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Friday, February 3, 2012

How to keep a calf alive

Ginger had a little bull calf last week. It’s her fifth calf. She has successfully had healthy babies every year since we got her. Betty hasn’t always been so lucky. She had a calf the first year, then she didn’t take to the artificial insemination the second year (even though I let her choose the bull out of the magazine). Last year Betty’s calf was born without the suckling reflex. We managed to turn that situation around by doing what we do when the sheep have that problem. We milked the mother of her valuable first milk colostrum, and fed that liquid gold to the baby. Then we gave the baby a shot of selenium. Within a few hours it was up and nursing. Amazing.
Ginger’s calf appeared big and healthy but it soon became apparent that it too was lacking a suckling reflex—in fact he didn’t even seem to know what his mother was there for. The Farmer almost got trampled trying to steal colostrum for the calf. We really have to install a proper head gate and chute one of these days, so that we can work with the cows that aren’t as friendly (so far only Ginger-the-suspicious falls into that category).
The selenium shot didn’t work. The calf was up and walking around, but getting weaker by the hour. I went and made a bottle of milk replacer and taught him how to drink from it. That saved his life. Now he has a 4-pint bottle in the morning and another in the late afternoon. He’s living on that. How, I don’t know. I’m sure it doesn’t have enough in it to satisfy his hunger and I worry that his growth will be stunted.
The Farmer wants to try to put the calf on another mother to see if he will take a hint. Mocha would probably let him. She’s a nice girl.
The calf nibbles on the hay and sips at the water, mimicking his mother, but until his rumen develops, he won’t be on solid food. Milk is his main meal.
When I open the big door to the barn and it scrapes across the snow, the calf wakes up. He gets to his feet, does a big cat stretch, and starts honking for me. He actually sounds like a goose. When I come into the room and walk over to strap his bottle into the holder on the side of the pen, he comes bounding over. Sometimes Ginger sticks her big fat head in the way and tries to knock him away from the bottle. I think she’s jealous. Luckily, she still combs and grooms her little one with her big, scratchy tongue. He needs this physical contact to thrive. Many farm animals will lose their interest in their babies if they don’t nurse. Some will even try to harm their young. Ginger seems to enjoy her calf, although she has given up on coaxing him back toward her udder. I take every opportunity to pet and scratch the calf, behind his ears and under his chin, so he gets used to me.
I would like to move mother and child into a larger pen, because when Ginger lies down to sleep she doesn’t always confirm her calf’s location. She squashed his leg the other day so he had pain as well as hunger and cold to deal with. I gave him some of the pink liquid painkiller that we bought for the horse. The medicine makes him sneeze and cough. He makes a big fuss and doesn’t want to take it anymore but it seems to be doing the trick. He can walk around on that leg now. Thankfully it wasn’t broken.
At about six weeks of age we can start the calf on grain and hay. We only keep the female calves. When the bulls get to be about nine months old they become too big and bull-headed to handle so we call Dennis the drover to come and take them away to market. Hopefully this little calf, whom I have yet to name, will get to live that long.

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