Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Not a dairyman

And it's another rather busy day.

Yesterday I wrote about the little calf that was born the day before and got chilled. When we left him last evening he was in the warming box, digesting another meal of colostrum, and his mom was in the barn with him, eating hay.

Earlier in the day I'd milked his mom out. I fed part of her milk to the calf but froze most of it, and that requires a bit of an explanation.

Colostrum (from the Latin for first milk) is the first milk produced by a lactating female immediately after giving birth. All mammals, including humans, produce this first milk which is very energy dense and loaded with antibodies.

As I've written before, baby calves (and really all mammals) are born with a razor thin energy margin. They've generally got just enough energy to start up all the systems mama was taking care of in the womb and to get up and nurse. With a little bit of a cushion. Usually. The energy they are born with includes the sugar in their blood and stored fat. Those energy stores don't last for long, so it's really important that the newborn nurse as soon as possible and that the milk be colostrum, which is loaded with more fats and sugars than "regular" milk.

Colostrum is also loaded with antibodies. The calf is born with an intact immune system  -- in other words -- an immune system that's ready to begin functioning. But it doesn't have any antibodies yet, because the placenta filters the cow's own antibodies out of the blood supplied to the calf in the womb. It makes sense if you think about it, because antibodies are very similar to pathogens. The cow might be sick, but the placenta shields the the calf from anything that might be a pathogen, including her own antibodies. Therefore the calf is born without being sick, but also without the vital antibodies which will fight disease.

When the calf consumes its first milk, the antibodies in that milk are absorbed by the gut and become part of the calf's immune system, where they immediately begin protecting it from disease.

As you can see, colostrum is very important to the newborn calf.

Sometimes the calf doesn't nurse though. Fortunately we live in the twenty-first century and have access to processed, freeze-dried colostrum which has nearly all the energy and most of the antibodies of mama's first milk. Just mix with warm water and feed it to the calf via a bottle or stomach tube. It's not exactly as good as mama's, but it's close enough to bridge the gap.

Mama's colostrum is the best, because it's fresh and hasn't been processed or freeze-dried, which does eliminate some of the antibodies and a little bit of the energy. It can be frozen at the ranch, though, and simple freezing does little or nothing to degrade its effectiveness. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity to do so we harvest and freeze colostrum. Once thawed out it'll be fully effective for any calf that needs it. Frozen colostrum is an important commodity.

So that's the reason I milked out the cow, gave part of the milk to her calf, and froze the rest. You've no doubt seen cows being milked either in person, in film, or on television. Maybe even on the youtube. Heh. I ain't no dairyman!

This morning the calf -- which was christened "Nip" yesterday -- was bright-eyed and ready to get on with the rest of his adventure. He was a little wobbly on his feet, but he hadn't yet had the opportunity to do much walking. His mom recognized him immediately and began to lick him and urge him to nurse. I didn't stick around to take pictures or videos because it's a critical time and the less distractions the best. So far so good.

In the meantime, more calves are hitting the ground. It's calving season after all!


  1. I get the feeling that you're awfully glad to be ranching again. I can hear it in your voice.

    Well done!

  2. I can see you are not a dairyman. You don't have the equipment for cutting the cow in half, and putting it on the big juicer. Back in my Grandpa Lind's day, the cow would then be put back together with two part epoxy, and would have to be braced up for ten minutes while the glue set, before being sent back out to the pasture. It's all Velcro today, of course.

    1. See, I could never be a dairyman!

      Mom was telling me today that Grandma told her to never let anyone teach her how to milk. "It gives you big knuckles," she said.

  3. Thanks for the post. I hope that things continue to go well.

    Paul L. Quandt