So 2016 was a challenging year for me. I was laid off a job I loved and enjoyed for 10 years, I had found out that my sons father has terminal cancer and we had to put down our beloved dog Oskar of 15 years. And this was just what January had in store for me.
Now, I am a very optimistic type of person and I’m usually the devil’s advocate in any situation to uncover all sides and possibilities. So this rough start to the year also gave me an opportunity to have the courage to try something I’ve wanted to do all my life, bottle feed baby calves who are in need of help. When life hands you lemons….you know how that saying goes.
I had been doing research for the previous year on how to diagnose common illnesses, medicate, what are fever temperatures, feed, and care for calves etc. One of the places I could get calves are from a feedlot. The feedlots here are set up to house and feed 10-20 thousand grown cows and steers to gain weight for sale or slaughter. Sometimes before the cows are shipped to the feedlot a bull may get in with cows even for a day and nobody is the wiser that there is a calf on the way. The feedlot then has a surprise and no way to properly care for them. Feedlot pens are usually stocked with anywhere from 20-100 cows depending on the size of the pens and they are dirt/manure/mud floors. The cows lay down, then get up and the calves suckle to get milk and eat all sorts of bacteria, worms and anything else awful from what the other cows in the pen may have. The calves condition declines and they have a poor prognosis living in these conditions and it’s best if they are removed.
Now for those of you who advocate keeping the cow and calf together – I am all for that, but in the situation they are currently in, someone needs to help them and this is the best option. Let me tell you : it’s not a happy ending for the calf at the feed lot.
I found several feedlots in my area and got in contact with them if they had any calves. They did and would let me know what they had in a few days. So I prepared even more. I have no trailer and I was on a very limited budget so I picked up free pallets and took them apart to build a crate in the back of the truck and strapped it in. It’s still cold here in Alberta in February so I wanted it to be warm and out of the wind on the highway so it only had a 3 inch open area above the door for fresh air.
I also bought medication for emergencies, a 20 KG bag of powdered milk, electrolytes, jackets for them, bottles and my vet’s number on speed dial. We have a large barn with horse stalls and I converted them into calf stalls to keep them warm throughout the -20 degree Celsius nights.
I went to the feedlot and they had 3 calves, all heifers. (Female cows who have not had their first calf) The gentleman who worked there was wonderful trying to find these calves homes and was very helpful. We checked the feed database for the mother cow, as every cow is on a certain kind of feed and this affects the calf before it is born. The very rich feed that cows are fed at the feedlot can “burn” the calf’s stomach in utero so when the calf is born its stomach is unable to absorb any nutrition at all. Sadly these calves do not make it as they cannot gain weight to survive and there is no surgery or medicine to help. I was only able to care for 2 calves on my budget, so I picked the calves that their mothers had been at the feedlot the shortest amount of time. Also with my inexperience I wanted to have the best chance of these calves survival.
We drove to a pen with about 50 cows and one guy walked in and grabbed the first calf carried her to the truck and put her in the truck box. She was brown with a white face and about 2 days old. Then we drove to another pen with another 50 or so cows and he went into the pen. It was like the red sea parting as he came through the sea of cows carrying this poor skinny white calf about 5 days old. Oh she was pretty, but was so sick, even in my inexperience I could tell. Seems I got her out of there just in time.
I transported them home February 18, 2016 with my livestock manifest in my hand and the girls in the calf crate. I put them into the barn and let them settle down for an hour after their very stressful day, and went to make bottles of milk in the house. The first feeding went well as I had to teach them how to drink from a bottle as they had no idea.
They drank some milk but they were sleepy probably from the excitement of the day. The brown one laid down in her stall and did not get up for the rest of the day or the next day. She had a high temperature the second morning and wouldn’t stand even with help. I treated her with antibiotics and the next day she was jumping around back to normal. The white one was gaunt looking but perky and eating. We put calf coats on them to help keep them warm as the nights were getting down to -20 degrees celsius. Even though they didn’t eat much I fed them late that night and again early morning starting my routine feedings of un medicated milk at 6am, 12pm, 5 pm, and 10pm.
My son named the brown one Fiona and the white one Lulubelle, and instantly we were in love with these sweet girls as their individual personalities shone through. Fiona, is stubborn and curious, and is strongly motivated by food. Lulubelle is shy, learns very fast, and is too smart for her own good.
On the 22nd of February Lulubelle got very sick. She had scours with blood (calf diarrhea) refused to eat, had rapid breathing, wouldn’t stand for more than 15 minutes, her nose and mouth would quiver / spasm intermittently and her body temperature was totally normal. Well, I had 2 vets out in 3 days and they couldn’t pinpoint her illness since she didn’t have a fever. Best care is a calf scour sulfa bolus for 4 days that kills bad bacteria, extra fluids (electrolytes) and an anti-inflammatory shot. I had to tube feed her so she could keep hydrated and she needs calories and fat to help stay warm. Tube feeding is done when a calf will not drink on its own, it is a special feeder that is a plastic bag I fill with electrolytes or milk with a long plastic tube on one end. I had to make her stand up, open her mouth and push the tube gently down the left side of her throat letting her swallow it into her stomach, making sure it’s not in her lungs. Then I lift the bag and let it drain into her stomach. Every one of those three nights I prepared myself and told my son and my niece and nephews she would not likely be alive the next morning. And I do not know how she made it, because those three days her eyes were glazed over and had that death look. But miraculously she pushed through those nights of being so sick.
For the month of March and early April Lulubelle got sick twice more with a recurring lung infection. The vet came out again and I got better antibiotics for her and we finally kicked the infection. I hate to use antibiotics in their daily food or water, but if it comes to saving their life I will give injections of antibiotics without hesitation.
March came and was so mild that the girls were let out daily to enjoy the sun and fresh air in a small paddock behind the barn. They had learned what fences are and loved to nibble the grass and cuddle together.
We practiced with halters and how to stand tied and lead. This is where Lulubelle excelled and Fiona failed miserably. Who would have thought that cows could be so very different?
Join me for the next post to see how the girls did during their first summer outside! Leave any questions you have in the comments section below!