Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Heather Smith Thomas: Freddy — A Mysterious Illness and the Road to Recovery

Heather Smith Thomas has been raising cattle since she was twelve years old, and every month, she shares with us stories from her Idaho ranch. This month, she profiles Freddy, who is, as Heather puts it, one of our best old cows. Read the first installment of Freddy's story here.

This spring, Freddy had a nice bull calf that our granddaughter Dani named  "Thunderbull."
Early this past July, eight years after her twin calves were born, Freddy and the rest of our cow herd were being moved from a little pasture above the house. As the cows were coming down through the gate (and coming eagerly because they knew they were headed for new grass), Freddy remained up in the pasture, rubbing on the fence. This was unusual: she’s generally front and center when we move the herd. When I walked up to get her and bring her to the gate, she seemed a bit dull. I made her hurry to catch up with the herd, but she grunted as she trotted. Her udder was empty; it looked like she was dry.

Thunderbull at three weeks old, a few months before his mother got sick

Freddy had no milk and her calf, Thunderbull, born this past spring, was bawling and hungry. Freddy herself had no interest in food. Strangely, for a cow that wasn’t eating, her belly was very full. The next several days were a puzzling rollercoaster ride. In spite of treatment with antibiotics and an anti-inflammatory to deal with a fever that rose and fell, Freddy showed only temporary improvement. She wasn’t eating and her rumen was strangely full, suggesting blockage or shutdown, which made it more difficult to give her a special mush of alfalfa pellets, beet pulp, and molasses mixed with a lot of water, through a feeding tube. We continued the feedings twice a day for as many days, because the fluid and nutrition we were giving her were the only things keeping her alive. Our vet was puzzled. Concerned Freddy might not survive without intervention, he considered a last-resort surgery.

Freddy in the chute, with Lynn preparing to feed her special mush

Finally, we gave her a dose of castor and mineral oils and it worked. She was weak, but it cleared the blockage and her rumen was empty. She began to eat and drink, and chew her cud. After a few more feedings of mush, she moved onto some good alfalfa hay.

During this time of illness, she had no milk in her udder. As Freddy began to eat, her milk began to return, and her bull calf we’d kept with her for company resumed nursing. Having to produce milk didn’t help Freddy’s body’s efforts to recover the lost weight. Eventually we gave them access to the grass in my old horse pasture. 

Freddy and her calf, grazing in the grassy pen below the barn

We’d been pasturing Chance and Molly, two elderly horses, for the summer. They grazed in several places, including the long, narrow ditch lane above my horse pasture next to Freddy and her calf. 

Elderly, skinny Chance, eating his daily meal of softened pellets in the old stackyard
The old horses have bad teeth and a hard time eating enough to keep any weight on. Chance eats so slowly that Molly finishes first and tries to help him. To make sure Chance gets his meal in peace, Molly has to be kept away or put in a separate pen. One day, we put Chance through the gate into the horse pasture to eat. Freddy caught on quickly. On the second day of feeding Chance in the horse pasture, Freddy marched up and the next thing we knew, the skinniest old horse and the skinniest cow on the ranch were eating companionably, side by side with their heads in the tub of mush.

Freddy and her calf in the bigger maternity pen adjacent to the horse pasture

We weaned Freddy’s calf in September, leaving him in the horse pasture and locking Freddy in the grassy maternity pen where they could still be nose-to-nose through the fence for companionship.

Freddy gets to live with a small group of heifer calves we weaned and are keeping as future cows. Through the fall and early winter, until the grass snows under, they’ll be in a small pasture above the house with the best grass. Freddy can be their big babysitter and protector, and maybe regain the weight she lost during her close call with mysterious illness. She’s very happy to be alive and back to being her sassy self. We’re very glad to have her with us.

Freddy taking advantage of some shade on a very hot day

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. She blogs at

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