She demanded two litres of milk twice daily in a coke bottle that was clasped firmly between the knees of the feeder, facing backward to mimic the anatomy of the mother. This she attacked with relish and scant regard for the welfare of the attendant who, as she got stronger, she attacked with the vigour of Bakkies Botha entering a loose ruck in his heyday. And nobody was sacred. Unsuspecting staff and clients were likely to get a cold nose rammed up their back-sides when their backs were turned. Great Danes and toy Poms would scatter in the face of the red missile trotting purposefully up the hospital passage, intimidated by the clatter of hard hooves on concrete and a devil-may-care look in the eye. Who said this gender was gentle!

Eventually, Robyn took her home to a yard in Hilton. She demolished her temporary enclosure and took up residence in the dog’s bed made from an inverted motor-car tyre. This had previously belonged to a belligerent Chihuahua who had stolen it from a benign old Labbie. Now both were out in the cold. They were no match for the forceful Lilly. But this was obviously a temporary arrangement and Robyn’s hand was forced when Lilly took an involuntary swim in the pool. Suburbia is actually for suburbanites and not for young cows with a milk addiction, and something akin to the bovine equivalent of ADD.

So bearers were sent out with messages on forked sticks and soon the ideal mix was found. A Bonsmara mum had just delivered a stillborn calf. The introductions were made and the two were left together. It was love at first sight for the new mum and she immediately assumed the role of vigorous protector. Lilly was less enamoured. She curled up in a feed trough most closely resembling her dog bed and when she woke she bellowed long and hard for the sight of two long legs wrapped in Levi’s with a milk bottle protruding from just below the backside. When this was not forthcoming, after a protracted, energetic and heartfelt search, she eventually discovered the real thing.

And this is where we leave her, for now. Grub on tap, motherly love, an endless supply of playmates and the warm African sun. Oh boy, life is great!

• The writer is a practising vet.

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