Rescuing Newborn Calves Born During Harsh Weather

The first thing a hypothermic animal needed is warmth.

Reader Contribution by John Klar
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by John Klar
Farmer with a young bull in front of barn

As a general rule, wise animal husbandry discourages bringing animals into a warm building for any period of time when it is very cold outside, unless they are to stay warm until spring — the risk of pneumonia and hypothermia are greater when trying to return a baby to its outdoor mother. This creates a conundrum: an animal threatened by the cold is rescued by warmth; then threatened with death anew.

There are husbandry techniques to counter these wintertime challenges, whether for lambs, goat kids, piglets, or calves. Calves will be used here to survey the myriad complexities involved for all these farm babies.

In 25 years of raising calves of many different beef and dairy breeds, only two calves ever entered the warmth of our house. Their different stories well illustrate the urgent and difficult hurdles to be surmounted when a calf needs emergency rescue.

Rescuing a Winter-Born Calf from Hypothermia

The first was a Hereford bull plunked down one single-digit May morning (in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom tundra) directly into a freezing muddy puddle. His first-time mother was the first of 19 cows to freshen that year, and her repeated stares down the hill led me to investigate — around noontime. The mud-drenched baby flopped like a large brown fish as I drew near, or I wouldn’t have seen him at all.

He was in bad shape: no suck (the ability to drink) at all, and his arched back and inability to stand told me he was hypothermic and beyond getting on his mother (always the first choice). I wrapped him in my flannel shirt and dragged him up into the house.

The first thing this animal needed was warmth — hypothermia in any mammal is the same as for humans: “Those in the early stages of hypothermia must have warmth, food, and fluids immediately.” We dried him down and created an area in our laundry room. He couldn’t drink, so we had to use a “bovine esophageal feeder,” or what is called “tubing.”

The most vital fluid for these creatures is colostrum, which can nowadays be obtained commercially in powder form for most species and which, in our case, we obtained via an ordeal with an extremely uncooperative, massively rotund, hobbled and head-gated cow named “Peaches” (the mud-fish mother).

Because of the risk of scours, and certainly if scouring develops (as it did with this bull), supplements are beneficial, including one or more eggs, vitamins, yogurt or other probiotic, and a boost of glucose to get them going. Some sources suggest honey as a component of this brew, but raw honey can carry botulism spores, is expensive, and contains lower quantities of healthy minerals than cheaper molasses. Maple syrup will also serve, and is very high in zinc and manganese.

We named the bull “Miro” (a masculinized contraction of the Spanish milagros, or “miracle”). We picked him up repeatedly throughout the day to exercise the limbs he couldn’t move, gave him two quarts of milk/colostrum/egg/yogurt/electrolytes twice daily, used a turkey baster to suction the slime from his completely-occluded nostrils, and dragged him outside and laid him on an inclined pallet and massaged his torso to expel the phlegm from his mud-aspirated lungs. He lived, and this is what Miro grew to become what you see below.

Saving Another Calf from Winter Weather

That was about eight years back. A few weeks ago, we had a wintery deja vu. This time the first-time Hereford (“Brindy”) dropped her heifer in a late-day snowstorm with a below-zero night approaching. I spotted her apart from the other cows, and ran out to find a Miro redux — she was stiffening up, couldn’t stand, and had no suck. The winds were howling, so I dragged her in the barn and dried her with hay and my coat, then got a wood sled and dragged her into the house.

If a young animal is warmed up to full household temps, the risks of pneumonia and hypothermia increase if they are returned outdoors. We knew this calf (whom we named “Mary”, short for “Marycle”) would be in for the below-zero night, but hoped to reunite her with her mom, so we left her in an unheated bathroom with the window just barely ajar, aiming for around 40- to 50-degree Fahrenheit range while she rebounded.

We had no colostrum on hand and couldn’t restrain the cow, so my wife and I darted to a feed store to get some colostrum before they closed. I remarked en route, “Well, she will be warmed up by the time we get home. We’ll either walk in and she’s perky and ready for a bottle, or she’ll be listless and need tubing.”

Returning home and peering hopefully into the bathroom, Mary was looking curiously up from her sled. We mixed up the colostrum, and Mary took the bottle.

After her bottle, we gave the calf an hour or so to absorb the nutrients and “get her legs.” Around midnight, she got a quart of fresh, raw milk (that we get from a local dairy for ourselves). The next morning, we gave her another quart of raw milk so she could endure the cold, dragged her out to her mom, and began the process of teaching them both how to feed/nurse.

Mary was already imprinting to the bottle, and at first rejected the teat. Holding the teat in the calf’s mouth with my hand around her muzzle, I squeezed a few pumps to get a trickle in her mouth. She fought me hard, but after two or three wrestling rounds, her eyes lit up and she caught the idea: mom soon followed, her tight udder relieved as the baby’s nursing released relaxing hormones.

We dragged her out in her sled again in the evening for a nursing, then kept Mary in one more night because of the brutal cold. The next day, we returned her to mom with a calf blanket, and after about a week we had a break in the cold and removed the blanket. Mary is happily romping in good health.

Extra Care Leads to Lasting Farmer-Animal Bonds

And so, the major factors for compromised newborns in winter are hydration, temperature, and nutrition, all of which must be monitored concurrently. We have done this with lambs, goats, and piglets as well as calves. One wins some; one loses some — but the winners are worth it, and become especially bonded to their servant-master farmer-owners.

Miro grew into not only a magnificent specimen of the breed, but a trustworthy and docile companion who was never once aggressive. (Though, I wouldn’t recommend raising bulls in the house if avoidable.)

John Klar raises grass-fed beef and sheep, and seeks to educate people about where their food comes from and how large corporate interests wish to dominate food production. He moved to Vermont and began farming in 1998. John and his wife, Jacqueline, built and operated an artisanal raw-milk cheese house, and have raised pigs, chickens, sheep, horses, cows, and goats, and grown many varieties of vegetables and herbs. Connect with John on Facebook, and watch his farming videos on YouTube. Read all of John’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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