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Cooking For Cows And Calves

My husband and I hate to lose an animal and often try innovative ways to keep a cow or calf alive. On several occasions the past 43 years, Lynn and I have managed to save a “hopeless” case by feeding the cow or calf via nasogastric tube — sometimes for several weeks — while the animal was unable to eat. You can keep the animal going awhile with I. V. s, or with or fluids by stomach tube, and can give a calf milk via tube, but with adult cattle you eventually have to get “real food” into them. After a few days, they need more nutrition than you can supply with fluids alone, and it’s not easy to get enough “food” into a cow via stomach tube.


Our first experience trying to save an animal that would not eat was a big calf named George, in 1971. I found him sick and unable to stand, while riding range to round up cattle. He had coccidiosis and his rectum had been prolapsed for several days. He was weak from diarrhea and loss of blood. Lynn and I (and two friends) went back in our jeep, pulled the calf up a steep bank with ropes, and loaded him into the vehicle. We hauled him to the vet clinic, gave him I. V. fluids, cleaned up his dry, prolapsed rectum and put it back in (and stitched it), and gave him injections. We took him home, put him in a shed and fed him more fluids, electrolytes and protein via stomach tube.

The next morning he was still alive, but unable to stand. He was “down” for three weeks. We treated him continually with antibiotics and injections of vitamins. Since he would not eat, we kept him alive by feeding him three times a day via a tube through the nostril (since esophageal feeder probes had not yet been invented, and would not have worked for a calf this big). We fed him a mix of water, milk, milk replacer, electrolytes, sugar, scour medicine (since he still had diarrhea) — 1.5 gallons of “food” at each feeding.

Eventually his gut healed and he started nibbling hay. He’d lost his cud, so we gave him cud-starter in his daily round of liquid food. His rectum healed and we took out the stitches. Keeping him alive was a challenge, but one advantage was the fact he was still a calf, and could get obtain enough nutrients from milk/milk replacer; you can keep a calf alive on a liquid diet.


A bigger challenge is feeding an adult cow. Our first try was Linda — a cow that quit eating and drinking due to “wooden tongue,” an infection in the tissues of mouth and tongue. The firm swelling created by the inflammation made it difficult to chew or swallow. The base of her tongue was swollen and hard.

Our cows were on fall pasture in December 1974 when Linda (pregnant with her ninth calf) quit eating. We noticed she’d lost weight, so I got my horse and brought Linda down to the corrals. We put her in the chute and discovered her problem — and treated her with antibiotics daily for a week. We feared for the health of her unborn calf, but our vet said the calf would probably be fine; a pregnant cow tends to sacrifice her own body to supply nutrients to the fetus.

Since she would not eat or drink, we fed her twice a day by stomach tube — several gallons of water and everything we could think of to mix in that might give her energy. We added Cream of Wheat and other dry “mush” products (with granules small enough to go down the tube if we kept them stirred around in the water so they wouldn’t plug it), and lots of molasses. After a few days’ treatment and feeding her by tube, her tongue became less swollen and she was able to start eating and drinking again.

She was extremely thin when she gave birth to her calf a couple weeks later — so weak she could barely get up after her labour. Though she didn’t have much milk at first, she soon got back to normal. Her calf seemed okay, and we named him Lasses. Linda’s Lasses survived, partly because we were able to feed his mama water, molasses and mush during the time she couldn’t eat.


One of our biggest challenges was a young cow born in 1979. In the fall of 1981, when we brought our cows home from the range to vaccinate and wean their calves, we kept them in a small pasture by the corrals for a few days till they quit bawling, then took them to our upper pastures for fall grazing. When we gathered them out of the pasture to take back to the mountains, this two year old cow was ill with emphysema — due to the change of feed from dry range grass to green pasture.

We treated her with antihistamine and epinephrine to combat the allergic reaction in her lungs, and antibiotics. The stress and lung damage from emphysema made her vulnerable to pneumonia. It started to rain, so we herded her into a nearby shed and hoped she’d make it through the night. During the night we gave her more antihistamine and epinephrine, and a drug to help her breathe more easily.

Her temperature was 106F. and she would not eat or drink. We gave her three gallons of water via stomach tube, several times a day, with electrolytes and dextrose added. After the second day we realized we had to get more nutrients into her or we’d lose her from starvation. We added molasses, powdered protein and milk (from our milk cow). We’d never heard of anyone feeding milk to a two-year-old cow, but we were desperate.

She seemed to know the stuff we were pouring into her was dinner, and didn’t struggle. For several days I added uncooked cream of wheat to the mix. Then we thought of the pig pellets. We’d bought calf pellets

Equipment doesn’t have to be fancy. Just a funnel and a plastic tube large enough for liquid or protein slurry.

that summer and in the batch was one sack of pig starter, by mistake — and we hadn’t used it. This was a high protein grain pellet. I soaked some pig pellets in warm water to soften them, and ran them through our kitchen blender until the particles were very fine. We swished this slurry around as we added it to the gallons of water we poured down the nose tube, and the particles were carried with the water and didn’t plug the tube.

We treated Cow Cow for pneumonia for a long time. Since she was not improving with the antibiotics we were using, we had our vet take a lung tap and culture the fluid sample — and check to see which antibiotics might work better against this particular pathogen. After weeks of treatment, her fever went down and she became interested in food again — and was able to stand up. We tubed her with “pig pellet soup” for the last time, 34 days after the ordeal began.

She recovered, and when the vet came to preg check the next fall he couldn’t believe she was the same cow (and pregnant!). Indeed, the only way she could pay for our time, effort and medication was to stay in the herd and have lots of calves — and she did.


Our latest adventure in cow cuisine was two years ago when one of our son’s cows began to abort in December. She was constipated and not eating. The vet gave her mineral oil, and dexamethasone to help stimulate labour. She hadn’t made any progress by evening, so we gave her oxytocin to speed up labour, and our son gently worked at the cervix to stretch it more. She

passed gallons of fluid; she had too much fluid around the fetus. We thought the fetus would be small, since it was two months premature, but we worked four hours delivering it, using lots of lubricant, and finally resorting to a head snare to get the head pulled through the cervix. It was a huge, abnormal freak, with 14 inches of rubbery neck; the neck and body resembled a seal. The calf was nearly five feet long!

After we delivered the dead fetus, the cow went to the far corner of the corral to lie down, so we left her alone. When I looked at her with a flashlight at 5 a. m. she was in shock and unconscious. So we gave her dexamethasone, and injected dextrose under her skin, and she started to come out of shock. We gave her five gallons of fluid by IV and another five gallons of warm water and electrolytes via stomach tube. Her gut was working again; she’d passed a lot of manure. But she could not get up, and we covered her with saddle pads to keep her warm. The next day we gave her another I. V., and more fluid by stomach tube, and added mushed up alfalfa pellets to the water. She was stronger, able to keep her head up, and we covered her with a heavy tarp.

Weather had turned cold, so we made a windbreak of bales and put another tarp across the top, between the bales and the fence, to create a tent, and a few days later moved her into the barn with a tractor and loader. We fed her by stomach tube for three weeks, twice a day.

The “recipe” for each meal was seven gallons of warm water (hauled to the barn in two big insulated coolers, since weather was very cold) and several cups of alfalfa pellets pre-soaked in water. As they soaked, they expanded in bulk to create about 2.5 gallons of “mush.” We added molasses or Karo syrup to give her more energy. It was a challenge to get this food into her without plugging the tube. One person poured the warm water and another poured the “alfalfa soup” slurry into the funnel, mixing it as we poured, creating a swirling action that kept the alfalfa particles moving. Otherwise they’d pack together into a wad and plug up the tube or funnel. I soaked the pellets several hours ahead of time so they were completely rehydrated, warming the slurry on the wood stove to slightly hotter than body temperature before taking them outside.

Yes, you can keep a big critter going with food via stomach tube, and in many instances this can make the difference between saving or losing the animal. We’ve become very proficient at “cooking for cows!”

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband Lynn near Salmon, Idaho. Contact her at 208-756-2841.

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