These days, Erin Parisien is never sure what to expect when she arrives at her beef cattle barns off Route 161 just south of Fort Kent.
All she knows for sure is there will likely be several new additions to the herd.
That’s because it’s smack in the middle of calving season now at Aroostook Beef Co. in New Canada. “We’re seeing two or three new calves a day.”
Though not the numbers that are seen in the big beef states like Texas, Montanna or Nebraska, Maine’s own beef numbers are respectable, according to the state’s livestock expert.
“We have a lot of beef in Maine,” Cindy Kilgore, livestock specialist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said. “In one northern Maine feedlot, they are handling between 2,500 and 3,500 cows. There are a couple of other lots that size in Maine.”
And while people tend to equate calving with spring, Kilgore, who raises beef cattle, said the due dates are really up to the farmers. She, for example, plans her breedings so the calves are due in the fall.
“We calve in October,” she said. “It’s really whatever works for the farmer — it’s a nine-month gestation, so just plan accordingly.”
So far, Parisien and her husband Richard Nielsen have welcomed 40 black Angus calves over the last couple of weeks from cows or heifers bred to one of their six bulls last May and June. By the time calving winds up next month, there should be 100 more.
“Most cows are expected to [deliver their calves] on their own,” Kilgore said. “Of course everyone hopes for a live, safe birth, where you see a nose and two front feet coming out first.”
Once the calf is born, she said, the mother should begin taking care of it immediately.
“Good mothering has to happen,” Kilgore said. “The calf will find the udder. Getting the mother’s milk in that first 24 hours is one of the most important things, because it is the best thing going, filled with fat and antibodies for the calf.”
Parisien and Nielsen carefully monitor their pregnant cows and heifers, but unless there is a medical reason to get involved they are strictly hands off when it comes to delivering newborns.
A “heifer,” according to Parisien, is defined as a female cow which has never calved.
As first-time moms, these animals may need a bit of barnyard midwifery if their maternal instincts don’t kick in right away.
“Most of the time if there’s an issue, it’s she won’t turn around and lick her calf like she should after it’s born,” Parisien said. “So we basically need to show her the calf. If she does not start to care for it herself, we are in for a bottle-fed calf.”
Bottle feeding a newborn is all fluffy cuteness for about an hour, Parisien said with a laugh.
“Then it’s just plain work,” she said. “We had five or six we had to bottle feed last year, each one three times a day.”
Then there are the calves who are a bit too ambitious when it comes to getting a meal.
“A cow knows which calf is hers,” Parisien said. “They won’t nurse another cow’s calf, but those ‘stealer’ calves can get away with it sometimes with the heifers.”
Looking over the “nursery” barn full of cows and calves, Parisien points to an adult heifer that had crowded up to a cow and was showing great interest in the older animal’s milk-laden teets.
“That’s a problem, too,” she said. “It never fails, every year we have one cow that steals milk from another, and we have be like, ‘No, you go feed your own baby. Don’t steal milk from another mom.’”
For the most part, she said, the cows, heifers and calves enjoy a calm and peaceful coexistence spread out between two barns and a snow-covered pasture.
The pregnant animals and calves were all housed in a single structure up until last week when things got a bit crowded with all the newborns, so the moms and calves were moved several hundred feet down a dirt road to a the nursery barn.
“That was pretty much chaos,” Parisien laughed. “Calves running everywhere [and] they really like altitude, so a bunch of them ended up on snowbanks.”
Meanwhile, the pregnant cows and heifers stayed behind and on any given day welcome two or three newborns.
“The calves always seem to come just before Richard shows up in the morning to check them,” Parisien said.
And while a majority of those calves arrive on their own with no help from Parisien or Nielsen, once they do arrive, there is work to be done.
Weighing in at around 80 pounds at birth, each calf is welcomed into the world with a shot containing minerals including selenium and copper and vitamins. Each calf’s umbilical stump — the “belly button” — is treated with an iodine solution to promote healing and prevent infection and the males are castrated.
Finally, a tag is attached to each newborn’s ear with coded information indicating it’s breed and age.
On a recent sunny March day, calves were scattered around the nursery barn, some actively nursing, some exploring and others curled up snoozing on a sunny pile of hay with their moms keeping a close eye on them nearby.
“They are cute now,” Parisien said. “It’s crazy to think their weight is going to increase 10-times their first year.”
Kilgore said weight gain can also make a formidable protective mom.
“When we are working on the new calves, you want to be quick and if you are lucky the mom won’t interfere,” she said, adding with a laugh, “heaven help you if the calf ‘blaats’ because mom is armed and dangerous.”
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