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Striving to be a Good Shepherd

There's a pattern I've noticed in homesteading when you have a new idea for a venture: you crunch the numbers, do a couple online searches to answer questions, work it into the budget, prepare the tools, and decide when to begin. Then you jump in and you realize you may have underestimated all of the implications of such a venture. But that's too bad, because you're standing in the middle of a stall at 10:58 pm on work night, surrounded by ten wobbly, poopy, ornery day-old holstein bull calves, attempting to bottle feed them one at a time and fighting a slobbery losing battle to teach them to suckle.

There's no return policy on these things, so there are really only two options for you, farmer. You can throw up your hands and quit and maybe cry (or... maybe you do that anyways because you're 12 weeks pregnant and your mood is a little volatile) or you can grit your teeth, wipe your gooey, sticky hands on your jeans and decide that "you're going to drink this bottle, darn it, whether you like it or not." (By the way, it doesn't seem to matter how many times you repeat this homesteading pattern, by the time you come up with the next idea you have already forgotten whatever perils accompanied the last venture and you start all over.)

It's quite surprising how raising animals and farming is much like the spiritual life. Perhaps that's why metaphors dealing with animal husbandry/agriculture are the most prevalent sort in the bible. Contemplating our Lord the Good Shepherd is quite different when you stand in the midst of your own flock (or herd). I'll try to explain here what I mean.

Let me back up a bit now and tell the full story of our latest "project," raising bull calves from the local mega-dairy farm.

Some of the calves the day we picked up the second batch

We're expecting our first child in the middle of May next year (and ecstatic about it). So in the throes of morning sickness, when Curtis brought up that we ought to get some bottle calves from the nearby dairy, I was not excited, to say the least. Then he told me he wanted to get ten of them. I protested, remembering our calves from the previous spring (who were "weaned" but looked so sickly we ended up bottle feeding a few anyways).

I recalled to him early mornings heating up water for a bottle, buying expensive milk replacer, cleaning bottles constantly, and most importantly, the fact that despite our best efforts and time invested - the two calves we bottle fed all those weeks both died anyway.

He heard me out but then it was my turn to listen. Our current batch of steers will be ready to butcher in the summer of 2023. If we wait until then, or after baby comes, to get more calves, they won't be ready until the end of the summer of 2024. That's a long time to wait for more profit. We have just enough time before it gets cold and I get too pregnant (forget having a newborn or one month old to wrangle while trying to do all this) to bottle feed these calves.

Now I don't know if you know how expensive calf milk replacer is, but currently it's in the ballpark of $80-100 per 50lb bag for the really nice stuff. And when you have ten calves, a bag lasts a hilariously short amount of feedings. But, when we added up the costs (don't think about the labor and emotional turmoil I mentioned above, you never get paid for that in farming!!) it was actually more cost effective to feed newborns than to buy "weaned" calves from someone, which have about the same viability half the time.

I reluctantly agreed, eventually just resigning myself to a week or two of being a slave to these little guys. We planned on 10, with the assumption of 80% survival, so we would get 8 to butchering. But as we would find out, calves are tricky, and definitely don't like stats.

The dairy these calves came from produces a grotesque 20 calves a week to supply their 5,000 or so head of holsteins. We know the owner and are friends, but like many friends and family around us, we have quite different ideas of what farming ought to look like. I'll leave that there. When we arrived for the calves, only six were available. I had a bad feeling in my gut seeing the pile of calf carcasses right outside their barn. But they all seemed lively enough so we took them and said we'd be back next week for the other four.

The original six calves

They seemed to do great at first! They were energetic, running around and kicking up their heels, willing to drink. We got a lot of false hope from the first few hours, because by the end of the day a few weren't doing too well. Refusing to drink, we essentially were almost waterboarding them to get any milk in their system (sorry if that's harsh sounding, but we had to laugh or we would cry). By the next morning, the worst looking Jersey calf was dead. The other jersey didn't look great either, nor did one of the holsteins. We fed morning and night (we were busy all week with my Grandma's funeral preparations, also bad timing) but to our dismay by morning number 3, two more were dead.

I was crying, standing in the pen really needing to take a break because I was so desperate and mad at these calves for seeming to have no will to live, I was screaming at them and begging any saint that would listen to intercede for us. Curtis was more patient, and a little fresher, having been at work all day, and I watched him patiently work with the calves until they had at least some fluids in them. I am so thankful for the gentle and patient man I have for a husband and that in that moment when I was at my worst, he was willing to help me and encourage me.

Curtis feeding one of the Jerseys on the first day with them

So there we were. $600 down the drain it seemed, four dead calves stacked on the compost pile, two more calves looking less than vibrant laying in the stall, and we were supposed to go pick up four more on Monday. I was feeling extremely defeated, in every way. I begged Curtis to call off the other four. We could save up and buy weaned calves somewhere else, I just wanted out of the nightmare we seemed to be in.

But, as usual, the Lord and my husband had other plans.

The dairy owner heard through the grapevine of our friends that we weren't having much luck with the calves. He reached out and when we told him 4 of 6 were dead after two days, he volunteered that perhaps his workers were "not doing everything they're supposed to" so he said he'd tune them up and also offered to replace all four when we bought the last four we planned on. I was, as you might imagine, torn between relief and dread. I'm glad we were given a second chance, but did I actually want it?

By the next week, we did a bit more research, armed ourselves with more tools (a few more buckets for mixing, some anti-diarrheal boluses, plenty of gatorade and other electrolytes, and a tube feeder) and had learned from our first two (which have survived so far) how to keep better track. Monday morning we showed up and got eight much healthier looking calves. It was telling that I had to stand at the back of the trailer and stop them from leaping out as they loaded them. One skinny little guy looked unimpressive, scruffy with some dried birth sac still stuck to his coat. I was worried until I helped him out of the trailer only to have to chase him down the driveway when he hightailed it away!

The first day was a struggle again, and I was dreading the next morning after a very late night that night (that's the moment I was recalling at the beginning of this post). But a little miracle happened on the morning of All Saints' Day, and it was God's mercy to these two very tired farmers. All of them were bright eyed and bushy tailed (save for one that went downhill so fast on day one, I didn't even bother to ear tag him) and when we filled the milk bar feeders, they chugged it down so fast we could hardly believe our eyes.

Sadly, not every feeding since then has been peaches and cream, and we are in the midst of a battle even today to keep a few from succumbing to dehydration from diarrhea. I've learned to check their skin for bouncing back after pinching it to catch a dehydrated calf before it really goes down. We have been supplementing Gatorade and Re-Sorb, and more recently tubing it down the weakest one's throats to try and keep them going. It still feels a little like a loosing battle, but we are fighting it because this is the fight we have been given.

The hardest part of this whole venture is trying to help one of these small animals, when they're clearly hungry and thirsty, to drink the milk we have for them - and they simply refuse. They will run away from you, toss their heads, fight you opening their mouth to slip the nipple in. Their tongue will be flopping out of their mouth (even if they've very successfully suckled before) and just refuse to drink. Some will even refuse to swallow, if you can get any milk in their mouth. I just want to scream over and over THIS IS GOOD FOR YOU, AND I KNOW YOU'RE HUNGRY, EAT IT!!!

The calves have enjoyed some sunny afternoons soaking up vitamin D and visiting the rest of the herd

We have mused that it must be what our guardian angels and patron saints feel like at times. They are the farmers, with bottles of sweet grace that we desperately want, that we clearly need, that we're craving. We are the calves fighting tooth and nail against something so good simply because we are stubborn and don't know what's good for us.

That's where The Good Shepherd comes into the picture. A bad shepherd, heck, even a mediocre shepherd might just as easily look at this pathetic animal too stupid to help itself and too stubborn to accept help from his master and say, "You know what, good riddance, go ahead and lay down and die. See if I care." It's a real temptation (and I'm glad I have Curtis otherwise it might have ended that way for even more of our herd).

But a good shepherd does not do this. He patiently cares for his flock, every last member of it, as if it were the only one. Even when they stubbornly refuse to cooperate he will patiently offer the sustenance we need so badly, because he loves his flock.

Now unlike humans, calves do not have free will. They really are just dumb animals and don't have eternal souls, either. But they do have a purpose on our farm to fulfill and inherent goodness as part of God's creation. So unlike the Good Shepherd, who will stop offering us grace if we always refuse it out of mercy for us, so that we do not continue to offend Him... I cannot stop offering my calves milk. I know they need it and will die without it, so I keep trying, and pray that my efforts will be fruitful.

The best thing about being a Catholic homesteader os when we do everything we can and a calf still dies, we can and hopefully already have been offering our sufferings, frustrations, late night feedings, early morning filthy jeans, aching backs, and every other little cross along the way to our Father.

So, however many cows may be left at the end of this week, I pray our labors are fruitful both spiritually and temporally. It's not so bad getting to live like The Shepherd.


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