Our first two calves were both enrolled the same night: Olpe, the target of a search-and-rescue, and Miracle, who was just that—a miracle discovery. Frosty arrived later, after we discovered her mom, our beloved Hereford cow, didn’t have much milk. Here’s a recent Romper Room class photo.
Initially, Bill thought she may have hardware disease.
Hardware Disease 101 – Usually caused by ingestion of a sharp metallic object. The object settles in the reticulum, or first chamber in the gastrointestinal system, and can penetrate or irritate the lining. If the object is pushed through the reticulum wall, it can pierce the heart sac and cause death.
After talking to a couple of veterinarians, he decided the symptoms pointed to bovine leukosis.
Bovine Leukosis 101 - A cancerous disease caused by Bovine Leukosis Virus (BLV), a retrovirus infecting beef and dairy cattle that targets lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. These cells are part of the immune system. BLV can cause tumors in various internal organs and result in lack of milk production and eventual death.
A blood test could have determined whether or not BLV was present, but Bill decided not to incur the expense of a vet bill plus the test. A cow with the disease can’t be sold. She would eventually die, but he hoped to at least get a calf from her.
Wheezy continued to go downhill all summer, losing weight until she was skin and bones. The outlook wasn’t promising:
- She could die before the calf was born;
- If she did produce a calf, it might be stillborn;
- If the calf survived the birth process, it could have a low birth weight and Wheezy wouldn’t have much, if any, milk.
On the morning of September 5th, Bill went out to check on the cows and found Wheezy with a calf, a heifer that was small but alive! He contemplated taking it away and feeding it as a bottle calf. But, ever the optimist, he decided that since she’d always been a good mother he would wait a couple of days to determine if she had enough milk to sustain the calf.
We saw the pair together Saturday evening and again Sunday evening. We assumed the calf was getting some milk or it would have been bawling. Then the calf disappeared.
Sadly, Wheezy’s own physical problems outweighed her motherly instincts. She ignored her calf and abandoned it when the herd grazed its way to a different part of the pasture. Bill searched the area where the cows were hanging out earlier, but couldn’t find the calf. Because of its small birth weight, finding it in the tall pasture grass would be difficult, and next to impossible if Wheezy had abandoned it in the timber.
Three days later, on Wednesday, Bill found the calf at the hay feeder with her mother and the other cows and calves. She was thin, but alive. The poor little thing also had a major infestation of screwworms. They had congregated around the rectal area, left uncleaned by the mother, then eaten through the flesh in five places on her left and right sides. She was also covered with thousands of the tiny white eggs.
Screwworm 101 – Screwworms attack open wounds, infected sores or, in the case of our calf, a rectal area that is not cleaned frequently. A female screwworm is quite prolific, quickly laying 100-300 eggs on the dry perimeter of the wound. In less than 24 hours, larvae hatch from the eggs and begin to feed on the open wound. It will take one to two weeks for the larvae to become fully developed but in that time, they will consume a large amount of dead and live flesh. Untreated screwworm infestations can be fatal. The larvae will continue to feed on the animal and eventually eat it alive. Ugh!
Bill came back to the house and consulted with a vet about treatment. He gathered up iodine solution, screwworm killer, buckets of water, old towels and me. We headed back to the pasture in the mini-truck and found the pair was still together. This was my first look at the calf since the previous Sunday evening. I’ve seen plenty of gross things on the farm in over thirty years, but this surpassed everything! Seeing creepy-crawly maggots on a dead animal can cause a gag moment; but to see them eating away at open wounds on a live calf required rapid and repeated swallowing to avoid a major hurl event! The tiny white eggs stood out on her black coat, as if she’d been liberally sprinkled with coarse salt.
Bill gave her an iodine solution bath, then rinsed it off, dried her with old towels wiping off as many of the eggs as possible, then sprayed on the screwworm killer. She still smelled like iodine and her coat had a blue sheen from the screwworm solution. Again, Bill considered taking the heifer away from her mother and bottle-feeding her. But, even though she was thin, she put up an impressive struggle during the iodine bath and it took both of us to hold her. We assumed she was apparently getting some milk and left the pair together. Bill would check on them later.
The next day, Bill loaded the screwworm treatment supplies and went in search of Cow #54 and her calf. He found the cow, but no calf. He combed the area where we’d found them the previous day, along the creek bank and even in the creek, but couldn’t find the calf.
Once again, we searched extensively for a couple of days, thinking the calf might wander in search of her mother. Chances of finding her alive were quickly going south. Finally, we gave her up for dead and assumed if we found anything, it would be a carcass picked clean by predators.
Meanwhile, our fall calving was at its peak with three or four births daily. Bill was making at least two trips per day to our three pastures as well as four we rented to check for pending births and the well-being of the calves already on the ground. The ten first-calf heifers were on pasture at home where we could monitor progress from the house. First-calf heifer births can be a little dicey and require closer supervision than older, more experienced cows. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s also not uncommon for a prospective new mother to quit pushing during the delivery process, requiring intervention by the Certified Bovine Midwife (Bill) and his CBM Assistant (me) to step in and pull the calf. Or, the new mom may not know what to do with the little creature she’s just expelled from her body and need a crash course on motherhood. Most of our girls came through the process beautifully this year with one exception where birth assistance was necessary.
We were also dealing with another developing crisis and a situation that would ultimately prove heart-breaking.