Friday, February 12, 2010

Sue Weaver: Bottle-Baby Fever

As the days begin to lengthen, I am increasingly smitten by bottle-baby fever, a malady suffered by throngs of female shepherds and goat keepers, if posts to my Yahoo e-mail groups are any indication. Why does it happen? I don’t know!

Kerla, this year's cure for baby-bottle fever

Some say the urge to nurture infant critters is a subconscious effort to alleviate empty-nest syndrome by substituting newborn animals for babies who have flown the nest. But I’m not so sure. While I enjoyed motherhood — once — I had no desire to do it again. And I’ll walk a long way to avoid having someone’s cute and cooing infant thrust into my reluctant arms (Admire the baby, surely, but hold him? That’s scary; what if I drop him?), but show me a puppy or a lamb, and I melt.

So as January stretches into June, a stream of motherless livestock babies tends to rotate through our house. Yes, house, because with few exceptions (the water buffalo calves, for instance, stayed in the barn) my bottle babies start their lives indoors.

Their crib (save for larger infants, like the miniature horse foal who bunked in a corral in the corner of the kitchen) is an extra-large, wire dog crate with a lift-open top to supplement its standard walk-through door. Bedded with frequently changed towels and pieces of synthetic (read: fast-drying) blankets, it’s a bottle-baby home par excellence.

Raising bottle babies, however, is not for the entirely faint of heart. Will he take his formula (some babies are frustratingly hard to bottle train)? Will it upset his gut (probably, if he isn’t fed a mixture formulated for his exact species)? How much is enough? How much is too much? And neonates are prone to scary, potentially life-threatening ills like E. coli, coccidiosis, bloat, and floppy kid syndrome. So much to learn and remember!

But it’s worth it. Really worth it. I recommend it to anyone who wants a tame pet lamb or a pack goat or harness goat who really loves his human parent And sometimes it has to be done; feed the orphaned foal or calf or lose it.

The one exception: don’t bottle feed a cria (a baby llama or alpaca) unless you’re an experienced camelid breeder. As they mature, bottle-fed crias, especially male crias, are prone to developing a series of dangerous behaviors lumped together under the heading of Aberrant Behavior Syndrome.

The easiest babies to raise are probably lambs and kids. Anyone who’d like to raise a baby would wisely start with one of these. Then abide by the following hard-learned tips (they apply to bottle raising other species, too).

  • Start with a healthy baby that consumed enough colostrum. Colostrum is the nutrient-rich first milk a new mom produces. It’s chock-full of antibodies that, when ingested by her offspring, protect them from disease until their own immune systems begin to function. However, a neonate’s system can only absorb antibodies for a short time after birth (roughly 18 to 24 hours for a kid or lamb). Colostrum from another animal of the same or a similar species (such as cow colostrum for a kid) also works, as do species-specific IgG supplements from a vet.
  • Expect to invest your time. Neonates must be fed every few hours around the clock, at the same times, every time. Feedings can be given further apart after a week or two, but early on, plan on nighttime feedings and staying home for the duration.
  • Feed the right stuff. In most cases this means full-fat milk enhanced if necessary to fit your species (we feed kids goat milk or full-fat cow’s milk from the grocery store that we fortify with half-and-half at the rate of one part half-and-half to five parts milk). Species-specific milk replacers based on real milk protein (not soy; it’s hard for the young of most species to digest) are a good second choice, but never feed one-kind-fits-all, general-purpose milk replacer.
  • Socialize your baby. If you own livestock of the same or a similar species, introduce them to your baby early on (and often), supervising so that Baby doesn’t get hurt. Bottle babies bond primarily with humans (and if kept indoors, household pets), so unless they are socialized early, they tend to become outcasts among their own species.
  • Discipline your baby. Don’t allow the foal to jump up and put his front feet on your shoulders; don’t push on the lamb or kid’s forehead because it’s cute when he pushes back or butts. Don’t tolerate behaviors, especially potentially dangerous behaviors, that will be unacceptable when Baby grows up.
  • Finally, plan on having most male bottle babies castrated. Male babies that bond on humans usually challenge them when they become sexually mature. This isn’t true across the board, but unless you’re very skilled at managing your baby’s species, don’t take a chance.

Raising bottle babies is not a stroll in the park, but it’s a good way to save a life or inexpensively add new genetics to your flock or herd (large goat dairies routinely destroy or give away excess bucklings rather than raise them on precious milk or expensive milk replacer; producers often give away or sell cheaply orphans and the smallest of triplets that they’d otherwise put down), and it’s fun. Fun to cuddle that warm, trusting body and see its eyes light up when you enter the room.

John introduces Kerla to Mopple, last summer's bottle lamb.

Ozark Jewels General Kerla lies sleeping at my feet as I type this. One day he’ll be a brawny, Nubian buck, but today he’s my living, breathing cure for bottle-baby fever. May the future hold more like baby Kerla!

Sue Weaver sold her first freelance article in 1969. Since then her work has appeared in major horse periodicals, including The Western Horseman, Horse Illustrated, Chronicle of the Horse, Flying Changes, Horseman’s Market, Arabian Horse Times, The Appaloosa News, The Quarter Horse Journal, Horse’N Around, and The Brayer. She has written, among other books, Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock, The Donkey Companion, and Get Your Goat! to be published in 2010. Sue is based in the southern Ozark Mountains in Arkansas.

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