Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Calf chronicles

This is a story about three cows and three calves: black cow (#79)/black calf, black white-faced cow(Margaret)/black white-faced calf and red cow(#75)/red calf.

Down at the barn by the house is where we keep our heifers that are soon to calve with their first calf. It is good sense to keep the gals in close where we can check on them every few hours and ensure that no complications arise. This year we brought Margaret to the house (you can read bits about about Margaret in the middle of the stories here and here, she is one of my favorites) as well even though this will be her second calf. Margaret has a very small frame and at three years old, is about the same size as the two-year old heifers. I was worried that if Margaret bred to the herd bull instead of the heifer bull, the calf might be too big so she came to live at the barn with the heifers.

The first calf of the season was black cow (#79) when she had her black heifer calf. No new calves were born for over a week so the heifer made the rounds with the other cows. Many of the uncomfortably pregnant cows would let her suckle even though she was not their calf and they had no milk to offer (just little bits of rich colostrum that starts to come in during the days before calving. Older cows don't usually tolerate other "Robber calves" trying to nurse but the heifers don't seem to care.

The second calf to drop was Margaret's black white-faced heifer calf. She was not too big at all, and the pair had no trouble bonding and nursing. Margaret is a very good mother. In fact she has such a calming influence on the herd, I may just include her in the heifer lot next season too.

The third calf to be born was red cow's (#75) red heifer calf. I was not present for the birth but it went something like this: she has her calf but when the surge of oxytocin, (the hormone that creates the strong bond of love being mother and offspring) hits her brain she only has eyes for the black robber calf. She's licking it and mooing softly all while her natural calf lays wet and neglected on the ground. She is so protective of her black calf that she chases the black and white calf around trying to stomp it and eventually headbutts it through the fence.

The decision is made to let the red cow/calf pair wait it out a while and see if anything changes. It doesn't. The next step when trying to get a pair to bond is to put them in a small space together and hope that some "mothering up" occurs. By the time Nathan and I arrive home from town, Lloyd and Jake have the pair in a small pen by the barn. The cow is pretty uninterested in the calf and while the calf has learned to stand up, she obviously has not had a chance to nurse. When we attempt to push the calf over toward the udder, the cow repeatedly lays her down with swift kicks.

The calf needs to eat if it is to have any chance at survival so we restrain the cow in the chute and bring the calf to the teat to nurse. The cow stands calmly and the calf is able to suckle a bit but there is not much milk. After the calf nurses everything she can, we give her a bottle of milk replacer and pen the two up together for the night. An old trick for getting a mother to take a calf she has rejected is to rub the calf all over with the afterbirth and to smear some on the cow's face. That way she can associate the smell as coming from "her" calf. Nathan volunteers for this task - he's not phased by the yucky parts of ranching and is willing to do anything to keep from having to raise a "bucket" or "bottle calf".

 Jake holds the wobbly calf up to nurse while the mother stands calmly in the chute.

Next day the cow has still not let the calf nurse. We try to distract her with feed and push the calf over to nurse. The cow kicks constantly - little kicks, annoyed kicks, hard kicks - but the calf is so hungry she is pretty determined. The little one soon learns that if she stands directly parallel (and almost under) the cow she can avoid most of the kicks. After a little while the cow settles down and kicks less. When the calf has had enough of being kicked, she totters over to lay down but before we let her go to sleep we give her a warm bottle to make sure she has a nice full tummy.

 Nathan supplements what little milk the calf can get with bottle feeding.

Hoping to play off of the minor successes of the morning, we try the same strategy with the evening feed but the kicking is so much worse. By this point the calf knows she can come to us for a bottle sans kicks as demonstrated by her sucking on your pants every time you enter the pen.  From the calving kit we find a spray bottle of "mother up" which works on the same principle as the afterbirth method by associating a common smell. Cow and calf get a good spray and the calf gets another bottle tonight and we will try something else tomorrow.

 Attempting to distract the cow with feed while the calf tries to avoid as many kicks as possible. She still gets absolutely flattened a few times and injures one of her front legs.

 By morning it looks like the calf has been able to get up and nurse a little bit but there is still some kicking. Successful nursing is only one part of the equation. Ensuring that the pair have a strong bond is vital. Otherwise we let the two out of the pen and the cow doesn't let the calf nurse or latches back on to the Robber calf as her own.

Today's goal focuses on developing a good mothering relationship - we want to see the red cow mooing to, licking on and being protective of strictly her own calf so that she carries these traits with her when she goes out on range again. Who better to demonstrate good mothering ability than Margaret? We decide to put the two pair in a larger pen together and see if the red cow will pick up on the intricacies of mothering. Of course this blending of the two is closely monitored since the last thing we want is the red cow to stomp or hurt Margaret's calf.

 The red cow and Margaret with their respective calves penned together. Red cow stands protectively over her calf who is a little droopy looking because of an injured leg. Margaret found the feed bunk of course.

This move appears to be mostly successful. The red cow moos frantically to the Robber calf when she spots her on the far side of the fence but when Robber fails to moo back and acknowledge her, the cow moves on and focuses on her red calf. She moos and licks her calf, she even stands calmly without kicking while nursing and will actively call her calf to nurse. Now that the cow sees she is part of a small herd instead of being locked away with a small stranger, she does a great job of caring for her calf.

After another day of being penned together, we are ready to call this situation resolved. This is good because the next day a new round of calf drama develops over at the hay shed that requires our attention...

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