Dehorning calves. The sort of job that makes being a wrestler look like a soft option.
It’s a necessary task, however, if you want to avoid a close encounter with a frisky bullock, heifer or cow – plus horns – at a later stage in their life.
Usually there are only a few calves to do at a time and normally they are only a week or two old. But pressure of work and a bunch of calves all being born close together in the last month, has meant we have several to deal with at once. Years ago, we twinned the task of dehorning with debullocking the bullocks. So to speak.
For this delicate task, a grim tool of the trade named a Burdizzo was used. It’s an appliance we used to frequently threaten our amorous labrador Jack with if he continued to try to romance most of the bitches in the village. Now he has gone to the great kennel in the sky and we keep the bull calves entire, so the Burdizzo is a redundant farm relic.
As I was unable to furnish any decent excuses to get me out of assisting with the task, my job was to restrain the calves while the dehorning operation took place. Despite seeming a barbaric undertaking, I have been assured no pain is involved.
The calves first receive an anaesthetising injection and, after waiting for a few minutes for the shot to take effect, the fun starts. Repeated reiterances to the calves that the procedure will not hurt fails to convince and we expect resistance to the halter being dropped round their necks so the calves can be held still while a gas poker is applied to their horn buds.
They may be anaesthetised, but remain lively, and it is at this stage that John is forced to request my assistance.
Our preferred method of gripping the calf is to sit astride it – provided they do not take off in a rodeo style across the yard, as ours tend to do. We have a cattle crush, but it is too large for the calves and the other technique of pressing the calf close to the wall and leaning against it to hold it in place usually ends up with both me and the calf on the floor. I cannot blame them for opposing this intimate handling, but once restrained the necessary task can be completed swiftly, as long as I can hang on.
The smell of singeing does not always consist solely of scorched hair and horn. Often it includes the scent of burnt overall where John has leant over his victim too closely and risked dehorning himself. Again, so to speak. Indeed most of his farm trousers and overalls are neatly ventilated by burnt fabric.
By now, the herd will have been inside for nearly five months and the supply of big bales is swiftly diminishing as stock needs a generous amount of straw carpeting each day. The barn resembles a crazy apartment block, with remaining bales forming balconies, passages and secret rooms.
An ideal habitat for broody bantams where they can lay eggs, sit them for three weeks and emerge proud mothers of a flock of fluffy chicks before we have even noticed they have gone missing from the hen hut. The result of this enlightened programme of mismanagement is that each spring we are overrun with banties.
Wherever you go in the building, barns or yards, there will be a gang of them fighting, feeding or fornicating. They dice with death under the hooves of the cows and narrowly avoid being flattened by tractor tyres. At night, they perch on top of the bales plotting despicable deeds, their silhouettes resembling a line of hunched assassins waiting to pounce.
Chief threat to the banties are any foxes who might take the odd night-time stroll through the yard. As long as the bantams are high up they are safe. Come down closer to earth and life becomes riskier. So, when we do want a broody, we try to sit them in an enclosed run. Our banties come from an unstable psychiatric background. Some will sit on a brick. Others go completely psychotic if it is suggested they abandon a draughty, exposed hole in a haystack for a cosy box with all mod cons and refreshments provided.
As well-known owners of a flock of single mothers, we are often in receipt of requests for a broody – the latest to sit an early clutch of guinea fowl eggs. I knew where a potential mum was sitting and indicated the site to John. As he approached the nest a low level, warning cackle greeted him.
Then, sensing nefarious motives in John’s groping round in the straw, the bantie reached full screech, quietening only to drill a neat set of perforations into the back of his hand.
Seconds later the infuriated bantie sprang out, intent on death before dishonour. Let me take a moment now to reassure any football team managers that we have a replacement should they need a new goalkeeper because John’s hand shot out and grasped the bantam mid air, mid neck. Expiring bantie. Exultant John. If that bantam can ever be persuaded that it is a worthwhile occupation to sit on a clutch of eggs again it will be a miracle.
Meanwhile, John has a line of holes across the back of his hand that neatly match those made in his trousers.