Nearly every calving season has challenges, and once in a while it takes diligence and determination to save a calf.Today our cows are grazing on the hills and fields above our house, cleaning up the rest of summer’s grass before it snows under. The welcome moisture this fall put out our nearby forest fires, finally, and softened up the dry grass, making it more palatable for the cows. Our weather is cold now, and the frosty nights bring back memories of when we used to calve in January and early February. Now that we’re older, with less endurance and fewer cows, we don’t need to calve so early, to re-breed them before going to summer range. We’re letting someone else use our range, and we keep our small herd here at home. We now calve in April and early May, so we won’t be expecting new babies for several months. But the crisp cold nights bring back many memories of earlier calving.
Nearly every calving season has challenges, and once in a while it takes diligence and determination to save a calf. About 18 years ago our biggest challenge was a little black calf that became affectionately known as Dodie. His mama was a 3-year-old red cow named Dowdy, and this was her second calf. She went into labor on a cold, stormy night in February, and we put her in the barn to calve. The birth was easy, and my daughter Andrea and I watched to see whether the calf got up to nurse. It was cold in the barn. We always make sure the new babies get plenty of colostrum within an hour of birth, especially when the weather is cold. Colostrum gives the calves energy to keep warm, as well as crucial antibodies against disease. If a calf is not up and nursing by the time he’s an hour old, we make sure he does, before his mouth gets too cold to grab a teat.
This calf didn’t get up, so Andrea and I dried him with towels and fed him half a bottle of fresh colostrum (which Andrea milked from the young cow’s front teat as the cow lay there in the straw beside her new calf), and then we got him up and tried to help him nurse from his mother. Once a calf gets a taste of milk, he usually becomes eager and is easy to get onto a teat. But this calf was weak.
It took all his effort to stand, and he wouldn’t nurse, so Andrea milked more from Dowdy and we tried to bottle-feed the calf again. He refused to suck this time; we finally fed him through a stomach tube. He was still cold, but we thought he’d be okay since he had a tummy full of colostrum and Dowdy was licking him. Most calves under those conditions do fine, but we should have brought this one into the house for complete warming and drying.
|Andrea with Dodie. The cow was very gentle, and if the calf was next to her, Andrea could milk her and then feed the calf when he refused to nurse.|
By morning we realized that we had a serious problem. Dowdy had finally shed her afterbirth, and it was gray and unhealthy. Her calf had probably been deprived of blood circulation and nutrients before birth, which might have been why he was so listless, unable to nurse, and unable to keep himself warm.
The stress and cold had taken their toll — Dodie now had pneumonia and was breathing fast. We started him on antibiotics and medication to reduce the inflammation in his lungs. He would not nurse from his mother or a bottle, so we were milking Dowdy every six hours and feeding Dodie by tube.
|With patience, Andrea could sometimes get Dodie to nurse from his mother.|
Dodie started breathing better within 24 hours and seemed completely normal 48 hours later. He was finally nursing from his mother (we had milked her out every 6 hours and fed Dodie by tube for the first week of his life).
We made the mistake of assuming he had recovered, since his breathing was ok and temperature normal, so we didn’t continue the antibiotics. After having a normal body temperature for four days he relapsed; his temperature went up and his breathing became impaired again. So we put him back on medication. He was often lethargic about nursing and had to be encouraged to do it. There were times when we had to milk her out and tube him.
Dodie also started losing his hair. This often happens when a calf has a high fever — a few weeks later bald patches appear. Whenever we rubbed him, his hair came off. He developed a large bald spot on his head.
Dodie and his mama lived in the barn for five weeks. Finally he started feeling better and nursing again, and we let the pair out of the barn into a nearby pen — putting them back in the barn every time the weather got bad. We had so much time, effort, and medication invested in him that we didn’t want another relapse!
Was it worth all the effort? Some folks might say no. It was like a poker game, however — we had so much in the pot already, we didn’t dare quit. But our diligence in trying to save him was about more than just economics. We have a dedication and commitment to our animals. We cannot in good conscience turn away from that, and I think most ranchers feel this way. Our cattle exist only because we breed and raise them. Therefore we are responsible for their welfare. We’ve made a commitment to keep them fed and healthy, and this is not something we take lightly.
We turned Dowdy and Dodie out into the field with the other cows on April 5, since the calf seemed fully recovered and the cow needed to be with a bull to be bred. Dodie took off running and bucking — excited and happy to have so much room. His mama bucked around after him. She had been very patient, living in the barn and the small pen for so long, but now she was free again.
|The day we turned Dodie and his mama out into the field with the other cows and calves he ran around and bucked and tried to fight the hay we’d fed him. His mama trotted around after him, very worried.|
We didn’t put Dowdy and Dodie out on the range in May when the other cows went to summer pasture. They stayed home with a small group of “home cows” (a few old ones that we kept on irrigated pasture until their calves were bigger, so we could sell the old cows in late summer), where we could keep track of them.
|By June Dodie was growing better and starting to catch up with the other calves.|
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.