Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Bottle calf

The romance of raising cattle played a large role in my decision to take up the profession, and I don’t think I’m unique in that. Those of who choose to raise food animals for a living aren’t in it for the money alone. If we were, we’d be sorely disappointed. Few of us generate the kind of income that leads to great wealth. When I need a good laugh, in fact, I try to calculate my profit on a dollars-per-hour scale. I’m smiling ironically now as I write those words.

The non-monetary rewards of ranching are just as important as the cash income. Owning land and livestock allows for a great deal of independence. We punch no time clocks, arrange our own schedules, and make our own decisions. With our independence comes the responsibility of conserving our land and husbanding our livestock. This combination is the epitome of romance as defined by Webster: “…an emotional attraction belonging to an especially heroic era, adventure or activity.”

When the weather is beautiful, the grass lush, the cows contented and the calves at play, it’s hard to imagine any other lifestyle so brimming with delight and satisfaction. The price of our enjoyment comes at a cost though. Reality seldom allows our perfect days to last for long.

An hours-old calf waits patiently, and in vain, for his mother to recover.
The other morning one of our heifers had a nice little bull-calf, born into an ideal world of sunshine and gentle breezes, and onto a bed of burgeoning cool-season grasses. The calf was strong and healthy, and except for one small detail, the scene was beautiful.

The detail? Unfortunately the new mama cow had suffered a prolapsed uterus.

The condition is caused by uterine contractions and straining as the animal attempts to slough off and expel the uterine lining, or placenta, more commonly known as afterbirth.

A prolapsed uterus in a first-calf heifer opens a veritable Pandora’s Box of concerns and decisions. The first and most obvious is the need to call the vet to treat the immediate problem. Uterine prolapse is a life-threatening condition and is considered an emergency.

The second decision – more properly a string of decisions – is what to do with the cow.

Cows with a history of prolapse are at greater risk of future prolapse. They are generally slower to breed back and have lower conception rates. These facts must be weighed in deciding whether to keep the cow in the herd or to cull and replace her.

In the case of our heifer, she was a genetically and conformationally sound cow, ideal for our herd, and so the decision whether to keep or cull was a bit more complex. We had to consider her strengths, which were manifest, against our best guess of the likelihood that she would suffer future conception difficulty or prolapse. The cost of purchasing or developing a replacement cow had to be weighed as well.

The second decision string could wait, however, until the prolapse was repaired.

Our vet arrived dressed for the occasion, wearing shorts, a tee shirt, and sneakers. To the uninitiated, this might seem strange attire, but repairing a prolapsed uterus is a messy job. On a warm spring day, her outfit made perfect sense.

After securing the cow on her chest with a halter and rear leg restraints, the vet administered an epidural anesthetic, thoroughly washed and disinfected the everted organ, then carefully replaced it and sewed it in place. After placing an intrauterine bolus of antibiotic, she dosed the cow with penicillin to ward off infection and ocytocin to help reduce uterine inflammation. We removed the restraints from the cow and the vet departed. We left cow and calf laying side by side in the warming morning sun.

The cow was slow to get up, which was understandable given the circumstances. She still hadn’t arisen by late afternoon, but in such cases it’s often best to give the animal time to work things out on her own schedule.

Then the reality of nature intervened, and the cow died just as an evening thunderstorm arrived.

The scene was the antithesis of romantic; a hungry baby calf curled up at the flank of his now-departed mama, being pelted with stingingly cold rain in the gloomy light of a stormy and fading day.

I picked up the now-soaking calf and took him to the barn, where he’d be protected from the weather and nocturnal coyotes, fixed him a bottle of colostrum mix, and fed him. He was remarkably quick to nurse from the bottle. As he nursed, I couldn’t help but admire his soundness and energy and the wonder of his nursing instinct. We’d lost a good cow but saved a nice calf, and I rather enjoy bottle calves, despite the additional cost and labor they bring. Losing the cow hurts, but a healthy and enthusiastically nursing calf eases some of the sting.

Nature’s reality is harsh as often as it is kind. But there’d be less satisfaction in an adventure that lacked challenging setbacks. The cattleman understands this. It’s part of the romance.

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