Farm babies are a treasure not to be taken for granted. These tender but tough, fragile yet rugged new babies don't always come easy. Truth be told, these sweeties are the highlight of the farm year – at least on the livestock end of it. I try to be aware of cows or other animals coming close to their time and then pay extra attention.
When's the Baby Comin'?
There are several signs you can be on the lookout for with cows. Their udders will start to swell. Some cows may do this a couple of weeks before calving and older cows may only “bag up” a day or two before. Her hind end will get really loose and swell, and may start to secrete mucus. When she is ready to calve, she will usually step away from the herd and find a private place. Heifers (first time calvers) will not always follow this pattern, and usually have to be watched more closely in case of birthing trouble.
I have had several calves during this winter with no negative issues. They either calved right before or right after a cold spell. In general, cold weather itself will not cause problems, it is when it is cold and wet that new babies can struggle. One of my momma cows did not calve at a good time. The morning of our last great snowfall her baby came into the world. Cold and wet, this large bull was born in the middle of the night on a bed of snow. When I checked on them early the next morning, momma was fine, but baby was chilled and had not been up to suck. It was cold, the wind was blowing and it was snowing heavily. Mable is a good momma cow and I could tell that she had cleaned up the baby fairly good, but he was still wet and was not able to get up good enough to nurse or get to the bed of hay. I helped him stand and walk to some dry bedding even though it is important not to interfere with the relationship between cow and calf. This is when they make their bond and the calf needs to get that nourishing, necessary colostrum from it's mother.
Time to Intervene
After a couple of hours his condition was the same and the weather was getting worse. I got a bottle of frozen colostrum from my neighbor, Barbara, who has both Jersey cows and Dairy goats. Most dairy farmers save and freeze bottles of colostrum just for emergency’s like this. Dried colostrum can also be purchased at a feed store, but fresh or frozen is always preferred.
We brought the calf into the basement and my boys immediately started petting and rubbing him all over. This kind of stimulation helps warm them up and gets blood flowing to all the limbs. While they were busy loving up the baby, I thawed out the colostrum in a sink of hot water. After a few minutes the boys were yelling at me that the baby was sucking on Caleb's fingers. “YES!” That is a good sign that he is warming up and looking for something to eat. Sometimes just getting a calf to suck can be a challenge. I had a quarter of a bottle of colostrum warmed up. I took it to the calf and he sucked it right down!
After a couple of hours he had sucked the entire bottle and was walking around with his long stiff legs. He was also wanting more to eat. So, we took a chance and delivered him back to momma. The next couple of days I watched him closely. The weather was rough and very cold, but Mable was a persistent momma. She kept close to him and he finally started getting his belly full (and her full udder got some relief). After a few days he was even kicking up his legs along with the other young calves.
I was happy this story ended well, as it doesn't always turn out that way. Sometimes it is best to keep a calf and bottle feed it, especially if you aren't sure if the cow is going to re-bond with the calf. There is also a chance that the calf will have trouble nursing.
Farm decisions are hard to make, especially when you have a vulnerable or sick animal. Knowing your animals and having some precautionary medications and supplies is helpful. It is not always possible to get expert advice or veterinarian consultation. Part of being a farmer is caring for sick and dying animals. This can sometimes be very discouraging, and has on occasion left me feeling inadequate. I keep at it, though, and learn from those disheartening moments. It helps me enjoy, even more, the time of peaceful roaming cattle, healthy new babies and proud mammas.
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