Wednesday, April 5, 2017


We had an itty-bitty calf born the other day. It was a raw, cold, wet day. A miserable day to be born, at least in human estimation. As I've noted before though, you only come into the world once, so miserable or not, it's your beginning.

The cow had the calf in a relatively sheltered spot. On the one hand, it was out in the middle of the prairie, with no trees or buildings to provide cover from the elements. The temperature was 35 degrees, it was spitting a stinging cold rain, and a brisk, chill wind was blowing from the north, seemingly straight off the Arctic ice pack.

On the other hand, the cow chose a place on the south slope of a hill. Three feet above the ground the wind was awful. At the calf's level, though, it was the lightest touch of breeze. And on the southerly slope the calf was completely exposed to the radiance of the sun. Never mind the cloud cover; the sun's infrared rays were washing the new arrival in radiant warmth.

The calf -- spittin' image of his mama -- was tiny though.

As I sat there in the pickup looking at the pair my estimate of birth weight began at 60 pounds, but the more I looked, the more that estimate shrank. Fifty pounds? Maybe. Probably closer to 45.

The calf was still damp, but he was curled up with his head resting on his forelegs. He had milk bubbles on his chin, and his eyes were open, bright, and looking at me. He'd obviously been up and nursed. He was sheltered from the wind and rapidly drying off. He was alert and not shivering. All in all he was in very good condition.

I stepped out of the pickup, intending to tag, vaccinate and band the little guy. Mama stepped closer, lowered her head, and shook it emphatically. In cow talk she said, "Nope, not gonna happen!"

I was okay with that. The calf wasn't that old, the weather was crap, and it was far more important that he digest colostrum and get his metabolism going than that he be tagged.

Still, I was more than a little bit concerned. He was such a tiny calf! The first thing I thought about was the possibility that he might be a twin. He was the right size, and it's far from uncommon for cows who have twins to pick one to nurture and abandon the other.

I combed the prairie, which made me think if this...

But I could find no sign of an abandoned twin. When I did the math I discovered that if he wasn't a twin, he was probably a single. Who says that a kollidge edjmakashun is worthless?!?

He was so tiny though!

So far this calving season the babies have had birth weights ranging from 55 lbs. to 140 lbs. This new little guy was tiny even compared to the petite little 55 lb. heifer who had been, until this guy came along, the smallest.

Most likely, then, he'd come early. He was almost certainly a premie.

Which left the question of what to do. I had two choices, really. I could take the calf back to the barn and get it out of the intermittent cold rain. In the barn I could easily monitor his condition, tube feed him if needed, put him in a bed of clean straw and provide external warmth from a heat lamp. As interested as the cow was in her new baby, she would probably follow right along.

The downside to that idea was pretty simple. The disruption would cause a lot of stress to both cow and calf.

Looking at the calf, he was already mostly dry. He'd been up and nursed. He was alert and awake and curled up comfortably, conserving body warmth while he digested colostrum and and booted up his metabolism. His mom was very interested in him and concerned enough to fight to protect him.

So no, the best option was to leave the pair where they were, and let them do what they were best fitted to do. At this point, interference on my part would do more harm than good. That might change, and I'd need to keep an eye on the little guy, but unless he took a major turn for the worse he was better off right there on the prairie.

This morning the sun came out and the world began to warm up. The little calf was doing fine. I'd seen him up and nursing several times yesterday, and he seemed to be the warmest, driest calf on the place.

I decided to go ahead and tag and vaccinate the little guy. If he was as premature as I suspected, his testicles would likely still be parked up in his abdomen, so I probably wouldn't be able to band him. Which would be fine.

As I drove up to the calf mama came on the run from where she'd been grazing about 50 yards away. I'd hoped she'd be more relaxed, but I was prepared for the alternative. I might be old and fat, but I was able to nip out, quickly snatch up the calf, and jump back into the cab of the pickup.

As I snatched up the calf my birth weight estimate tumbled a bit more. He weighed about 35 lbs.

Still, he was bright and alert and thrashed his legs about with a lot of power for such a little guy. He had fresh milk bubbles on his chin and when he bawled in protest he had milky calf breath. He was warm and dry and very much alive. Still a bit weak and wobbly when compared to a full-term calf at three days, but more than healthy for a premie.

I tagged him and gave him his shot, but as I'd anticipated his testicles were still up in his belly. Time enough for that in the future.

While I'd tagged and vaccinated him inside the pickup his mama had grown confused. She couldn't find her baby, and there was no reason in her world to imagine that he might be inside that white drivy-thingy. So she charged off toward the nearest group of calves, which were laid up in the morning sunshine half a mile away.

I drove along behind her. As we bounced along the little calf looked around the inside of the pickup. Another good sign.

The cow stopped at the group of sunning calves and sniffed each one anxiously. I coasted up, got out, carried her calf over to her, and lay him down in the warm grass for her to discover. Which she promptly did. He lurched to his feet and sought her udder. Soon his little tail was wagging, a sure sign that he was getting milk.

We'll see how it goes. So far, so good, but premies can have setbacks. He might make it, he might not. Today it looks like he'll be okay.


  1. Please excuse a dumb question. I've been away from ranching 50+ years. Do you rely on the ear tags instead of branding?

    1. Far, far, far from a dumb question!

      We still brand. There are still cow thieves in the world and thus far the brand is best permanent mark of ownership, so yes, we still brand.

      The ear tags are a less-than-permanent form of ownership identification. What they are for mostly is to allow us to easily identify individual animals, know which calf belongs to which cow, etc.

      We may not be allowed to brand for much longer. At any given moment there are bills in federal and state legislatures to ban this act of barbaric torture. We'll just have to see how it goes.

    2. You will then go to subcutaneous chips?

    3. Possible, but unlikely. There are better ear tag solutions, and subq chips have a lot of downsides.

    4. RE Branding. Too few people know what happens between a calf being born and that pound of wrapped meat at their supermarket. Doesn't stop them from having an opinion and wanting to impose their view on you. F^^^ing dudes.
      Do you use a squeeze chute? My kin couldn't afford one so we roped and wrestled (and got kicked, often).

    5. That's one of the challenges we face as a nation, the sheer number of people who think that whatever thought happens to float through their mind (usually generated by television or koobecaf) is an informed and well reasoned opinion. Yes on the squeeze chute. There are still times for roping -- had to rope one cow last month to help her deliver a calf -- but the squeeze chute is sure a handy thing to have.

  2. Mama looks very attentive. A good sign I would think.

    But Nature can be a female dog at times...

    1. She is, and she's the best qualified expert we have to take care of the little guy.

      As for nature, she sure can be. Of course from her perspective it's all business as usual.

  3. I noticed that mom is tagged on the right ear and calf on the left. Any reason for that or was it just easier to get to that ear on the calf? Hope the calf thrives.

    Paul L. Quandt

    1. We tag all our calves in the left ear -- no particular reason that I kno of for left over right. Probably Grandpa Wilbur (or maybe Great-grandpa Evert) just picked left and that was it. So when we keep heifers back to make herd cows they have our left ear tag. The cows we are calving out now were purchased in January and February and have tags placed by the previous owner. Most of them have multiple tags; many of the red cows look to have had multiple owners. The black cows were a single owner but many have two tags. The blacks all have a blue tag though so that's the id we're using. At the end of the day the tags allow us to match individual cows and calves to herd records and cow-calf pairs to each other.

    2. Thank you.


  4. Gosh, you make me heart sore for the long days on the home ranch.
    Good on you for explaining what you do and why. So many are so far removed from their actual food source these days they haven't a clue.

    1. Thanks Brig. It's an uphill battle to show and tell. So many people today can only see the world in terms of wonderful or nazi-evil. But you just do what you can do.