Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Heather Smith Thomas — Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Brown Bug — One of Our Favorite Kitchen Calves, Part 1

In my last blog I told about a calf that we thawed out in our kitchen a couple of weeks ago. That baby brought back memories of other calves that spent time in our house for intensive care.

We have a good calving barn, and the body heat of multiple cows in their various stalls keeps it a bit warmer than outside. It provides adequate shelter for calving cows and new babies unless the outdoor temperature is well below zero, and in that situation we may have to dry a calf briefly in our house, then take it back out to the barn. On occasion, however, we’ve had some calves that for one reason or another spent a lot more time in our house.

Our calving barn has stalls for 12 pairs at once and provides quite a 
lot of shelter for the new babies when weather is cold or wet.

Over the past 47 years raising cattle here on Withington Creek, my husband Lynn and I have had several “rescue” babies that started life in our kitchen. Brown Bug was one of those special-circumstance calves.

He was born the night of February 1, 1982, when it was 20 below zero and too cold — even in the barn — for a wet new baby. We temporarily stole him from his mama (a first-calf heifer) and brought him into the house. Our son Michael (who was nine at the time) and daughter Andrea (who was seven) helped me dry him in the kitchen. Andrea named him Brown Bug. When the calf was warm and dry, we put him back in the barn with his young mama. She loved him and continued licking him, and he soon found the udder and began nursing. We were glad she hadn’t become confused and uncooperative, like some first-time mamas do if you interfere with that early bonding process by taking baby away for a while.

We had several more new babies later that night, however, and not enough barn stalls for all of those mamas and babies. We needed to make room, so we moved the cows with the driest babies out to a couple of other sheds. Those sheds weren’t as warm as the calving barn but were adequate shelter for a calf that was already dry. So we moved Brown Bug and his mama out to a little log shed we called “George’s barn” (and how that barn got its name is a whole ’nuther story).

In the morning, however, we discovered that Brown Bug was sick. He had a severe kind of diarrhea that sometimes hits very young calves and is fatal unless treated. This was a new disease that we’d never had on our ranch until that year — when our veterinarian unknowingly brought it to us when he came into our barn to do a C-section surgery on a heifer to deliver her calf. He had apparently just been on a ranch that had this disease and inadvertently “tracked” it to several other ranches, including ours and that of one of our neighbors.

Unfortunately, it was near the end of our calving season, because every calf born in our barn after the vet was in it got sick within 24 hours after birth. The only way we could save those calves was to give them an oral liquid antibiotic and administer fluid and electrolytes via stomach tube every 3 hours, to combat and reverse their severe dehydration. These young calves dehydrated more quickly than even a week-old calf, and we quickly discovered that giving fluids every 6 to 8 hours was not often enough. With diligence, however, we were able to save them all. After that challenging calving season, we were able to prevent this type of scours by giving the pregnant cows a vaccination before calving, so the cows can create antibodies in their colostrum, to give protection to their calves as soon as they nurse.

But back to Brown Bug’s story: He got diarrhea, but we treated him for a couple of days, and he got over it. We thought he was ready to go out to the big field with his mother, to join the other cows and calves. But as we brought him and his mother out of George’s barn, we discovered that he was still a little weak, and he was also lame. Andrea said, “Mama, he’s walking funny on his hind legs!”

As Brown Bug grew, his hind feet grew long and curled up
at the toes, like the feet of a foundered horse.

I felt the calf’s legs, and they were frozen! When he had diarrhea, he’d been dehydrated, which resulted in poor circulation to his legs, and they had gotten too cold. The temperature in George’s barn wasn’t cold enough to freeze a healthy calf’s feet or legs, but with inadequate blood circulation Brown Bug’s feet had frozen.

So instead of putting him out to the field, we put his mother in a small pen near our house, and Lynn carried Brown Bug into our kitchen so we could try to thaw out his feet. We stood in the middle of the floor and put each frozen hind leg in a bucket of very warm water. Michael and Andrea held the calf steady so he wouldn’t move around and tip over the buckets, and Lynn and I rubbed his feet.

It took 2 hours of rubbing and lots of new hot water before his hind feet started to feel warm instead of icy cold. The calf fidgeted and wiggled and spilled some of the water, and by the time we had his feet thawed out, there were puddles all over the kitchen. We mopped it up with towels and didn’t worry about the mess. We were simply thankful that Brown Bug had the energy to try to move around.

(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 HorsesStorey's Guide to Training HorsesStable SmartsThe Horse Conformation HandbookYour CalfGetting Started with Beef and Dairy CattleStorey's Guide to Raising Beef CattleEssential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

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