Winter and bovine burden blues

Was on a streak of virtuous activity there but my blogging ground to a halt when we got whacked by the weather the past couple of weeks. First, a blizzard, then bitter cold, then a slushy “wintry mix” from the nasty weather salad bar. Next, locusts, probably.

We live out in the country, and our driveway is nearly a quarter mile long. Getting in and out to the road is never a given. I have a herd of 35 cattle and I have no way to check on them with snow on the ground (and there is still quite a bit) other than trudging out there. But they seem fine, and I have an indispensable neighbor who has moved in my hay when needed, back scraped the driveway, and pulled my stuck 2-wheel drive station wagon out of snowbanks I’d driven into.

I’m not complaining too much. It COULD have been worse. Touch wood, we have not had any issues with pipes bursting. So there’s that.

During the coldest nights I thought it best to pack the wife and kids off to town, where the kids could hang out with their friends and Heather could get some quiet time. She is much more prone to stir-crazy than I. It was my job to keep firewood stacked and drying inside, and to monitor all the faucet dripping configurations.  I’m well stocked with food, beer and bourbon, and the Internet and satellite TV are operational, so this SHOULD be a good time for someone like me, but for the burden of a two-week old calf I’ve brought into the house.

Cow whispering at the Henson-Ungs.

A video posted by Heather Henson (@hensonbooks) on

The gentle big red cow with the horns–for it is from she this problem calf comes–has become a very troublesome animal. Twice in the past two years we had to trailer her in to the vet to fix (temporarily) her problematic hooves. I would have been happy just to sell her when she got lame the second time, but for the fact that she had a calf in her. My thinking was to let her have the calf, and sell the cow after it’s weaned. Finally, she calved nearly three weeks ago, but couldn’t or wouldn’t feed it.

We had just lost a calf to a similar situation. The mother had mastitis or poorly formed udders, or irritable udders, or something, but we found this calf a bit sooner, so were able to get it to the vet in time to save its life. On day one the vet fed the second calf electrolytes through an esophageal tube, and sent her home and told me to do the same, and to follow up the electrolytes with milk replacer, three times a day.

I had no experience with the tube and was terrified to use it myself. Among the things that can go wrong: 1. sticking the tube into the windpipe and killing the calf immediately and 2. killing it gradually via pneumonia. The first time I fed successfully I was pretty sure I had killed her, but she is still kicking after four days of thrice-daily tubings. On the fifth day, she started to lap up milk replacer from a bowl. She did this messily, something between splashing milk around randomly and actually ingesting it, but it became clear she is getting some down into her, and I could let up with the tube….

The problem is that she is feeding incredibly slowly. The first quart of the morning takes two hours or more for her to consume, and we’re lucky to get her to take another pint after that. She isn’t getting what she should but is strengthening, and becoming willful. Yesterday, I had the dubious notion that she needed exercise and a chance to keep contact with the herd, so I set her outside and she immediately ran to mama.

The calf went straight for the udders, and … mama continued to pull away. She was in other respects quite attentive and motherly to the calf, just failing in the crucial category of KEEPING HER CHILD ALIVE. After half an hour of re-bonding I gathered the calf up and brought her inside again but she was now determined to get back to her mother. I’m pretty sure her sleeping outside in 6-degree weather would kill her, so I’m just putting up with the incessant bawling for mama. Also, putting up with Heather’s slowly building simmer. (I had originally said we’d have the calf inside for a couple of nights. We are now on night 6)….

I don’t know where this ends. It’s by no means clear that this calf will survive. If she does, though, I don’t know when and how it will work. The ideal thing would be for her to join the herd and find a cow that lets her feed along with her own calf. If not, I’ll be having to feed the calf morning and night. Knowing now what kinds of labor saving this calf requires, I wonder if I would do it over again. But having started, it’s impossible to keep from doing everything in my power to keep the little monster alive.

Winter and bovine burden blues

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