Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Heather Smith Thomas — Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Queenie — Part One

There are always a few unusual situations and surprises when raising animals. In our many years of having cattle, we’ve had some challenges and heartbreaks. But even the difficult problems teach us a lot. They’ve taught us how to deal with a wide variety of situations and also helped teach us compassion and responsibility. Occasionally, a cow or calf needs special help, and we always try to give it. Some stockmen don’t take time to work with a handicapped animal because of the extra commitment involved, but we’ve always tried to give every individual a chance. We’ve saved many that would otherwise have died, and we pride ourselves on not losing those.

On rare occasions the problem is something the calf can’t completely recover from or outgrow, but we still try to give the individual a chance at life — and quality of life for a while, at least until it gets big enough to provide meat for our table. Queenie was a perfect example. She was a lupine calf, born with very crooked legs. She came into our lives 15 years ago — one of those very special characters that we will always remember.

Queenie was a lupine calf born with crooked legs.

At that time our daughter Andrea and her husband had a few cows of their own in our herd, including a black crossbred cow named Zimbobbie. Andrea has always been good at picking the best heifers. As she was growing up, we'd let her trade one of her steers for a heifer or give her a choice of heifers as a year-end bonus for her hard work helping us on the ranch. One year she chose Zimbobbie, a daughter of Nigerian Nancy (who was the last daughter of old Swiss Miss, a crossbred cow who always raised outstanding calves).
Zimbobbie was one of the heifers Andrea chose,
and she grew up to be an excellent cow.

Swiss Miss was born in 1976 and started a long line of “Country Girls.” She and her younger sisters (from old Pee Wee, a Hereford-Angus cow) and all their female offspring that stayed in our herd had names such as French Frances, German Ginger (she had a daughter named Austrian Alice), African Annie (she had Kenyan Kizzie and Tanganyikan Tizzie), Indian Iris, Danish Duchess, Canadian Cologne, Turkish Tillie, Ethiopian Ethel, European Eulalie, Hungarian Honeysuckle (she had a daughter named Hungarian Rhapsody), Yugoslavian Yentl (she had Bohemian Barbie), Mexican Muchacha (she had Spanish Flea), Zulu Lulu, Alaskan Lucy (she had Eskimo Pie), and Nigerian Nancy (she had Watusi Woman and Zimbobbie). There are more, but this gives you the general idea.

Swiss Miss was the beginning of a long line of “Country Girls,”
including Danish Duchess, shown here with Andrea
(who is introducing her to baby Emily), and French Frances,
the red white-faced cow in the background on the left.

Zimbobbie was a feisty heifer but very smart and had a big steer for her first calf in 1995. Her second calf had a problem. Zimbobbie went into labor in early morning and had a weird-looking water bag when we put her into the barn. Labor did not progress; no calf appeared. About 11 a.m. we decided we'd better check and see what was wrong.
Andrea checking on Zimbobbie and one of her later calves.

Andrea and her husband Jim helped us put Zimbobbie in the headcatcher right outside the barn, and Lynn reached in to check things out. The calf was coming, but too slowly. So we put chains on its legs and pulled it. It was a very hard pull, with Lynn and Jim handling the OB chains and Andrea and me stretching the vulva of the cow. Jim commented that he wanted to name the calf “African Queen” if it was a heifer. We delivered the calf 45 minutes later: a big, black whiteface heifer.

Jim carried the calf into the barn, with Zimbobbie following him. We thought the birth was extraordinarily difficult for the size of the calf (she was big, but not huge) but didn't realize why until a bit later. The calf did not try very hard to get up to nurse, so Andrea and I helped her — and found that her front legs were crooked. We weren't too worried at first, because we've had a few calves with bent legs at birth (from contracted tendons) that straightened up in a day or so, but this calf could not keep herself upright. We had to hold her up to the udder while she nursed the cow.

Zimbobbie was upset with us, but she was a good mama and very concerned about her calf, wanting it to nurse, so she stood still for the nursing. Andrea helped the calf nurse again 6 hours later and again that evening. Zimbobbie seemed to know th
ere was something wrong with her baby and was very patient.

Andrea noticed that the calf was more abnormal than we thought; Queenie's legs were not only bent but came out of her shoulders at an odd angle, making it very difficult for her to stand. Her head and jaw also seemed not quite right, and her eyes didn't track properly. She didn't have the enthusiasm of a normal calf, and we hoped she wasn't retarded. We realized we were dealing with a lupine calf. The reason for the very difficult birth was the odd angle of the legs and shoulders that could not straighten out.

Queenie's front legs came out of her shoulders at an odd angle,
making it difficult for her to stand up.

We'd had a few lupine calves in the 30 years previous, but it had been a while since the last case. Over the years we had three with mildly crooked front legs and one with a cleft palate, named Prue (after the harelipped heroine in the book Precious Bane). We raised Prue on a nipple bucket with a long nipple, since she couldn't suck her mother, and she eventually learned how to drink water without drowning herself, by putting her tongue over the hole in the roof of her mouth. She stayed in our herd until she was 14 years old and raised 16 calves. She was a family pet, and we used her to raise an occasional orphan calf along with her own.

One lupine calf was born with a cleft palate.
We named her Prue after the harelipped
heroine of the book
Precious Bane.

We also had one lupine calf that was so malformed (with a twisted spine as well as deformed legs) that we had to destroy it at birth. And there was Huckle (born in 1974), a heifer that was so bent in front that we knew we'd have to butcher her before she got full grown. It looked like Queenie would be the same situation.

Lupine is a beautiful wildflower, but if a cow eats it
during early pregnancy, it can be toxic to the fetus.

I suppose we've been lucky to have only a few sporadic cases of lupine poisoning, since our mountain
pastures are so thickly covered with this plant. It’s a beautiful wildflower, but if a cow eats certain types of lupine during early pregnancy (between 40 and 70 days' gestation), the fetus is adversely affected. The toxic alkaloids in the plant rarely affect the mother, but they act as a sedative for the fetus during that stage of gestation. Because the fetus can’t move very much, joints become fused and deformed. The legs, and sometimes the spine, are twisted or bent at odd angles. Occasionally, a calf will have a cleft palate because the tongue cannot move and is in the way when the plates from each side are coming together to form the roof of the mouth.

We've been lucky to have only a few crooked calves,
since most of our mountain pastures have a lot of lupine.

Our cows spend spring and early summer on thes
e mountain pastures, and the risk for lupine deformities is always there. As I said, we’ve been lucky that we’ve had relatively few cases of crooked, deformed calves. In Queenie’s case, however, her front legs were so bent that she had trouble getting up or standing up for very long.

Queenie and her mama stayed in the barn
until Queenie's crooked legs became stronger.

Zimbobbie and Queenie stayed in the barn for a couple of weeks, and Andrea dutifully helped the calf nurse every 8 hours. She was determined that this baby would live. Hot-tempered Zimbobbie mellowed out and accepted Andrea's assistance, and the calf became a trusting pet. She occasionally got up without help and nursed a teat by herself, but it was hard for her to stand up for very long. She'd get tired and quit, and Andrea would help her get more dinner. Zimbobbie had a lot of milk, and for a while Andrea milked out the extra until the calf was able to handle all the milk. Our daughter has a special way with cattle; here was a flighty, young, high-strung cow patiently letting Andrea milk her and suckle the calf. They developed a very special, trusting bond.

[to be continued]

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 her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.

1 comment:

Mimi Foxmorton said...

You are truly blessed.