Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Bottle calf update - falling into place

After spending a week bottle feeding an orphaned calf, nature presented us with a solution. A first-calf heifer produced a brand-new heifer of her own, had plenty of milk, and was in fine body condition.

Orphaned calves will always do better nursing a cow rather than a bottle, so we had a golden opportunity to get the orphan back on a more normal diet of cows mama’s milk rather than milk replacer.

There are challenges galore in such a scheme. From the first moment a cow sniffs, nuzzles, and licks her newborn, its unique smell is imprinted on the cows brain. The smell of that baby calf is, to the cow, an ownership mark that identifies her baby far better than any brand, tattoo, or ear tag. Day or night, wet or dry, cold or hot, pouring down with rain or snow, mama can identify her calf in any and all weather.

The cow’s instinct is to nurture a single calf. Even when a cow has twins, the first to be sniffed, licked and nuzzled often becomes “her” calf, and the second twin becomes other. Sometimes the cow will completely ignore the second twin, sometimes she will grudgingly accept it, and on slightly more rare occasions, she will recognize both as her babies.

It’s tough enough trying to match up an orphaned calf with a cow who’s lost her own calf; it’s even more of a challenge trying to add a calf to a cow-calf pair. It can be done, but it takes a bit of work and a lot of cooperation from the cow.

Three days after the first calf was orphaned, 051 had a pretty little heifer calf of her own. The cow seemed to have lots of milk, and she was conformationally a remarkably nice cow with an extremely mild disposition. These three factors were encouraging and led to our attempt to add the orphan to the new mama’s mix.

After tagging and vaccinating the new arrival I moved them into the barn with the orphan calf. I dusted each calf liberally with an herbal concoction which is supposed to make new calves smell attractive to cows. I doubt it does any good, but neither should it do any harm, and you never know, someday it just might do the trick.

In her initial confusion, the cow was seemingly curious about both calves and allowed each to suckle. Both the orphan and his now step-sister knew just what to do, and I left them that way, nursing contentedly in the barn.

Things had changed a bit at lunchtime, though, and the new mama knew with certainty that the heifer calf was her baby and the steer calf was not. Still, she was only half-hearted about pushing the steer calf away and would eventually allow him to suckle. Fortunately for the little steer, he was very persistent. She seemed most pleased when both were nursing at the same time.

After a few days in the barn and big corral, with both calves and the cow seemingly satisfied with the arrangement, I turned them out with the rest of the heifers and their young calves. As I write this, all three are doing famously.

A week-old orphan calf nurses from a convenient udder on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
Of course, the little steer calf isn’t following the script exactly. He likes his new mama just fine, but seems to see no reason why he shouldn’t nurse from the nearest and most convenient udder. And so he does. The first-time mothers all know exactly what he’s doing and that he’s not their own calf, and most of them push him away now and then, but then they allow him to nurse for few minutes.

In this fashion the little steer calf has become adept at feeding himself and probably enjoys the richest diet of his cohort. Nature never lacks for wonder.

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