Editor’s Note: Jo Stanko runs a mama-calf outfit in the Steamboat Springs area. She is a hard-working operator who loves her cows, especially her calves, which are now beginning to appear among her 2021 herd during this bad weather. Sometimes she stays up at night and writes some amazing things, when she is not doing ER duty on a new calf.
A couple of nights ago she wrote this after her first calf of the season arrived during what amounted to a blizzard in her neighborhood. Even if you are a seasoned calver, this instruction set on how to care for a cold newborn calf is worth the read.
Remember, your vet is your expert, but when the wind is howling and the snow is blowing, you are probably on your own. Jo is just sharing her experience and sometimes it is nice to know what to look out for.
Living in the high country where winter weather can move in quickly, anytime clear into June, we have gotten a lot of experience and fairly good success at saving calves following these principles. First, you are going to need lots of old towels, blankets, rags, sheets, anything you have to absorb water, and hair dryers — a dozen rolls of paper towels helps. I buy what I need at the thrift shop, gather them from family and friends, and I buy every working hair dryer that I can find at yard sales. They go into my emergency calf container.
When the calf delivers, get the sopping done first. They are usually sopping wet as you bring them in from the range, or there is water which is frozen in their hair. Using towels, blankets, or rags vigorously rub them all over until dripping water is no longer dripping. Don’t be gentle because the vigorous rubbing helps to stimulate the blood flow. Change out what you are rubbing them down with often.
The calf is going to still be wet, but once it is no longer sopping wet, it is time to pull out all those hair dryers and concentrate on drying and warming the stomach and ears. These parts are most important because as a body starts to shut down, the blood stops flowing to the extremities and just works to flow to the brain and heart. You need to keep and expand the blood flow from the core and since there is not a bone shield, the warmth spreads faster through the soft tissue.
An animal’s ears are also a tool for regulating internal temperatures, usually for cooling rather than heating. Think about it. Animals in hot climates have large ears and the ears of animals in cool climates are much smaller by comparison. What we are doing is turning that cooling system into a warming system by sending warm blood back into the body. Do not blow into the ear, just rub, and warm the back of the ear. If more than just one person is working on the calf, everyone should work on a different part of the calf.
You can tell if you are making progress by looking at their eyes to see if they are one of those calves who is going to join you in the fight. When the eyes are rolled back, and you see only a little of pupil at the top, but as they warm up more and more of the pupil rolls down. This is an indicator that you are making progress, even more so than the temperature in the mouth.
When the stomach is warm and stays warm, then it is time to start warming them from the inside. They need electrolytes and calories. We mix the powdered colostrum with warm water and add condensed, or whatever type of milk you have, and white Karo syrup. Depending on the size of the calf, give no more than half a cup.
If you are comfortable and know how to tube, that is the quickest method and it ensures that the warm liquid is exactly where it needs to be. If you do not have a tuber, then use a 40 CC syringe, without a needle, and hold the head back and let it dribble down the throat while someone strokes the throat downward to get them to swallow. If the liquid builds up, you do not have the head right and you may drown the calf by having the liquid going into the lungs. So be careful and check your positioning.
You keep working on getting the calf dried, the muscles and joints warmed, and the joints flexible enough without any forcing, then you can prop the calf up like a normal calf usually lays. We use hay bales in a U and rolled up blankets or old sleeping bags to keep them from tipping forward. They should be under a heat lamp on a warm floor. The heat lamp placement is important because if too close, they are breathing hot air and becoming dehydrated. If too far, they are not getting warm enough.
They to be need checked every half hour, until they are no longer tipping over, but laying like a calf on their own. The calf needs to be fed every hour and each time their mouth should feel a little warmer than the last time. When their mouth finally reaches warm, then you can go to feeding on a four hour schedule. Break them to a bottle or bucket because, while we’ve had some success on putting them back on their mom, those are the ones that were just cold and not flat.
We go down and pick the calves up from their moms about 11 p.m., warm them, and then take them back to their moms about just after the sun is above the mountain. I know some of you might find it strange, but I think it helps the calves get a will to fight if you talk or even moo to them on occasion.
Okay, you have got the calf up and going, it has had all its colostrum and if you are skilled at grafting a calf to another cow, but if you are bucketing it, here are some things to watch for. Milk replacer must not have soy protein. Make sure that your replacer is milk protein. You may want to talk with your vet about giving the animal a dose of antitoxin. Calves, who are delayed in getting up and feeding are prone to “hungry calf” syndrome. They act like they are in great shape and then suddenly get very lethargic and do not want to eat. Get the calf on its feet as soon as it can stand.
Much of what I have said here was developed with calving over the years. Miracle 7, decided to be born in the midst of a spring cold snap and snowstorm on April 1. Because we were calving when this storm hit, Pat and Jan were checking the calving grounds hourly. At 9:30 p.m., there was no sign of anyone working on a calf. When they returned at 10:30 p.m., they noticed a cow, which was out in the open rather than under the bluff or in the trees, was rolling something over and over.
When they got there, it was a newborn calf, and the mama cow was trying to get it up to nurse. By the time they got to her, her legs were frozen, eyes mostly rolled back, basically a big non-responsive rag doll. She was, however, still breathing lightly.
Just because a calf is up and moving around it doesn’t mean the battle is over. You need to teach the calf to suckle from your bucket or bottle. To be honest, we’re not “cowboy” enough to have success with the bottle, but have had excellent results with the bucket. Besides that blue bucket is something they easily recognize from a distance in case they get lost.
Do not give them big servings, build up in quantity slowly. The next day you can go to four feedings of a cup each, one when you get up, and then every four hours. Leave them a little hungry, still wanting more, that means you are not over feeding them at one time. And, if they stop before they are through, do not force it. Here’s where hungry cow syndrome kicks in.
When a calf delays its first feeding, either because of a difficult birth, waiting for better weather to get up and feed, or it is frozen, when they do feed, they overeat. The overeating causes the bacteria in the gut to get out of balance. The bacteria produce toxins which cause the calf to bloat, go off its feed, and have a stomach ache.
Meanwhile, inside the calf, the poisons from the toxins get out of the gut and enter the bloodstream, which causes sepsis and death. This may happen not only in the cold calves you bring into the barn or house but with the calves that have been with their mother. You need to watch for calves who bloat suddenly, are lethargic, or act like they have stomach aches. If caught early, the calves do not have to die.
After consulting with our vets, we keep antitoxin on hand to administer if needed. If your bucket calf comes down with it, you need to also cut back on how much you are feeding them at a time. In fact, you may want to skip some feedings. And, when you go back to feeding, make certain that they are still getting enough but are still hungry when you leave them. As they age, they seem to be more prone to this kind of toxemia, so you have to back off and build up slowly.
Miracle has survived and thrived, and her genetics and development are awesome enough that we have kept her back as a replacement heifer. It is nice to have one that comes to cookies or the blue bucket. Hope the weather turns to normal and you all are safe and sane. Remember, your vet is your expert, I am just sharing our experience because sometimes it is nice to know what to look out for.
For more information about making sure calves make it through the birth process and survive, see the Feb. 20, 2020, edition of the Montrose Daily Press for Dr. Frank Garry’s discussion on calf health.