Sunday, April 17, 2016

Adventures in calving: the wrong side of the energy curve

Holy moley frickazoley.

Thursday was beautiful. Sunny, calm, warm. The perfect day for a calf to be born on the EJE.

Saturday -- not so much.

The temperature hovered in the mid-30's all day and a stinging cold rain was being driven by a chill north wind. The forecast called for worse. It was supposed to be snowing.

The weather guessers had prompted me to bring the cows in to a little 10 acre fenced paddock up close to the barn. The north margin of the paddock is lined with sturdy junipers, providing an excellent windbreak and some pretty good shelter from rain and snow.

The decision to bring the cows in to the paddock was a little iffy. Or perhaps I should say that the situation didn't provide a clear-cut best solution.

On the one hand, our cows are range cows, bred to live and prosper in the particular environment of our ranch. They are well equipped to calve in the outdoors and to care for and nurture their new babies in all weathers. Most of the time the open range is the best place for calving. There's lots of room and nearly limitless options for the cow to choose the best place to have her baby. Most of the time the cow is far better equipped than I to choose her place and to do her nurturing. Most of the time 10 acres is too small and confined.

On the other hand, most of the time...

Sometimes the weather is bad enough that the cow and calf might need help. Most of the time they won't, even when the wind is driving a stinging cold rain. The calf will be born, get up and nurse, get its metabolism going, and do quite well. It'll look miserable and awful, and it would be for a human, but it's par for the course for a cow and calf.

But sometimes, for some reason, the calf gets on the backside of the energy curve. Even in fine weather it's a bit touch and go at the very start. They're born with almost zero energy reserve. Basically just enough to get up and nurse and to start metabolizing their first meal of colostrum. Colostrum is loaded with energy, and that first meal is almost always enough to light them off properly.

When it's cold and wet out the margin is razor thin. If the calf starts losing body heat faster than it can generate it, it's on the wrong side of the energy curve. Body heat is obviously harder to maintain the colder the air temperature. Calves are born wet, and saturated fur provides almost no insulation to maintain body heat. A belly full of colostrum will almost always provide the energy margin needed to quickly dry the fur (at least the inner hair coat, where most of the insulating happens), and the cow's tongue is a remarkably effective towel. But when there's a stinging cold rain driven by the wind, heat can easily flee the calf's body faster than it can be generated.

Calf 616 was born at 3 p.m. He was a lively bull calf and was up and nursing within minutes. When I checked him at 4 p.m. he was fine.

At 6 p.m. he wasn't. For some reason the cow had taken him out of the lee of the junipers and into the middle of the paddock.

The wind was howling a gale and the rain was turning to snow. The calf was sprawled flat out in the snow, all but unresponsive. The inside of his mouth was cold as ice. He was on the wrong side of the energy curve, hypothermic, and not long for this world.

Calf 617 had been born at 1 p.m. His mom elected to take him out into the storm as well. It sucked to be him, but he was up and about, shivering, and had a toasty warm mouth.

The situation 616 was in is the reason I'd brought the herd into the confines of the paddock. Just in case a cold, wet calf found itself on the wrong side of the energy curve.

I scooped him up and put him in the back of the pickup. I got wet and grimy in the process; an eighty pound calf is small in cattle terms but still weighs 80 pounds, and this one was soaked and unresponsive. Like a bag of jello wrapped in waterlogged carpet. Did I mention the wind driven rain turning to snow and the cold air temperature? Getting soaked in those conditions is the same miserable experience for a human. Squishy. Gritty. Slippery. Wet. Cold.

I took him to the house and marched through the kitchen, interrupting the nice supper Mom and Dad were sharing with my brother, his wife, and my sixteener niece Julia, and headed for the stairs to the basement.

I started a tub of warm water running and checked the calf's core temperature. It was 94 degrees. Bad, but in a good way. It should have been about 101-102, so it was very low, but 94 isn't that bad. If there was nothing else wrong with him we'd be okay. Otherwise he was still breathing but nearly unresponsive. He really was a bag of rapidly cooling jello; flat out and limp, hardly moving on his own volition. He wasn't even shivering. Bad sign.

When hypothermia begins to set in, one of the first responses is shivering. Shivering is muscle activity, and muscle activity produces heat. It's a good response. It's not always a perfect response. Shivering produces heat but also gets blood flowing near the skin where, if the the hair is soaked and the body is exposed to wind, warmth is wicked instantly away. When the core temperature begins to drop the body begins to shut down peripheral circulation, shunting blood flow to the core in a last, valiant effort to stay alive. But out in the open, cold and wet, with a sharp wind blowing...

I got him in the tub of 110 degree water and he started to come around pretty quickly. Within a few minutes he began shivering. Good sign. I mixed up a couple of quarts of freeze dried colostrum and got a pint or so into the calf's belly via a stomach tube.

That in itself was an adventure. The "stomach tube," more properly a drenching kit, is a big, two quart flexible plastic bottle with an 18 inch, screw on plastic tube. The tube is supple and flexible and has a plastic bulb attached to the end to help it slide down the esophagus (aesophagus in the Queen's English). To administer colostrum directly to the stomach, you just hyperextend the calf's neck and slide the tube over the tongue and down the throat. It's a bit of a trick but not hard to do, and experience makes it dead simple and easy. So that's what I attempted, but the calf clamped down on the tube (not uncommon) and pulled the bulb off the end of it (uncommon!!!).

So there I was, with a slippery, wet, nearly unresponsive calf up to his chin in a tub of warm water, holding his head above the surface with one hand and a now-useless stomach tube in the other, and the calf now had a choking hazard floating around somewhere in his mouth. If that bulb had entered the trachea it would have killed the little feller deader than a hammer. It didn't, though, and I quickly fished it out. "Thanks, God, I needed the assist."

The calf still needed to get some colostrum into his belly though. I carefully inspected the tube and decided that while it was now bulbless, it wasn't entirely useless. If I was careful...

Need is the mother of invention, and it worked fine. I got about a pint and a half into him and set to massaging some warmth back into his young bones.

Within about 20-30 minutes his core temperature came up to normal, and as his gut began to digest the colostrum all that lovely energy began to flow. I took him out of the tub and started to towel him off. To my delight he immediately struggled to his feet, instinctively searching for an udder and sustenance.

I had a calf bottle filled with warm colostrum, and that was close enough. In a remarkably short time he polished off the balance, tail wagging like mad, and was ready to get on with the rest of his life.

Everyone was amazed. "That calf was dead when you brought it in!," said niece Julia. Well, he'd been heading in the wrong direction, but hadn't gone too far down that path, so the warming and colostrum had seemed to work miracles.

Make no mistake, he was crashing when I decided to intervene. But all he needed was a little externally applied energy, a belly full of internally applied energy, and about 45 minutes. None of that was available in the paddock though. It was a narrow escape.

I took him out to the barn and put him down. I turned on the lights and left the door open to the corral, and the gate of the corral open to the paddock. With any luck his mom would find him in the night and all would be rainbows and unicorns.

I was a little bit concerned about the possibility of breaking the cow's maternal bond though. You just never know how they'll react. From her perspective he'd flopped over and stopped behaving like she expected him to, then he just disappeared. In warming him in a tub of water, I'd also washed away a lot of his scent -- scent that cows use in part to identify their calves. Would she find him? Would she recognize him? Would she continue to nurture him? Only time would tell. In the meantime, he was warm and dry and out of the snow.

It was dark by then, and I took another tour of the paddock. Calf 617 and his mom were still out in the middle of the storm, away from the shelter of the junipers. The calf was on his feet, but hunched up and shivering. Shit! Here we go again!

But 617 was in far better shape than 616 had been. He was dry on his underside and his mouth was toasty warm. Still, I'd had enough of this "middle of the paddock away from shelter bullshit." I snatched him up and relocated him to a nice pile of millet hay in a sheltered spot near the trees. The cow followed, and although I'm anthropomorphizing (anthropormorphising in the Queen's English) here, she seemed to be grateful.

I worried about 617 all night. I'd done all I could for 616, and his fate was now in nature's hands. But what about 617? Had I done the right thing? Should I have warmed him? Would I find him dead and frozen solid when the sun came up?

The sun finally came up on a nasty morning. Thirty degrees, wind still howling, snow still snowing. Snow and slush and ice everywhere. Interstate closed. Visibility about a quarter-mile.

Calf 617 was still alive. In fact, he was fine.

I wasn't really surprised, but I was very happy. I wouldn't have been surprised if it had gone the other way. You just never know for sure.

The rest of the cows and calves seemed to be surviving the weather just fine.

Tubby (the calf formerly known as 616)? He was fine.

And his mom had found him.

Was he still her baby? Look at the milk froth on his chin.

Just another day on the ranch. The ugly days are wonderful too.


  1. YAY, Shaun! YAY, Cows! I hope things remain full of rainbows, unicorns, and butterbelly weasels for Tubby.

  2. Wow, what a struggle. Tubby looks to be a fine wee bull.

    1. Sometimes the struggle produces a win, sometimes not, and it never goes exactly as planned. Which is good, because it wouldn't be a very good universe if I was the Incharge...

  3. Replies
    1. He's already become a steer. We "band" the bulls when we tag them. Much easier on both the calf and the human. We still use the "he" pronoun though. I suppose we should use "ste." Maybe I'll start doing that. My ranching friends would grin knowingly when I walk into the cafe and whisper about my new speech impediment...

  4. I would think "he" to be correct. He still has a Y chromosome. He is a handsome little rascal. Are steers any more trustworthy than bulls? Never turn your back on a Holstein bull. He will kill you.

  5. Generally speaking and in my experience, yes. Our herd bulls get grumpy as they age; around age 6-7 they're a little too proddy to keep around. They have a hard life though and most don't last much past that.