Babying the Bottle Babes

Baby did not make it. He died in his sleep while I was subbing at the elementary school. I was heart broken, but knew there was nothing more we could have done. It is common to lose young calvesdue to shipping sickness or scours, one in four bottle calves are lost that way, but his loss hurt nonetheless. I am not to the point of it not touching me when we lose one and hope never to be that way.

We are trying again. This time, we have four new arrivals, two of which are already sick and I expect when Mike feeds them in a few minutes that ‘Lucky’, a week old Holstein will not greet him hungrily as he arrives. ‘Newby’, also a Holstein was only a day old when we got him and now has the scours, the scourge of young calves, but is still taking his bottle well and is able to get the electrolytes he needs to prevent heart failure. ‘Rowdy’ and ‘Pip’, two-week-old Jerseys, are doing great, though. They run to greet us for food, head butting us when they finish their bottle and want more (they always want more), and kick up their heels in joy after feeding. They are solid copper in color and easily discerned by their nose colors. ‘Pip’ has a deep black nose; ‘Rowdy’ (and that discribes him well) has a pale color nose. Newby tries to keep up with their energy, but is still a little wobbly on his feet due to a weak right back leg.

The first time we fed Pip and Rowdy, Pip was too young to understand the idea of bottle feeding. He had been on a nurse cow and did not like the rubber nipple so Mike had to hold him to feed him. Mike placed Pip between his legs and bent forward to hold Pip’s bottle in front of the calf as it fought the introduction of the nipple. Meanwhile, Rowdy had finished the bottle I gave him and wanted more.  As Rowdy scouted around for more, he head butted me, the empty bottle, the bale of hay in the pen and finally…Mike. You got it! The little calf head butted Mike right in the behind with a force that almost knocked him off his feet. Fortunately for Mike, he missed hitting that spot on the male body that might have left the man lying in a fetal position amidst the straw, cow poop, and calve hooves. Still, I could not help but laugh. The calf’s sheer joy over a warm bottle of milk was captivating and earned him his name.

It is fun to feed the calves and always somewhat of a battle. They all run to us when we arrive, clamouring for first bottle position like kids in line for a candy handout. They head butt us, lick our legs, nuzzle against us, in short, do everything they can to get that bottle.  It often takes both hands to feed them two at a time to prevent them from forcing one calf away from his bottle as they try to latch on to it themselves. When they attach to the bottle, there is nothing else in their world but the sweet milk.  I love to watch as their eyes roll back in sheer ecstacy as they down the warm milk replacement and their displeasure if the nipple flattens or the bottle goes empty. That always requires a head butt as though it would kick start the system again. And I love to watch the quick burst of energy it gives them afterwards as they run and kick their heels before they settle down with their full stomaches to sleep.

It is fairly easy too to tell which calf might be feeling under the weather during feeding time. Instead of standing with his head up begging for the bottle, he keeps his head low, ears back, and drinks slowly instead of gulping the milk, draining the bottle and asking for more. That is what keyed me in on Lucky’s illness even before I saw the yellow color of his stools. Still, he is lucky. That is, he has been seriously ill several times in the past few days but sprung back from it each time. Yesterday, however, he fell when we were not there and the position he was in made it difficult for him to breath. We arrived just in time to save  him, but the fall left him extremely weak and he had to be tubed to get his electrolyte treatment for the diarrhea. He was standing when we left, head down and ears back and when Mike checked on him later, slept in the same position Mike put him. Hopefully, that is a good thing.

Calves sleep with their front legs folded under them because it is the only way for them to get up on their own. A sick calf often does not put his feet under him and must be placed in the correct position or he becomes disoriented and cannot rise. Such was the case with Lucky. He lay sprawled on his side until Mike corrected his position, but it was a good sign that he held the right position afterward. Nevertheless, his extreme weakness and shallow and fast breathing suggests he did not survive the night. I will find out later, when Mike returns from his farm duties.

So today I’m feeling sad about Lucky and worried about Newby because I don’t want them to follow in the path of Baby, but I feel joy at the exuberance of Rowdy and Pip and their healthiness tells us it is nothing we are doing wrong when we lose a calf. It is just nature’s way. We never know for certain each morning when they get their first bottle who will be bright eyed and energetic or who will need extra care. We can almost tell as we drive up, though.

I have noticed that when one of the babies has been close to death that the older calves avoid their shed or stand in the shade just outside its enclosure. Perhaps it is a scent or a sound or just a feeling they get, but I believe they know when death is emminent. I knew something was wrong yesterday, for example, when Spot and the others in the nursery stood outside the shed and Big Mama and the gang were in the far reaches of the pasture instead of running to greet our truck. Caddyshack, who was in for a visit, was the first to see Lucky in his strange position and the first to right him, clear his mouth of dirt, and to rub him until he breathed better. I learned something more about Caddy Shack then. It seems Caddy Shack is not really a city guy. He grew up around cattle. No wonder he knew what to do for Lucky in the emergency. He threw off those city feller clothes, figuratively speaking, and turned into a Super Emergency Calf Responder! There is a calling for him, should he decide to leave his day job as Clark Kent in the Metropolis and come down here to Smallville. We could pay him in beer!

Hmmm…maybe not.  I just had a mental picture of him, eyes rolled back in his head enjoying his own bottle and head butting for more. Things might get ugly and Mike better watch his back!

About cattlebaroness

I am a graduate of the University of Kentucky with a BA in History, nearing completion of a Master of Arts in American history. Born and raised first on military bases around the world, then in Orange County, CA, I moved to Kentucky when my children were small. I now live on a small family farm and am learning about farm life, planting and our newest addition to the landscape--cattle. Until a month or two ago, all I knew about 'cows' were that they came in brown, black and white and that some are raised for milk and others for meat. I am a quick study out of necessity.
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6 Responses to Babying the Bottle Babes

  1. M.J.Deare says:

    This must be heartbreaking. I couldn’t do what you do…

  2. I didn’t think I could either. Mike gave me some perspective, though. Many of these little calves would not survive in the first place if it wasn’t for people like us willing to take a risk on them. While they are with us, they have the best possible life they can have: plenty of food, free from danger, shelter from the weather, soft clean bedding and room to roam a little. Given that many are dairy animals and there is not much use for a lot of bulls in a dairy, who else would take them? Meanwhile, we can give them love and attention, dote on them, and spoil them. God willing, they survive; if they don’t, there is some satisfaction in knowing we did everything we could to save them, make them comfortable, and give them peace. 🙂 PS I only cried a little.

  3. ceciliag says:

    Wow.. you are working hard. If I am not out of line I also raise a few calves every year on the bottles. I am sure you are keeping everything scrupulously clean and isolating scouring calves but i have found that if I feed them more often on a weaker mixture you kind of get ahead of the possibility of scours. So you are giving them the same amount of powdered formula a day but more frequently so that each bottle is not so rich. I will feed them up to four times a day. This gets tons more fluid in there too. Also I find that if I have a calf with a runny bottom I feed him soaked beet shreds with egg mixed in. This really does help to keep them on an even keel. Add molasses as well to entice them into eating it! I also mix an egg and a little garlic into their formula once a day as well. I hope this helps. Good luck. c

    • Thank you so much for your suggestions. We have been told about adding the egg here too, though not the dilution of the formula. Makes sense, since you dilute a human baby’s juice to prevent the runs. We will try that!

  4. Jim T says:

    I hope you have enough pieces of your heart left to go through this several more times, or else that it hardens sufficiently for you to take it as a matter of business. I’m always amazed at your equally impressive powers of observation and willingness to put your impressions down in print. Best wishes for a happy Labor Day holiday — not that you’ll get to take a holiday, I don’t imagine.

  5. Thank you, Jim. Your insights are always welcome! Unfortunately, I went through it again last night and stroked a young calf and talked to him gently as he too passed away. I hate the scours! Even though he quietly lowed several times before passing, it was peaceful and I felt that somehow he was comforted by my presence. Meanwhile, as he lay dying, I fought off two other calves that insisted my elbows and knees had milk in them! That’s the nature of life, one passes on and others continue the cycle. We grieve, but find joy in the little things if we are willing to pay attention to what we have rather than what we’ve lost. 🙂

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