The last couple weeks have been keeping with the theme of the summer and passed by at what felt like record speed. Earlier this week the calving season began with the birth of several little ones. The field behind the house has now become the nursery and when you stand at the kitchen window you can sometimes see a small tuft of brown fur and two little ears sticking up out of the grass in the distance.
Camera in hand, I decided to slide on my boots and walk out to the field to snap some photos. I’m always a bit hesitant to go marching up to the calves when their protective mothers (some armed with their large horns) are standing just a few meters away. Jean-Yves reassured me that the mothers would probably come up to keep an eye on me but that otherwise I needn’t worry.
I find that visiting the calves are best when they are just a few hours or a day old. They are calm, seemingly half-asleep or asleep for much of the day. You can approach them slowly and crouch beside them in order to give a few scratches behind the ears or to pet their extraordinarily soft little forms. However, within a day or two they have grown accustomed to life outside the womb and will run around excitedly, their back legs flinging in all directions, whenever you come within petting distance.
As you arrive at the farm there is a massive building being constructed. This, séchoir à foin has been in the making for several years. While demolition and construction may have only started last fall, the project has been a goal of Fañch’s for quite some time. Quick explanation time.
A séchoir à foin translates directly to a “hay dryer”. Essentially, this expansive building will replace the grass silage that the farm depended on during the winter months. There will be three separate “cells” where hay will be stored and three large ventilators will blow warm air throughout the building to dry the hay. A large crane will be suspended from the ceiling and one of us (though usually Fañch) will climb the platform, sit inside the crane, and then maneuver it along the tracks in order to grab the hay and move it.
The decision to switch to this method was made for several reasons. One, the dry hay is much better for the animals’ health than silage. Also, the working conditions are improved for the farmer. Another important benefit is that the quality of the milk improves. This means that any products made from the milk will also improve.
Well I saw the fox again, though I wish I hadn’t under these circumstances.
The other day I went to check on the Bretonne Pie Noir calves in the barn. Last week I hadn’t been able to spend too much time at the farm so I was eager to go see them again. Everything seemed to be going well, the calves watched me with curious eyes while still maintaining their distance, sometimes taking a few hesitant steps in my direction. Then, just as I was getting ready to go, I spotted something in the shadows of the corner of the barn.
A calf lay motionless, its stillness a drastic contrast from its lively brothers and sisters playing a few yards away. The fearless fox stood next to the lifeless form, taking a pause from its meal to lock eyes with me before returning to what he had been doing. Judging by the state of the calf it wasn’t the first time in the last day or so that the fox had had his fill.
My eyes widened as I took a moment to process what I was seeing, having never had such a close encounter with the natural cycle of the predator-prey system. I ran to the building next door where Jean-Yves and Annie were doing the evening milking and told them what I had seen. Jean-Yves followed me back to the barn, where the fox was still helping himself to another course. Even when Jean-Yves climbed into the pen the fox didn’t go running. He did stop eating and walk to the other side of the barn, keeping a watchful eye on his meal. Jean-Yves picked up the small body and hoisted it over the wall of the pen. Despite the rather gruesome state the fox had left the poor calf in, I couldn’t seem to look away. A few days ago the slender legs had been propelling the calf around the pen, jumping and kicking with youthful energy. Now the still body was an unexpected reminder that despite all we can do to raise thriving, healthy animals, nature is still a stronger force than we can ever hope to fully understand or control.