Caring for an orphan calf – part 1 of a long story

by Farmer Liz
This is a LONG story, so I’ll break it into two parts.  In the first part, we found the first calf and I wasn’t sure whether to give him milk or not, so I’ll explain what I found out in that regard.  In the second part, I’ll explain how the second calf turned out to have paralysis ticks, which explained why the first calf couldn’t stand up and what we learned since then about paralysis ticks.

Since we got the 25 (or so) Braford cows with calves for Cheslyn Rise, we’ve been trying to spend time with them to get them tamer, and at least once a week we take them hay and get them to walk up to the yards with us.  About three weeks after they arrived we noticed over a couple of days that one calf seemed to be very slow walking down to the yards.  On the second day we got him into the yards and through the race and shut him in the crush so we could have a look at him.  He had a lot of burrs in his coat and was very skinny.  We thought he probably didn’t have a mother looking after him (possibly a first calf heifer, or possibly the mother didn’t come to the property at all, another long story which I won't get in to!). 

We left the calf in the yard with food and water for most of the day, and when we came back there was no mother cow hanging around, so we decided to bring him home and try to get him stronger, as the rest of the herd clearly wasn’t looking after him.  I had observed the cows and calves in the yard when they first arrived, and the cows are very rough with other calves, they will head-butt them or kick them away from food, and only look after their own calf, so this little guy was probably missing out on food and not getting any loving attention.  We had our little 4WD vehicle at the property that day, so we lifted him into the back of that, I put one of the dogs’ collars on him so I could hold onto him from the back seat.  This would not be a safe way to transport a healthy calf, but because he was so weak, we weren’t worried about him kicking me or a window.  Cheryl (the dog) sat in the front passenger seat, and was completely absorbed in the glee of being allowed on the front seat, until about halfway home she turned around and with a look of utter amazement, realised that there was a calf in the back of the car.  (We bought the second calf home in the dog box on the ute, which was much more sensible).

Anyway, I tell you all of this because most of the information on raising calves assumes that you know the age of the calf and when it last had milk.  With this little one, we had to assume he was about 6-8 weeks old, as he had been tagged and branded.  And we assumed that he hadn’t had milk for about 3 weeks, since he’d been at our place.  Normally, if you are taking a calf straight from its mother you would assume that it needed milk or milk replacer (or colostrum in the first few days), but as this calf was eating hay, we weren’t sure whether to give him milk or not, as there was a chance that he would not longer be able to digest the milk properly.

I didn’t know if his stomach would still produce the enzymes he needed to coagulate the milk.  The other issue was that he may no longer have the esophageal groove reflex to channel milk to the abomasum and it will either take too long to get digested if it goes to the wrong stomach or end up fermenting in the lower intestine, and he may end up with scours (runny poo), which would do him no good in his current weak state.  As far as I can find out, cattle continue to produce the enzymes rennin and pepsin in their abomasum (forth stomach) even after weaning, and the esophageal groove reflex should continue until at least a couple of years of age, so we were safe to try him on some milk (this I found out later, no time for research when you have a half-dead calf in your yard!).

In the end we decided to try to give him a little diluted milk replacer, with extra minerals, kelp, copper sulphate and livamol (a horse vitamin supplement).  He wouldn’t suck on the bottle properly (this may have been the affect of the paralysis tick that we didn’t know about at that stage), so I had to just let it dribble into his mouth and wait for him to swallow.  If I knew that he was young and needed the milk, I would have tried to make him learn to suck on the bottle, but I took this as an indication that he didn’t really need the milk.  He was also eating a lot of hay, so that is another sign that he is ready to stop drinking milk (or has recently had to stop drinking milk).  As soon as Bella had her calf, I tried this one on a bottle of Bella’s milk and he finally figured out how to suck from the bottle, I’m not sure if he just liked the real milk better or if he was getting better from the paralysis at that stage.

The first day that we had the calf at home I stayed home to keep an eye on him.  I checked him each hour and he seemed to get worse and worse.  I don’t know if he lacked the will or the energy to live, or was just really scared to be away from his herd, at one stage he flopped over and stretched out his neck, I thought he was dead at first, but then I saw he was still breathing, so I decided I needed to do everything I could to try to keep him alive (apparently this is also a symptom of the paralysis tick). 

I was getting desperate at this stage and consulted my two favourite cattle references again – Pat Coleby’s “Natural Cattle Care”, and Marja Fitzgerald’s “The Healthy House Cow”.  I still wasn’t sure what was wrong (not much about paralysis ticks in any cattle reference book I have read).  Pat recommends injections of Vit C and B12 for just about everything anyway , and I had these ready for dog emergencies, so I decided it was worth a try.  I gave the calf 10 mL of each, and I’m not sure if I actually managed to get them into his muscle, as he was so skinny, but I thought it was worth a try, even if it was just an opportunity to practice injections. 

Marja writes about brushing and talking to your cow, and I’m never sure with the wilder cattle if they actually appreciate my attention.  Obviously if Bella or Molly was sick, I would spend time talking to and brushing them, but with the untamed animals, I don’t know if it just scares them more.  As this little guy couldn’t move away from me and looking like he was going to need a fair bit of intensive care and would need to get used to me anyway, I spent some time stroking his fur and talking to him, I’m not sure if that helped or not!

The next day we set up a larger shade tarpaulin in the calf pen (it’s a round yard with animal mesh around it) and left him for the day (what a long day!).  When we got home from work he was sitting in the grass eating his lucerne, alert and looking around at us, but he couldn’t get up by himself (due to the paralysis tick).  Since then we have been lifting him up each morning when we get up, so he can walk around, and then pushing him over and leaving him in the shade, and getting him up again in the afternoon.  He is slowly getting stronger and closer to getting up by himself.

In part 2 of the story I will explain how we brought home the second calf, found out that the problem was paralysis ticks, and what we did about it.

Things we have learnt:

  • Spend time with your cattle, try to watch out for injured or weak animals and separate them from the herd for further observation.  Hay is a great way to get them tame and coming right up to you, even our wild steers have got tamer.

  • Don’t be scared to give vitamin injections to a weak or sick animal, as long as you put them in the animal’s neck, you can’t damage the meat and you can’t really overdose on vitamins, so its best to give them as early as possible, when you first notice that an animal is unwell.  A 200 mL bottle costs less than $15, and you only need to give 10 mL at a time, so it’s a cheap boost that may save your animal. 

  • Even if you’re not sure if an orphan calf can still digest milk, you can at least use dilute calf milk replacer in a calf bottle (we use a speedy feeder) with added minerals, to make sure a weak calf is getting some minerals and fluids.  Even if the calf won’t suck on the bottle, if you can get his head up on an angle, the milk will dribble into his mouth and he will swallow eventually (unless he is suffering from paralysis and can’t swallow, in which case you may end up with fluid in his lungs, but he’ll die of dehydration if you do nothing, so it’s a touch choice, unless you want to call the vet in for intraveinal fluids, that's when you have to remember that these are supposed to be livestock and not pets, even though you'd love for all of them to live (and by "you" I mean "me")), this is slow, but at least you know the calf is getting some nutrients.  If you know that the calf has just come from its mother, unless it is old enough to be weaned (and from what I have read, this depends more on the calf’s intake of dry feed than its actual age, but around 6-8 weeks is the earliest for weaning), you will need to get it to drink milk or milk replacer from a bottle or bucket, it usually gets hungry and figures it out after a couple of days if you persist.

  • Observe the calf regularly, make sure that he is eating some hay, that he is producing manure and that its not too runny, and that he is getting up and changing position occasionally (so that he’s not losing feeling in his legs – although this doesn’t seem to be such an issue for a calf compared to full-sized cattle).  Watch for alert eyes and the head following you as you move around.  I find that calves all have the same stubborn look on their faces, you don’t get much emotion out of them when they are lying down, but you can see that they are curious and alert, which means that they are doing ok.

  • Provide adequate shelter from hot sun and cold weather (in our spring, we get both in 24 hours) as the calf may not be able to get up and move into the shade or out of the wind by itself if its very weak.

  • Calves normally spend a lot of time lying down in the grass while their mothers are grazing nearby, and if they are getting their mother’s milk, that’s ok, because they’re getting plenty of energy.  This little calf wasn’t getting any milk, so he really needed to spend more time up and eating, and I suspect this is why he had lost so much condition, he just wasn’t getting enough from the dry grass in our paddocks.  This means that newly weaned young calves need better quality forage than adult cows.

At this stage we didn’t know that he had paralysis tick poisoning, that didn’t become clear until we brought home another calf and called the vet.  I will explain all about the paralysis ticks in my text post - they are a unique part of cattle farming on the east coast of Australia, so don't worry, you probably don't have them where you live.....but if you do, check your calves and your dogs.....

Any questions?  Anything you want to add?

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