Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — A Calf Called Dixie: Part Two — Not Quite Out of the Woods

We had friends staying with us for a couple of days, and they were
fascinated by our house calf. In this photo my old college roommate
gives Dixie some attention.

After our miraculous “save,” pulling the calf back from the brink of death after her intestinal surgery, Druid quickly became stronger. By the next day she was able to stand up and wanted her mama. We fashioned a jacket for her from an old red sweatshirt that our 8-year-old son had outgrown (to cover her shaved side, so she wouldn’t get cold) and took her out to the barn a couple of times to nurse her mother, in addition to her other “meals” by stomach tube. It was a happy reunion. Drusilla was so glad to have her calf back that she didn’t seem to notice the red sweatshirt Druid was wearing. By evening the calf was looking so well (and having normal bowel movements) that we put her out in the barn to stay with her mama, wearing her little red jacket to help keep her warm.

She did fine for a while but two days later started looking dull again, and her temperature was down to 95 degrees. So we brought her back into the house, making her comfortable on a bed of towels by the stove again. We gave her more fluid and electrolytes by stomach tube, adding powdered protein and castor oil to the mix; she was constipated again. Perhaps her injured, healing gut was not working properly yet.

By putting my finger into her rectum, I stimulated her to pass a few small, firm pellets. We gave her several large enemas to soften the hard fecal balls so she could pass them more easily and to increase her fluid intake. The large colon can absorb liquid, so a dehydrated animal can benefit from an enema, especially a mild salt-water solution.

I put a light blanket over her, and by evening her temperature was back up to normal. Now we just had to wait to see if she could start passing bowel movements again or not. We talked with Dr. Dick, and he thought she may have become constipated from not drinking enough fluid while she was with her mother or else the repaired intestine had been squeezed shut with omentum, the substance in the abdominal cavity of cattle that stops leaks and helps injuries grow back together quickly. If the calf was simply dehydrated, extra fluids would restore her to normal, but if her intestine was squeezed off again, she was in serious trouble.

For two days we fed her by stomach tube every 6 hours and took her to the barn once a day to nurse her mama — to keep Mama from drying up and to keep the mama-baby bond established. The calf was still very weak, and for those 2 days she passed no bowel movements.

During those days we had a houseful of guests (my old college roommate and her husband and kids) for the weekend, and the calf got lots of loving attention from all the kids (our two and the guests). The kids thought it was fun to have a calf in the house, and there were no messes to clean up.

But I was longing for a big mess; two days with no bowel movements was ominous, and we were beginning to dread the worst. Then, the morning after our company left, Druid passed a bowel movement. Once again I was washing lots of messy towels — and rejoicing as I did it.

By this time the calf was becoming a regular member of our household. Because she was now Dick’s calf, we started calling her Dixie, and that name seemed to fit her better. She spent her time lying peacefully on her bed of towels, never trying to get up, but bright and perky and interested in everything that went on around her. We got her up and turned her over several times a day (so she wouldn’t get bedsores on one side) and carried her out to the barn to nurse her mother.

We took Dixie out to the barn to nurse her mama. Our daughter Andrea
enjoyed helping guide her out the door and down the steps,
but in this photo she's laughing about Dixie standing on her foot

She had a split personality. In the house she was quiet and calm, but when we took her out to the barn, she became Mama’s calf again, eager and active and wild, not wanting to let us catch her to bring her back to the house after she finished nursing. She would run and buck around the stall, daring us to grab her. But back in the house, she would lie on her towels again, completely at ease — a house pet.

We kept her in the house 10 days this time, taking her out to her mother three or four times a day. Dixie was accustomed to the routine, and we no longer had to carry her. We’d get her up and help her to the back door so she wouldn’t fall down on the slick linoleum floor. Then she’d run down the back steps and over to the barn, where we would let her in to nurse her mama. She always ran eagerly to the barn, but the kids and I generally had to push her back across the driveway (or Lynn would have to carry her back to the house) because she didn’t want to leave her mama.

After 10 days we were pretty sure she would be okay, so we left her out in the barn with her mama, giving her just one extra meal of fluids per day. We made a calf creep in the barn stall (a place she could go into but Mama couldn’t), to give her some grain to nibble on. It was a happy day when we put the two of them back out in the field again.

Dixie in the barn, standing in the sunshine by the door

During the next few weeks, Dixie developed a lump on her side where the surgical opening had been. We put her and Drusilla back into the corral, and Dick came out to look at it. The lump was an abscess. So we opened and drained it and kept the pair in the corral for a few days so we could catch Dixie to continue flushing the abscess until it healed. True to form, Dixie was a wild, skittish calf whenever we tried to catch her, but once she was caught, she accepted us and stood very still for the treatment.

Dixie grew big that summer, and the hair on her shaved side grew back. Except for some stretching of the abdominal skin in her right flank, you’d never know she’d had major surgery. She went with our herd of calves to market that fall, and Dr. Dick got the money for her. That was back in 1976, when calves weren’t worth very much (Dixie brought $100), but it was still about twice as much as the surgical fee would have been.

This is Dixie a month later, very much recovered, with her mama Drusilla.

Dixie was a beautiful big heifer, thanks to the determination and concern for her by her “family” and by a conscientious young veterinarian who was willing to gamble (to gain more surgical experience) and to Dixie’s own courageous and whimsical spirit. Her unique misfortune and subsequent adventures, and her unique personality, made her one of the most memorable characters on our ranch.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all of her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.

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