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Saturday, January 15, 2011

A bull calf named Albert

I was in the barn feeding the New Year lambs when the Farmer announced that Ginger’s water had broken and her labour had begun.
She made soft mooing grunts as she shifted her weight and tried to get comfortable. The sac was visible, protruding from under her tail, which she held up in a careful arc.
“This could take hours, hon,” the Farmer said, as he dragged the gate across the opening to lock Ginger into the pen.
We wandered back to the house and puttered around for an hour. I volunteered to go out and check on the impending birth.
When I got to the barn, I saw Ginger was standing in a puddle of her own making. A small black calf with a white face peeked out at me from behind her legs.
“Well hullo! Welcome!” I called. He had obviously just been born and had yet to stand. Ginger licked, nudged and muttered to her new calf, trying to get him to stand up. Finally he organized his knobby legs underneath him and stood. And promptly fell back down in the muck. Ginger nudged him again, lifting him onto his knees with her heavy head.
Every time I spoke to him, he turned in the direction of my voice. Ginger kept up her encouraging monologue. I decided to be quiet.
The commotion in the barn attracted the bull, Young Angus. The big black bull stepped softly up to the side of the pen and peered in. He mooed low and long. The calf staggered over to him and Ginger followed, holding him up with the strong, Velcro licks of her tongue. I watched as Angus craned his neck as far as he could into the pen and reached his tongue out to lick the calf. My camera batteries had died at this point, otherwise I would have a video of the event. It was very nice to witness.
The next day, the calf was wandering around more steadily on his feet and although I had not witnessed him nursing yet I assumed he had, otherwise he wouldn’t have had the strength to walk around.
After work that night I went back to the barn to check on the calf. He was lying in the corner, and Ginger was mooing at him, nudging him to get up. I spoke softly to her and she looked at me. I swear I could see worry in her eyes. I went back to the house. “Did you see the calf nursing today? Because I haven’t seen him eat yet and now he is just lying there.”
I headed to the basement to mix up some milk replacer for a bottle. The Farmer wrestled the mother and child into a lambing pen (wish I had witnessed that feat) and fed it a bit of the bottle. It didn’t want to suck. Its tongue just lolled around and it struggled against the rubber nipple in its mouth. But we got some milk into its belly. We fed it more before turning in that night, and I was up before dawn the next morning to feed it again. Ginger just watched as I tried to help her baby. She grunted soft little moos as a running commentary and her ears twitched with worry. But she didn’t mind us touching her calf, as long as she could still put her nose on him. I think that’s the closest we have ever been to Ginger, our skittish cow.
As I was feeding the calf, I noticed its nose was bright red and its eyelids were pink. In sheep, that is a sign of a deficiency of some sort. The Farmer/Professor spoke to a friend at the college and discovered that sure enough, the calf needed selenium in order to have a healthy suckling reflex. He went to the co-op to buy some supplies. The next feedings were done with a drench (the calf is made to swallow a tube and milk is poured directly into its stomach) and I couldn’t bear to watch the uncomfortable procedure so I stayed in the house.
The next day, after the selenium shot and a few drenches of milk, the calf was up and heading for its mother.  As I write this, on Saturday, it has a spring in its step and it is nursing normally. Many thanks to Albert Koekkoek at the University of Guelph for giving us the advice we needed to save our little bull calf. We decided to name him Albert, after you!

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