It's not quite correct to call the students volunteers. They are taking the winter term "calving class" which is purposefully offered when there are research experiments involving pregnant cows.
And the supervisors are only distinguished by our status as graduate students, vets students, or faculty involved in the study. We might not have any more experience than the students!
At the start of this week, there was a final head count of 45 pregnant cows, five cows per pen, three pens per dietary treatment. While the whole herd was artificially inseminated within a few days, their due dates are spread out from the last week of January to the first week of March.
The supervisors have long shifts, four to six hours, in order to keep some continuity of information flow, while the students have 1- or 2-hour shifts. It was pretty clear that the PI was going to have a very difficult time filling the supervisor shifts in the dead of night (in theory, the students can be compelled to sign up for those slots by their instructor). So I agreed to take the 2am to 6am supervisor shift.
I left quite a few slots at that time open for others to sign up, but not surprisingly, almost nobody took me up on it. Out of the five to six weeks we need to be at the barn, I'll only get a break half a dozen times.
Most days, it won't be a problem. But on MWF, I have a class at 8:30. It's a bit rushed for me to get home, feed CircusK9, shower, and get to campus for class if I am delayed at the barn after 6am.
It's wintertime here at latitude 44.5 degrees north. Dark, cold, often foggy, and very quiet. My thinking was, the cows are going to be ruminating and resting at 2am, so nothing will happen during my shift. Think of all the studying I can get done!
Well. Two shifts into it, and I don't think that was the best rationalization for taking this shift. Things have so far not quite worked out as I had planned.
Thursday morning. I had been alone from 2am to 5am (no students had signed up for those hours) and cranked out a pile of assignments. I was checking on the cows every 3o minutes. Two students showed up at 5am so I turned the cow checking over to them. All was quiet in the pens. At 6am, I packed up my books and computer and was heading to the car to go home, to feed the dogs, shower, get warm. We have a room in the barn with a heater, tables, even a crappy old couch, and there are bathrooms, but still, it's a barn. I pack two bags: one is my backpack with school stuff, the other is a bag with essentials to survive at the barn for four hours in the dead of night: blanket, warm hat, slippers (can't wear shit-covered boots into our war room), flask of hot, sweet tea, and of course the power supply for my laptop. After you read what happened during my first two shifts, I have added to that list surgical scissors, knife, and extra work gloves. I no longer even consider leather gloves. Only cheap cotton so they can be washed or discarded as needed.
As I was leaving, one of the students stopped me and said, I think you need to come look at this cow in pen 10. I think her water bag is coming out. So I went to look. Sure enough, she was in the first stages of labor. We got her into the pen designated for birthing, then we started calling and texting people for assistance. Turns out, nobody was assigned for the next supervisor shift! I couldn't leave until someone else showed up!
In about an hour, the PI and then the calving class instructor showed up. But I was a bit dismayed to learn that neither of them could stay! The cow completed labor in a couple of hours. Once we collected data and samples from the calf, I ran home to feed the dogs then returned to the barn. The PI and the instructor left. It was just me and a handful of students from the calving class for the next few hours.
Yes, hours. I wasn't able to get another supervisor to the barn until 11am. I had been at the barn for 9 hours with only that short break to feed the dogs.
Not an auspicious first day.
I headed to the barn again this morning. The shift before me (10pm to 2am) had a supervisor and he asked me to help them get the calf weighed--they didn't know how to get it away from the mother! Once that task was done, I settled in to work on some French homework. There were two students there, but they left at 330am. No other students had signed up until 5am. So I was on my own again.
And sure enough, when I made my 415am check, I found another cow who was dropping her water sac. I got her into the birthing pen on my own--not easy but not hard if you take your time and plan it all out in advance. She had to be separated from the other cows in her pen, moved into a back passage that stretches the length of the barn, moved along that to the birthing pen, and then into the birthing pen, already occupied by the other mom and her calf. Then I spread out about 40 pounds of grass hay to give mom a good, clean footing for labor and baby bonding.
Of course I texted the relevant people but who the hell is watching for texts at 4am? After the fact, some people are a bit surprised that I managed it on my own (not because I'm incompetent but because, by their own admission, they would not have even tried). Like I said, a little common sense, a little patience, and keeping my eyes open seemed to do the trick.
The next student showed up at 5am as scheduled. I was doing some random hay fluffing in front of other pens when she said, I see the feet! And sure enough, one hour to the minute after that cow dropped her water sac, an enormous male calf was on the ground next to her. Mom is black with a white face. Calf is black with a white face but he has these enormous black rings around his eyes, like a panda or a raccoon. (When she was cleaning him, I slipped into the pen and lifted a hind leg--yep, that's a scrotum!)
One of the incentives that the instructor gives to the students to get them to sign up for shifts is that they get to name the calves that are born during their shifts when they help identify that the mother is in labor and assist with preparations and sample collection. The calves of course get an ear tag right away so have an official ID but she said the students could give them names. No students were around when she went into labor so I claimed this one for myself. I named him Rocky.
Once we had some extra hands (another student and the supervisor for the 6am-noon shift), we got him weighed. A whopping 85 pounds! He's a big boy! And I fully expect him to have gained weight when I go for my next shift.
The 10pm to 2am supervisor texted me and said, well, you've been the midwife to both of the calves born so far! That's true, of course, but it shatters my theory that my supervisor shifts are going to be quiet.
I texted the calving class instructor and suggested that the 2am to 6am shift may not be looking so bad now. A subtle hint that I wanted her to "encourage" students to fill those dead of night slots. All went well this morning but I don't want to depend on luck.