Hey hey! I’m currently sitting out on the porch in 55-degree (albeit overcast but I’m not complaining) weather, watching a very happy birthday boy play with his new sandbox. We always think we know what he’ll love, but we’re often wrong (#toddlers). This time, though, we hit it out of the park!
(PS I think I may have found a jogging stroller, *knock on wood* so, you know, pray for me. Craigslist is ruthless.)
So. We’ve had three sets of twins here, plus a twin from another camp. That’s a lot of extra babies, y’all. I thought I’d visit with you about how we handle all that extra furry goodness since most beef cattle, especially heifers, don’t milk enough to raise two calves. It’s better for a cow to raise the calf–we could bottle-feed it with milk replacer until it’s old enough to eat grass and grain, but those calves never grow as well, and that’s a lot of extra work! Plus I’m a softie and it makes me sad when a calf doesn’t have a mama, and when a mama is missing her calf.
How do we get “extra” cows?
We’ll get right to it: calves die. It’s a fact of life and obviously something we try to avoid, but sometimes there’s just nothing to do. They might be stillborn, or have some kind of defect that makes them unable to live for very long, or they might get stepped on, etc. Sometimes they just get too sick and don’t respond to treatment, and sometimes they are affected by a traumatic birth and we can’t save them. Or, they could get killed by a coyote–we’ve lost one to a coyote this year, and this is why we’re very serious about predator control. So, that leaves us with “extra” cows sometimes, and we make these cows into graft (foster) mamas.
Sometimes the reverse happens, and we come up with an extra calf because it doesn’t have a mama. There are some instances where we have to play child services, and take a calf away from a cow because she is unfit to be a mother. Sometimes, she rejects the calf and tries to hurt it, other times she becomes aggressive after calving and is too dangerous to keep around, or she may not produce enough milk to raise a calf. Occasionally, cows will die and orphan a calf.
(Once, we had a cow die of pneumonia when her calf was a couple months old and I took care of feeding him. His name was Zeke and he was HUGE, and would drink 2-4 bottles a few times a day, plus grass & grain. When we got him a new mama, he was already so big that he had to get on his knees to nurse! I miss Zeke.)
If a calf dies and there is no graft calf available, Bert will milk the cow himself to keep her milking. This also comes in handy if a calf is needing to be bottle-fed for some reason because it helps us use less milk replacer, which saves money, and the real deal is always best. He won’t do it indefinitely, of course, but a couple weeks, maybe.
When it comes time to graft, there are a lot different methods that people use, and sometimes you have to try several things; there’s really no “right” way. Usually Bert’s method is to hobble the back feet of the cow, and put the cow and her graft calf in a small, quiet pen together for a few days with plenty of good feed and water and a healthy application of Orphan-No-More. Hobbles ensure that the cow doesn’t kick the calf while it’s trying to nurse, since the mom’s instinct is to not let any calf nurse but her own. Letting the calf nurse helps it smell like the mama, and helps her understand that the calf nursing will alleviate the discomfort of a too-full milk bag (mamas who’ve nursed, you know all about how good getting engorged feels!). It also gives the calf confidence and try, and keeps it vigorous and healthy. The Orphan Powder, as we call it, helps with the scent issue as well, and helps the mama bond with the calf since she’s inclined to lick it off.
A shot of oxytocin (yes, the same hormone as in humans) can also help, especially if it’s been a little while since the cow had a calf and needs help with her milk letdown.
Some cows don’t need much in the way of convincing, though–this cow wanted a calf so badly, and these two took to one another right away.
If he has a cow with a calf that’s very recently deceased, Bert skins the dead calf (I know, it’s a little shocking, but hear me out), and ties that skin to the graft calf. It sounds strange and maybe a little gross, but it’s got a very high success rate and that’s what matters. The new calf smells precisely like the old one, and we only need to leave the hide on for a few days.
^^ This is Betsy, a calf from when we lived in Montana. You can just see the edges and the twine of her “graft oufit.”
Other methods involve different substitutions for Orphan Powder, like milk, blood, even molasses, and different methods for feeding the calf–some people catch the cow in a chute several times a day and let the calf nurse that way, or milk the cow and bottle-feed the calf.
Most of the time, we can convince the cow to take on the graft calf, and they’re both better off for it. Sometimes, one or the other will refuse, and then it’s back to square one. With a herd as large as ours, we almost always have a mama available, even if we need to take a calf to another camp or vice-versa.
So far, all our mamas have calves (either adopted or biological), which is great. Bert’s been lucky this year and hasn’t had trouble getting grafts to take, so our pasture of pairs is full of happy and healthy mamas and babies who are happy to be with one another, and he’s not having to bottle-feed any calves, which is a major win.
There you go! Add “Bovine Social Worker and Expert Familial Matchmaker” to the list of hats that ranchers wear. Now we can just hope that the rest of calving season goes just as smoothly as this first month has!