Monday, March 24, 2014

Heather Smith Thomas—Notes from Sky Range Ranch: A Surprise Arrival on Winter’s Coldest Day

Like many of us, Heather Smith Thomas has weathered bitter temperatures on her Idaho ranch this winter. In this post, she and her family spring into action to save an unexpected early arrival on the coldest day of the season.

We had colder weather than usual through December and early March this winter. The cows ate a lot of straw with their daily feeding of alfalfa hay  — the straw generates a lot of heat during fermentation in the rumen and helps keep them warm in the cold. One day in early February our daughter-in-law Carolyn and granddaughter Heather were helping my husband Lynn bring the straw bales out to the cows’ feeders. They drove the truck up with the straw, and chopped ice out of the water holes in the creek. While waiting for Lynn to move the feeders with the tractor, they looked at all the cows.

Lynn moving feeder with tractor, putting it over a new bale of straw
They noticed that Heather’s young cow was starting to get an udder. None of the cows are supposed to calve until early April, so this was a concern. The next morning was 25 below zero (70 below with wind chill). Our daughter Andrea decided to keep the kids home from school; her car wouldn’t start to take them to the bus. She helped me feed the horses and break ice out of all the water tubs, and helped us feed the cows and break ice on the creek. We looked at Heather’s young cow and saw frozen blood down her tail and knew that she had calved in the night.

We assumed she aborted a 7-month fetus since she couldn’t be due to calve until April. Andrea was determined to find where the cow had calved, however, to see what happened. She hiked down through the fields, checking the brush as Lynn and I drove back home down the road with the feed truck.  As we were turning into our driveway, we saw Andrea struggling across the lower field with a calf! We hurried on down the driveway and drove up through that field. Andrea had found a live, full-term calf, standing in a 4-foot deep ditch in the brush along the fence.

Its ears and feet were frozen but it was licked dry and very much alive. It was a big calf, and difficult to get up out of the ditch, but with great determination Andrea succeeded. She covered it with her coat and was bringing it across the field. We helped her load it into the pickup cab and hurried home.

I put towels on the floor by the woodstove and we carried the calf into the house to warm it. Andrea went up to her house to get more towels, a heater, and 9-year-old Dani, who wanted to help thaw out the calf, while I called Carolyn. She and Heather came down to help.

Dani helping thaw the cold calf
We thawed out her ears, tail, and feet with warm water.  The cold radiated immediately through each warm wet washcloth we applied to the feet, but we kept changing them, applying more hot water, until the feet warmed up. Amazingly, the inside of her mouth was still warm, and she still had circulation in her feet after we warmed them up.

Carolyn, Dani, and young Heather warming the calf
After she quit shivering and had some interest in sucking our fingers, we fed her 2 quarts of colostrum by bottle. Then the calf was sleepy and Dani babysat the napping calf by the stove while we drove the feed truck back to the field to bring the herd down.

Dani and the napping calf
By that time the cows had finished their day’s ration of alfalfa and followed the feed truck down through the two fields. Heather’s young cow was at the rear, and partway down she decided to go back to where she’d calved. Carolyn and Heather got off the feed truck and run up around the cow to bring her on down with the herd. We led the herd into the horse pasture and fed them a little hay. Then we were able to sort them all back to the field except the young cow that calved, and Buffalo Girl.

We often use granddaughter Emily’s pet cow, Buffalo Girl, for leading heifers into the barn to calve. We sometimes keep her in the barn to babysit a nervous heifer. Heather’s young cow had never been in a barn. We decided to use Buffalo Girl to lead her into the barn, and kept her in the adjacent stall for company for Heather’s young cow.

Calf, warmed up and ready to go back outside to mom
We brought the calf outside into the driveway as we herded the two cows toward the barn. The nervous mama sniffed her baby, recognized it as hers, and went into the barn with Buffalo Girl.The baby didn’t nurse mama, however, so that night I thawed out some more frozen colostrum and fed her a couple more bottles.  By the next morning the calf had figured out how to nurse her mother, and her hind feet were no longer so swollen. We were glad she was in the barn; the weather was still severely cold.

Calf in barn with Dani and young Heather
The bulls weren’t put with the cows until early July, so we speculated as to how the young cow became pregnant so early. This cow was part of a group of pregnant cows and heifers that Michael and Carolyn purchased. She calved mid summer as a first-calf heifer and didn’t breed back; she was open last year. There were several late-born calves in that group, including a bull calf that didn’t get branded or castrated. He was still with the herd the next spring for a little while, and apparently bred the open cow before he and several other late calves were weaned and removed from the group.

We kept the cow and calf and Buffalo Girl in the barn for several days; it snowed off and on, and by Sunday we had a foot of new snow. By that time the young cow was quite at home in the barn, so we took Buffalo Girl back to the field with the other cows. After the pair had been in the barn a week, the weather warmed up. We shoveled snow out of the sheltered corners in the pen below the barn, put down some straw for bedding, and let the young cow and her baby outdoors.

She enjoyed having more room, and bucked around and played in the snow. It’s great to see her alive and feeling good, even though she will look a little funny when she grows up. Her frozen ear tips are coming off, and the frostbitten skin on her nose is peeling away. The nose skin is healing underneath, but she’ll always have short ears — a reminder of that bitterly cold day when she was born.

Here she is, now a month old, with short ears and a peeling nose

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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