Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Intensive Care Saves a Sick Calf

We finished calving April 22 this spring. We were pleased to have all the babies safely born and enjoying life with their mamas in the little field above our house.

A couple of the young cows with their young babies
enjoying life in the field above our house

Freddy babysitting several of the young calves

The weather was warm and dry several days during late April (after the blizzards while we were calving!), so Andrea and I started working with our two young fillies again, giving them more training lessons. We also started riding some of the horses every day to get them back in shape for summer work. On April 26 we made a fast ride over to our new neighbor’s place (a 12-mile round trip).

We started riding some of the horses every day, and Andrea took this photo
of me riding her old mare Breezy while she was riding Sprout.

When we got back, we checked on the cows and calves and discovered that one of the youngest calves (Maggeruete’s calf) was very sick with scours. He was fine that morning when we fed the cows and checked on all the calves, but by 6:00 p.m. he was squirting watery diarrhea. He was very weak and wobbly when we got him up from where he was lying by the water trough, and his mother had a full udder; he hadn’t nursed since sometime that morning.

We brought the pair in from the field, put them in one of the pens by the barn, and gave the calf 1½ quarts of warm water and electrolytes (with a liquid oral antibiotic — neomycin sulfate solution — and kaolin/pectin mixed in via nasogastric tube.

We didn’t take any photos while we were treating the sick calf, but this older photo
shows how the nasogastric tube is put into the nostril, then to the back of the throat
to be swallowed, and on down into the stomach — so fluid can be put directly into the calf’s stomach.

We gave him more fluids and medication by tube 6 hours later, in the middle of the night (at 1:00 a.m.). Andrea and 8-year-old Dani came down from their house, and Dani held the flashlight for us. She loves the cattle and insisted that her mama wake her up so she could come and help. When I was mixing up the warm water, electrolytes, and Kaopectate, she said, “I don’t want the calf to die, Grandma.”

He seemed a little better by daylight when I went out to check on him and feed the horses. He was up on his feet and nursing his mother, so we skipped the 7:00 a.m. tubing, which was a mistake.  By late morning he was squirting colored water and was very weak again. We realized he needed fluid more frequently to keep from becoming seriously dehydrated; this was a much more severe case of scours than we usually encounter. We started tubing him every 4 hours through that day (Saturday) and night.

Sunday morning was windy, and it started to rain, so we took the pair across the creek (over the bridge) to the sick barn for shelter, since we never put sick calves in our calving barn. The calf was barely able to walk, but he made it. We started giving him extra Kaopectate by mouth (about 4 ounces by dose syringe) in between the every-4-hour tubings of fluid mix, to try to slow down the diarrhea.

This is the shed we use for extra shelter, usually for sick calves,
when weather is bad. This picture was taken a couple of years ago
when Lynn was shutting the gate after putting a cow and calf into this barn.

His gum color was still good, with good capillary refill time. Checking capillary refill is one way to tell how badly dehydrated or shocky an animal is. You press your finger into the gum tissue, then see how fast the blood returns to the area you pressed. It will be white and colorless when you first remove your finger but should instantly become pink again. If it takes several seconds for the blood to return to that spot, the animal is dehydrated or going into shock. This calf had good capillary refill time, so we knew he didn’t need IV fluids; the frequent oral tubings were keeping him hydrated.

The weather was cold and nasty for several days. During stormy weather we’re glad we have the secondary barn for shelter; Maggeruete’s calf was out of the wind and rain. We were still tubing him every 4 hours, and he resigned himself to it without trying to struggle, so Lynn and I were able to do it without extra help. The calf didn’t even try to get up; we just set the flashlight in the straw in front of him, aiming the light at his head so we could put the tube into his nostril. Since he was still not nursing much, I put a little milk replacer into his fluid feedings every other treatment. We gave him the oral antibiotic once a day in one of the feedings.

By Tuesday morning he was finally doing better. When I went to give him his in-between-tubings dose of Kaopectate that afternoon, he was actually nursing his mother. After we tubed him that evening, I gave him a dose of probiotics, a paste containing some of the “gut bugs” he needs — in case the antibiotics we’d given him killed the natural flora in his digestive tract. He was doing so much better that we didn’t tube him at midnight; we just gave him the fluid mix early the next morning and again at noon and at chore time that evening. When I checked on him that night before bedtime, I decided that he had finally “graduated” and no longer needed fluids. He was nursing regularly, and his bowel movements had firmed up to normal. He was feeling strong and sassy again.

We put him and his mama back out to the field the next day. It was pure joy to see him bouncing along next to his mama as we took them around through the barnyard and up to the gate into the field. He took off running and bucking to go and play with his buddies, happy to be alive. It’s a challenge to deal with some of the things that happen when we raise cattle, but it’s more than worth all the time and effort when we see the results, and we know that our efforts made a difference.

This calf didn’t have a name yet when he came in from the field at death’s door. But he has one now.  After having diarrhea, with the watery feces running down over his hindquarters, irritating the skin, he lost all the hair on his bottom and looked funny with all that bare, wrinkled skin. The kids started calling him “Elephant Baby,” so now he has a name. Even though the hair has started to grow back, his name will be a reminder of how precious life is and of the satisfaction we had in being able to save this sassy little character.

Elephant Baby after full recovery, nursing his mom,
with no hair on his bottom.

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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