It is hard to believe that it is already calving season. Last year we had it so easy; hardly any snow and several beautiful days made catching and tagging the little guys pleasant work.
Well, aside from the occasional hoof to nose, or hoof to eye, or hoof to, well, you get the idea...
In order for us to better predict when we should expect each cow to give birth, we have each of them checked by a vet in the fall. However, even knowing when to expect the new calves, doesn't translate into what to expect.
When things go as planned, the birthing process is simple, quick, and most importantly, predictable. The photo above shows a predictable birth: Contractions begin and the cow looks for a secluded place for delivery away from the herd, she then lies down as contractions become more frequent, she delivers, immediately stands back up and spends the next thirty minutes to an hour cleaning her calf and trying to get it to stand and eat. At some point she will expel and consume her placenta, which is quite nutrient dense, and provides a nice boost of dietary elements that the calf has been leeching from her during development inside of her.
The number one goal of the cow is to get her calf clean and dry of the amniotic fluid, and to begin nursing. As you can see in the photo, the cow's udders are bulging at birth, and the first couple hours worth of milk is very important to the calf. This vital milk is known as colostrum, and provides the calf with passive immunity to prevent illness during the first few weeks of life until the immune system can begin developing its own immunity.
Our first birth of the year resulted in twins. The mother gave birth to a large male calf, and then abandoned him to give birth to a second, smaller calf.
By the time we found the calf he was hypothermic and had considerable difficulty breathing. He could not stand, he would not readily try to eat, and his main efforts were to just continue breathing. Our first task was to get him warmed up, as we have learned that a cold calf just refuses to nurse. After an hour indoors he was still shivering, mouth was icy, and his prognosis was poor; death seemed inevitable.
At this point, we decided to move him into a smaller room (our bathroom) and to provide extra warmth. He was covered with a blanket, and a space heater was used to increase the ambient temperature.
A few hours passed, and his internal temperature continued to lower. Once it hit 94 degrees F, we decided to use hot water as a last attempt to warm him. The efforts made a difference of 3 degrees, but he was still hypothermic at 97 degrees (normal is 101.5F). After drying and covering him, we attempted to feed him a warm bottle of colostrum, which he refused. At this point he could no longer lift his head off of the floor, and his breaths were shallow, rapid, and he was gasping for the oxygen that he so desperately needed. We gave him an injection of antibiotics as a preventative measure since he was not getting passive immunity from his mothers first milk.
Everyone knows that to warm up we shiver, and shivering takes energy, and energy comes from food. In order for our calf to survive he HAD to eat; it was no longer optional. We made the decision to use an esophageal feeding tube to force feed him 2 quarts of warm colostrum. This type of feeding tube is used only on young calves, and consists of a bottle attached to about 2' of rigid tubing with a bulb on the end. We pass this tube through the calves mouth, past the larynx (if the tube is accidentally placed into the larynx the calf will drown and die), and deep into the esophagus. This allows the fluid to flow through a short section of the throat and directly into the rumen (the remaining 3 stomachs are not fully developed or used until 3-4 months of age).
A few hours later his temperature returned to normal, but respiration's were twice what they should be and his heart was beating just as fast. He was warm, but still in the woods. We decided that we could do no more, and waited to see if he could make it through the night.
The next morning it became obvious that he had set up a terrible case of pneumonia. His nose leaked a thick mucous, and the gurgle of fluid in his lungs could easily be heard, even without a stethoscope. We used the feeding tube to administer more milk and also added a regimen of electrolytes that contained beneficial bacteria. We decided to wait another day to see if the condition improved, but found that by the third day his gums were still pale in color, indicating poor lung function; he was near death yet again. A quick call to the vet, and we had a new antibiotic prescribed that would hopefully help.
Over the next few days he started refusing his esophageal feeding tube, and we began to teach him how to nurse from a bottle. His condition continued to improve over several days, and then on the seventh day, I heard quite the ruckus coming from the bathroom. I opened the door to find the little guy wondering around, looking for his mother to nurse from. What a sight! He was becoming stronger and stronger and was finally ready to be moved outside.
Considering his state of well being, we decided to move him into our garage, an area that is still subject to the cold temperatures he needed to learn to cope with, but protected from the elements (snow, rain, and wind). Everyday his lungs sounded better, and after another week, all of his vital signs returned to normal. He was readily eating with great enthusiasm, finishing a 2qt bottle in just a few minutes. Now that he was feeling great, we decided to move him into the pen he will spend the next 2-3 months in.
Walking him to his new pen two things became apparent: First, now that he was going to make it, he needed a name. Secondly, he was blind! Perhaps this is why his mother decided to not take him, or maybe he just couldn't find her once she moved to a new, clean area to birth his twin brother in.
We are so thankful that this little guys outcome was so good. It is so heart wrenching to throw everything you have at an animal and then they don't survive; having this guy make it sure gives the farm a renewed sense of life, energy, and optimism, especially during the dark days of winter when spirits are low.
We decided to call him Angus, and he now spends his days eating warm bottles, napping in the deep hay, and playing with our dogs...quite the life!