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Too much invested to quit now

Nearly every calving season has some challenges, and once in awhile a situation occurs that takes diligence and determination in order to save the calf. One challenge we faced several years ago involved a little black calf that became affectionately known as Dodie.

His mama was a three-year-old red cow named Dowdy, and this was her second calf. It was an easy birth on a cold, stormy February night. My daughter Andrea watched to see if the calf got up to nurse. It was cold in the barn. We always make sure the new babies get plenty of colostrum within an hour of birth, especially when weather is cold. It provides energy to keep them warm as well as crucial antibodies against disease. If a calf is not up and nursing by the time he’s an hour old, we make sure he does, before his mouth gets too cold to grab a teat.

This calf didn’t get up, so after 45 minutes Andrea and I dried him with towels and fed him half a bottle of fresh colostrum (which Andrea milked out of the young cow’s front teat as she lay there in the straw beside her new calf). We got the calf up to help him nurse his mother. Usually once a calf gets a taste of milk it is eager to get it onto a teat. But this calf seemed weak.


When we checked a few hours later the calf refused to suck and it was still cold. Again, we milked Dowdy and fed the calf via tube. By morning we realized he had a serious problem. Dowdy had finally shed her afterbirth and it was grey and unhealthy. Her calf had probably been deprived of blood circulation and nutrients before birth, which was why he was so listless, unable to nurse, and unable to keep himself warm.

The stress and cold had taken its toll — he now had pneumonia and was breathing fast. We started him on antibiotics and oral DMSO. Our vet recommends DMSO for pneumonia, since it helps reduce fluid accumulation and inflammation in the lungs. The calf still would not nurse his mother or a bottle, so we were milking Dowdy every six hours and feeding Dodie by tube.

We usually can halt pneumonia with LA-200 and sulfa, but this calf showed no improvement by the second day so our vet recommended Naxcel. After three more days’ treatment we were still losing the battle so we changed to Nuflor, and upon the advice of our vet we also gave Dodie five cc. of DMSO intravenously into the jugular vein. As our vet told us, this “blast” would go directly into the lungs (much more effective than giving it orally). It would help break up congestion, clearing the fluid buildup and halting the inflammation.

Indeed, Dodie started breathing better within 24 hours, and seemed completely normal by his second dose of Nuflor 48 hours later. After about a week he was finally nursing his mother.


But, we made the mistake of assuming he was recovered. His breathing was improved and temperature normal, so we didn’t continue the antibiotics. After seeming normal for four days he relapsed; his temperature went back up and his breathing became impaired again. So we put him back on medication. He was often lethargic about nursing, and had to be encouraged to get up and suck his mother. There were times we had to milk her out and tube him.

He also started losing his hair. This often happens when a calf has a high fever — a few weeks later bald patches appear. Whenever we rubbed him, his hair came off. He developed a large bald spot on his head.

He and his mama lived in the barn for five weeks, and he stayed on medication all that time. Finally he started feeling better and nursing again, and we let the pair out of the barn into a nearby pen — putting them back in the barn every time the weather was bad. We had so much time, effort and medication invested in him that we didn’t want another relapse!


Was it worth all the effort? Some folks might say no. It was like a poker game, however. We had so much in the pot already we didn’t dare quit. But our diligence in trying to save him involved more than just economics. We have a dedication and commitment to our animals that we cannot in good conscience turn away from, and I think most ranchers feel this way. Our cattle exist only because we breed and raise them. Therefore we are responsible for their welfare. We’ve made a commitment to keep them fed and healthy, and this is not something we take lightly.

We turned Dowdy and Dodie out in the field April 5, since the calf seemed fully recovered and the cow needed to be bred. He took off running and bucking — excited and happy to have so much space. His mama bucked around after him. She had been very patient, living in the barn and then in the small pen for so long, but now she was free again.

We had cold, stormy weather all through April and May, with a lot of wind, so a few times we rounded up the pair to put back in the barn. Dowdy didn’t mind coming in; we gave her a flake of alfalfa hay and it was a treat worth coming in for. By mid April, however, Dodie seemed tough enough to handle the stormy weather and we didn’t put them into the barn anymore.

We didn’t put Dowdy and Dodie out on the range in May when the other cows went to summer pasture. They stayed home with a small group of “home cows” (a few old ones we kept on irrigated pasture until their calves were bigger, so we could sell the old cows in late summer), where we could keep track of them.

When we moved the little group of home cows a mile up the creek to a different pasture in June, Dodie had almost caught up in size with his buddies. He had been stunted earlier; perhaps it took all his energy just to stay alive and there wasn’t much left for growing. His mama milked well, and he made up for lost time. Watching him running and bucking, and play fighting with the other calves, gave us a great sense of satisfaction. He appeared happy to be alive! He was a nice big calf that fall, and worth the effort. †

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