Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — A Very Special Calf

This is the story of a calf who lived in a box in our kitchen for more than a month.

When our children were young teenagers, they took care of our cattle and did the chores for a week one November while my husband and I went to a cattlemen's convention in Oregon. At that time we had a milk cow (“Baby Doll”) and she supplied us with more milk than our family could use. We sold milk to several neighbors--so the kids were also delivering a few gallons of milk while we were gone. They took milk one day to Jim Bailey, our neighbor 2 miles up the creek. His milk cow was dry, and due to calve in about 6 weeks.

When Michael and Andrea arrived at Jim's place, the veterinarian was there, doing surgery on Jim's cow. She had been sick and not eating. The vet suspected she had hardware, and was hoping to find the foreign object and remove it. But when he opened her up, he discovered she was full of infection; she had severe peritonitis and there was no hope of saving her.

The calf inside her was still alive, and the vet asked Jim if he wanted to save the calf. Jim didn't want the calf since he wouldn't have any milk for it--the cow was dying--and he also didn't have time to take care of a premature calf. Our kids hated to see the calf perish, too, and offered to help care for it. So Jim told the vet to go ahead and get the calf out, and then he gave it to the kids as a gift.

It was a bull calf, tiny and frail, at least 6 weeks premature. The wind was cold, so Jim loaned the kids a blanket to wrap around the calf. They put him in our pickup cab. Andrea held him on her lap while Michael drove home, and brought him into the house.

Michael built a fire in the wood stove in the kitchen and Andrea dried the calf by the stove with towels while Michael made an "incubator" from a big cardboard box. They put the box in the kitchen, with a bed of towels in the bottom. Michael cut a hole out near the bottom of the box so warmth from the stove would go in.

The calf was still very cold and shivering, so the kids put a small electric heater by the hole, to blow warm air into the box. They covered the top of the box to keep the warmth in, and put an electric heating pad on the calf, but he shivered and shook for several hours.

Another urgent task was feeding him. We always keep some frozen colostrum in the freezer for emergencies during calving season, so Andrea thawed out several containers. She warmed some on the stove and poured it into a bottle with a lamb nipple. She tried to get the calf to nurse, but he wouldn't suck. After a couple hours of trying, the kids called another neighbor, for help. He brought an esophageal calf feeder (a tube that goes down the calf's throat) and helped the kids force-feed the little calf.

The calf was weak and listless and the kids were afraid he would die. They stayed up all night with him trying to get him warm. Andrea kept taking his temperature, which stayed subnormal most of the night. The colostrum gave the calf some strength and energy, however, because by 2 a.m. that morning he changed his mind and decided he wanted to live, after all. His first dinner had worn off, his tummy was empty again and he realized he was hungry. This time, when Andrea offered him a bottle of colostrum, he nursed it and drank almost all of it.

A new problem soon emerged. By morning his temperature was up to normal, but it didn't stop there; it kept going on up. The calf had a fever, and was breathing fast and shallowly; he had pneumonia. Worried, the kids called us on the phone for advice. We were surprised to hear about their calf project, and glad they'd been able to keep him alive, and we told them what to do for the pneumonia. It would be a tough job to save the calf. At that stage of fetal development in gestation, his lungs were not yet fully developed or very strong, and pneumonia could easily kill him.

Andrea found the medications I told her to use, and filled the syringes, and Michael gave the injections. The calf was so small and skinny that it was difficult to find enough muscle tissue to put the antibiotic injections into. And the calf didn't like the shots. He wiggled and squirmed and kicked, so Andrea had to help hold him still.

When we got home 2 days later, and saw how tiny and frail the calf was--no bigger than a house cat--we were truly amazed that the kids had been able to keep him alive. He was just a fragile little hide stretched over tiny bones, with almost no hair at all. His “premature” hair was very short and velvety.

I took over the night feedings; he had to be fed every 4 hours

The calf still had a fever, but it was starting to come down. The kids were glad we were home, glad for reinforcements, since they were worn out after staying up nights to feed and doctor the little fellow. I took over the night feedings; the calf had to be fed every 4 hours to keep up his energy and fluid, so he wouldn't dehydrate from the fever.

He gradually got over the pneumonia and became livelier. Whenever he wasn't sleeping, he jumped around in his box, kicked the sides or butted it with his head. He was so bouncy and noisy in the box, kids started calling him Boom Boom. Within a week he was ramming the sides of the box so hard we feared he might tip it over, so we fortified it with chairs around the outside, tying them all together around the box with a rope. Soon we had to add pieces of plywood to make the sides of the box higher and stronger.

After he was a few weeks old, we cut down the number of his feedings (no more getting up in the middle of the night!) and gave him bigger bottles. We also let him out of the box periodically for more exercise. We often let him into the livingroom for a few minutes of play, and he loved to buck around chasing the kids, trying to butt heads with anyone who would play with him. It took all 4 of us to "ride herd" on him, to keep him from crashing into the furniture or skidding out onto the slippery dining room floor. He had trouble standing up on the linoleum; his legs splayed out and then he’d be stranded on his belly.

Boom Boom loved to play in the livingroom, running and bucking around.

Boom Boom was still too small and frail to go outside, especially since the weather had turned cold. Temperatures dropped to 40 below zero just before Christmas. So he stayed in his box in the kitchen for 4 weeks. We were afraid to put him outside just yet, because he still didn't have much flesh on his bones or very much hair; he needed a much thicker fur coat before he could withstand winter weather.

By Christmastime he had grown to about the size he should have been at birth. He eagerly looked forward to his romps around the livingroom, and his antics were hilarious entertainment--as he galloped and snorted and bucked around, chasing the kids or bouncing off the couch and chairs. We were reminded of a similar sassy premature calf that lived in our house at Christmastime 8 years earlier (a calf the kids named Rudolph), who liked to chase the kids around the room and “fight” the ornaments on our Christmas tree.

We had to keep him from crashing into the furniture or bouncing up onto the chairs and couch.

Soon after Christmas, we fixed Boom Boom a stall in the barn, with fluffed up hay for bedding, so he could snuggle down into it and keep warm. He liked the barn stall; there was more room to run and buck. His box in the house had become quite cramped for space as he grew larger.

The kids were sad to see him go outside, however. They thought it was fun having him in the house, even though the box in the middle of the kitchen was an awkward obstacle and we had to keep washing the towels we used for bedding. The big box took up most of our small kitchen area and it was difficult to get to some of the cupboards. It was also hazardous to spend much time by the stove, since Boom Boom liked to reach up and try to lick or chew on anyone he could reach. I'd be stirring something cooking on the stove and suddenly feel him nibbling at my back, or my shirt being pulled by his inquisitive mouth.

We fed him bottles (milk from our old Holstein cow Baby Doll) until our “nurse” cow, Liza, calved in January. Liza was a crossbred daughter of our 18-year-old Holstein, and she usually raised 3 or 4 calves. If we had an orphan, or a heifer that didn't want to be a mother, Liza raised the extra calves. She gave birth to a big bull calf in late January, and as soon as she had regular milk (we snitched the extra colostrum at first, to keep in the freezer for any other newborn calves that might need it) we gave her another baby. Boom Boom was very happy to have a real mother, and a brother. Now he had someone to rough-house and knock heads with besides us.

Andrea enjoyed feeding Boom Boom and Liza's calf some grain every day in their outdoor pen.

We fixed a shelter for the 2 calves in an outside pen, for the weather was still cold. Those calves eventually had to share their mama with another orphan, a little heifer whose young mother didn't want her. Later, after weaning, Boom Boom spent the next winter with the weaned replacement heifers, and quickly grew to be the largest critter in the group. We were proud of the kids for saving him, in those precarious first days when his condition was critical and we weren't here to help them. They earned him. He became a big yearling and a pet, and the kids were reluctant to sell him the next fall, even though they planned to convert him into savings for college. Raising him was a good experience for them, nursing him into the world and saving his life. It was a big challenge that gave them a lot of satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.

Lynn clowning around with Boom Boom when he was a big yearling.
Boom Boom always seemed to like people best.

And Boom Boom was very happy to be alive.
It was always fun to watch him cavorting around with his “siblings” and later with the weaned heifers, being a big sassy clown. Whenever the kids went out to the pasture, he came to see them, wanting them to scratch his ears or tickle him under the chin. We sometimes wondered if he knew he was a "cow"; he seemed to prefer our company to that of his own kind. He definitely liked people best. He was certainly one of the characters on our ranch that we'll never forget.

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.

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