I’ve been going along on the evening calf-check rounds to work gates, help find cows with newborn calves and lend assistance whenever necessary. That evening, when we entered one of the rented pastures, we saw Cow #374 and her calf, born two days earlier, a hundred yards ahead near the pond. The “Show Me” cows are easy to spot: They all have bright yellow tags in both ears, instead of just one. #374 is also easy to spot because of her bovine body language: She has a somewhat flighty disposition anyway, but with a new calf to protect, her mama cow radar goes on high alert when non-bovine blips are detected. Tagging her calves is always a risky adventure!
But this calf we saw with her didn’t have a tag. Maybe Bill, in his haste to prolong his lifespan after tagging the calf, didn’t get the tag inserted securely. Then another calf appeared from behind Cow #374, sporting a tag of the same number. So there was one calf with a tag and one without. None of the other cows in that pasture had calved, that we were aware of. Or maybe one did and abandoned her calf. But there had never been abandonment issues with any of these cows. Bill grabbed the binoculars and focused in to confirm that there were two calves, one without a tag. Closer inspection also revealed that the untagged calf was thin and eating grass, a sign it wasn’t getting enough milk from mama.
Bill’s conclusion: #374 had twins! How had he missed that?
Bill’s assumption: #374 delivered one calf, cleaned it off and maybe nudged it toward its first meal of colostrum-rich milk. Then, Mother Nature tapped her on the shoulder roast and advised, “We’re not finished here yet.” #374 left that calf and relocated to deliver another one. It was the second calf Bill found her with and tagged. At some point, the first calf attempted a reunion with mama, but wasn’t being claimed.
Mama #374 didn’t appreciate the close scrutiny and headed in the opposite direction with the tagged calf trotting along with her. Bill drove closer, grabbed his calf-catcher—a long piece of aluminum pipe with a hook attached to one end—and walked slowly toward the untagged calf.
It bolted and set off what turned out to be a very trying ordeal: the calf, panicked and squalling, trying to avoid capture by sprinting in a zigzag pattern; Bill, trying to catch it by dashing a few yards off to the side, veering close enough to try to hook one leg with the catcher while also trying not to actually chase it which would only make it run faster; and me, calf-herding in the pickup, trying to follow Bill’s shouted directives to “Get around it!” and “Don’t let it get through the fence!” If the calf slipped through the fence to the hay field on one side, or the neighbor’s pasture on the other, we’d have a real disaster: Bill would lose valuable time climbing over or through the barbed wire fence and I’d have to find a gate to drive through. Although, my thinking was the calf had to be weak from not receiving regular meals and, sooner or later, would run out of energy and collapse.
Finally, the calf got hung up when it scrambled through a short length of dilapidated barbed wire fence into an old pen that really didn’t have a purpose but had never been removed. It frantically freed itself and collapsed on the ground. That was the break we needed. As it got up to take off again, Bill hooked one leg then grabbed it with his hand and “walked” the calf around the short fence to the pickup. He trussed the legs with a nylon rope to keep the calf still and from injuring itself on the way home, then put it in the back of the truck. While struggling with the calf, he got a good look at its underside and discovered it was a heifer.
When we arrived at home, Bill put the calf in a small pen in the barn and fed it a bag of just-add-water colostrum substitute. Newborn calves need colostrum within the first twelve hours after birth, just like human babies. Bill didn’t know if the calf had sucked much from the cow, and thought there was still some benefit even more than a day later.
The next morning, Bill fed another bag of colostrum to the calf, then did his morning pasture checks for new calves. While he was in the adjacent pasture from the previous night’s adventure, he found the prospective adoptive mother, #62-1, who was agreeable about being herded to a temporary catch pen he’d constructed weeks earlier from tubular steel cattle panels. Compared to the previous night, that was easy.
Bill came home, traded the mini-truck for his pickup with small livestock trailer attached and headed back to get the mama-to-be. Once home, he unloaded and herded her to the squeeze chute to check her milk. He got a little under two cups, an encouraging sign.
In previous adoption attempts, there was usually a recently deceased calf, but not this time. #62-1’s calf had been dead at least a week and predators left no traces. There would be no hide to skin off the dead calf and tie on the adoptee, and no fresh afterbirth to smear on the live calf. These are two methods used to trick the cow into thinking the adoptee is really her own calf. While #62-1 was restrained in the chute after milking, Bill put on an obstetrical sleeved glove, reached into the birth canal and swabbed fluid to rub on the live calf. He unexpectedly found some week-old afterbirth and was it ever rank! But he smeared it on the calf anyway. Then he topped it off with a generous sprinkling of “Orphan-No-More” calf claim powder, a product containing molasses, anise oil and salt that encourages the cow to lick the calf, helping to assure adoption. Cows love molasses and crave salt, so this is like dessert for them.
Bill herded prospective Mama #62-1 to a pen in the barn and introduced her “new” calf. He stood back and watched the interaction. Mama sniffed the calf and showed guarded interest. She didn’t kick or shove it, which would have indicated initial rejection. Satisfied for the moment, he left to give them privacy to bond.
Later, when Bill checked on the bonding process, he found the calf lying down and the cow mooing over it. After pasture rounds in late evening, he checked again and found the calf sucking a teat and wagging its tail. Mama #62-1 looked at Bill, then the calf, and softly mooed cow-speak for “I love my new baby heifer!”
The next day, Bill turned the new pair out into the small corral pasture. Mama #62-1 stayed close by her new calf, and the heifer was starting to look healthier with the regular meals.
The following day, we loaded the pair and returned them to #62-1’s home pasture. When they were released from the trailer, Mama headed toward her friends and the little heifer trotted beside her. Another happy adoption at the Hilbert farm!
Earlier this week, Bill came in from his pasture rounds and said he could tell #62-1 had returned to full milk—her calf’s face was covered and dripping with it!