More adventures in calving


The cows seem determined to keep me on my toes this year. After our first ever winter calf back in January, I've now had my first calf rejected by it's mother. While this isn't common, it does happen, and first time moms (heifers) are the worst culprits. Our winter calf was also born to a heifer but she took to her role quite readily. Up until now I've had nothing but problem free heifer calvings.

Enter Cheeto. This heifer is actually the daughter of one of my best moms, Cherry! Cherry likes to make sure you know that she will flatten you if you try any funny business with her calf, which can make castrating her bull calves a bit exciting. Cheeto had her calf on a nice warm May morning. While she did lick it off, the licking was interspersed with quite a bit of head butting. While this isn't GREAT mom behavior, it's understandable from a first timer. 'What is this small alien cow suddenly following me around??' Usually once the hormones calm down a bit they settle into their job.

Here's a great example of how fast calves grow. The cow on the right is 4-month-old Rosie, just born this January, sniffing just-born calf Cheez-it.

I dubbed Cheeto's heifer calf Cheez-it and since mom and calf seemed be doing well, I retreated out of sight, since sometimes having a nosy human around can do more harm than good. Once Cheez-it had curled up to sleep, I went to look at her and noticed that she was mostly dried off and had a nice foamy milk mustache, all seemed well!

The next day, I felt I was seeing too much of Cheez-it. I usually see neither hide nor hair of newborn calves for their first few days of life. As heritage breed cattle, Devons are typically dedicated moms who are very good at keeping their calves hidden. For their first few days, they should nap in the grass about 95% of their day and just get up for milk breaks.

Cheez-it was instead wandering around the herd from cow to cow trying to nurse from everyone, including the steers! I went out to the pasture and pointed her in the direction of her mom. As the calf approached, Cheeto kicked her away and bolted! Now highly suspicious of Cheeto's mothering skills, I prepared a bottle of warm milk for the calf and with very little convincing, she downed the whole quart before finally curling up for a nap.

It's very important that calves get a good amount of a special kind of milk called colostrum in their first 24 hours of life. Although I was pretty sure Cheez-it had gotten at least one good drink, I headed off to the feed store to get colostrum replacer and regular cow milk replacer. These products are basically powdered milk specially formulated for calves (or kids, lambs, etc.)

The next few days I was busily playing calf mom, making sure Cheez-it got enough milk. She was still dedicated to trying to nurse from the other cows but not having much luck. Most cows are really not interested in any calf other than their own and will be pretty violent in discouraging milk theft. It's a good thing calves are durable, I saw her take quite a few kicks and head butts!

But then, about three days later, I noticed Cheez-it nursing from Cherry, her grandmother. Cherry was about to calve and in this flush of hormones, was willing to stand still for even this strange calf (I told Cheeto she should take notes). To prevent Cheez-it from drinking all of Cherry's colostrum (which is very important for her own calf!) I put Cheez-it in 'calf jail' in the cow shed overnight, while Cherry had her calf.

Once Cherry and Chestnut (another heifer, I'm going to run out of 'ch' names soon!) were recovered and bonded, I released Cheez-it back into the herd. Initially Cherry was once again not accepting of this interloper, so I continued bottle feeding Cheez-it. But Cheez-it was nothing if not persistent! She learned to be sneaky with her approach and to nurse at the same time as Chestnut. The longer this went on, the more Cherry began to accept the inevitable.

Cheez-it and Chestnut enjoying a meal together. Excuse Cherry's ragged appearance, she's still shedding her winter coat!

So now Cherry seems resigned to the idea of having 'twins'. Twins can be hard for a cow to provide enough milk for but Devons are typically very productive and the calves are both still very young. As they get older, I may need to wean one of them early. But in general, Cherry is always an 'easy-keeper', in that she stays nice and plump on just grass, so I think she should be able to ratchet up production to meet this new demand. 

Now what happens to a cow who won't mother? Well, as a friend at the farmer's market said, "there's no women's lib for cows!" If Cheeto doesn't want to raise calves, she gets the only other job opening available which is a resident of 'freezer camp.' Once she's fattened up over the summer she'll be taking one of the spots on the beef roster this fall. Such is life on the farm.

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