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Gut Pains Can Kill Calves


We’ve had a lot of windy, cold weather and some of the cows have sore teats. When teats are wet from nursing, the wind chaps them. Freddy’s teats got so sore she wasn’t letting her calf nurse. We noticed her travelling around the field with her calf following, trying to nurse, but she wouldn’t stand still, and if he tried to latch on, she’d kick him. So we brought them in from the field and put them in the second day pens. Lynn and I carried two metal panels around from the backyard (where we used them last year to make a shelter for Boomerang) and created a very small pen at one end for Freddy and Freddy George. In this small area the cow couldn’t travel and he was able to catch up with her and eventually get his dinner, in spite of being kicked. We didn’t want to hobble the cow unless absolutely necessary.

Several more cows calved last week, and weather was too nasty to let them calve outdoors. We used Buffalo Girl to lead a couple of the younger cows into the barn (ones that had never been in there before). Lynn’s back is still painful, so it takes us awhile to get the feeding done. Bob Minor came by and split wood for us so Lynn wouldn’t have to do that.

Last Saturday we had hard rain most of the night. By Sunday morning it changed to snow and wind. We put the newest pair (out in a pen) back in the barn. The calves in the field have all learned how to use the calf houses, to get out of the blizzards.

We learned yesterday that wolves killed four of our neighbour’s calves. The Fish and Game flew an aerial search, but didn’t find them; the wolves come down from our cattle range at night and into the fields, then go three miles back up the mountain into the timber during the day, where they can’t be found. They are also smart enough to hide under large sagebrush when they hear an airplane.

Lilly Ann calved in the middle of the night in the maternity pen, between checks. Her calf would have been chilled if he’d stayed out there very long, but the yearling bull in a nearby pen awakened me by his bellowing (perhaps he smelled the birth fluids). Lynn and I pulled the calf down to the barn in the sled, with Lilly Ann following.

Freddy’s teats are still cracked but healing, and she’s not kicking Freddy George so much, but yesterday he developed a new problem. When I went to the barn to check on a calving cow I noticed him getting up and down and kicking his belly. This type of gut pain is indicative of severe intestinal infection that can kill a calf quickly. We don’t know if it’s caused by a type of E. coli or by Clostridium perfringins Type A (which is not included in our 8-way vaccines). But we are able to save these calves if we can treat them before they go into shock. We immediately give castor oil (to stimulate the shutdown gut to move again) and oral neomycin sulfate solution. So we tubed Freddy George with oil and neomycin and within a few hours he was no longer colicky. Today we had another case. We brought Drosophala and calf (Melanagaster) down from the field and tubed that calf with castor oil and antibiotic.


A few days after treating Freddy George he quit nursing and was grinding his teeth and slobbering cud fluid from his mouth. Melanagaster went off feed the next day. This often happens after a calf has this severe gut infection; perhaps some of the intestinal lining sloughs away, leaving it raw for a while. The calves quit nursing and would starve to death, but if we force-feed them for a few days, they eventually heal. We had to force-feed both calves morning and night, via stomach tube, and also gave them mineral oil to soothe the gut. We put Freddy in the headcatch one day to milk her out, so she wouldn’t start to dry up. The other calf wasn’t off feed for so long and we didn’t have to milk Drosophala. Both of them have been nursing again and feeling good for several days, so we put them back up in the field today.

A small group of our later-calving cows were up in the swamp pasture and we were driving up there daily to feed, till we brought them down to the maternity pasture. Charlie’s black cat, Shade, likes to ride in the jeep when we feed, and sometimes climbs in and out of the cab through the window as I’m driving. He can’t seem to make up his mind whether to ride on my lap or help Lynn feed hay on the back. Whenever he sees us going to feed, he comes to the jeep, running after us in the field if he’s not around when we leave. A couple mornings ago he decided to ride on the hood. He perched there, enjoying his good view, all the way up to the field and back. I wish I’d had my camera when we drove out in the field; some of the cows were quite curious and some were alarmed at our black panther hood ornament. Rishira snorted and trembled and couldn’t decide whether to run off or charge at the cat on the hood!


We’ve had a strange bunch of problems with cows. A couple weeks ago Rodadendron had a bellyache, getting up and down and kicking, when I went out to do chores and walked through the calved-out cows. I kept checking her for a couple hours, and eventually her discomfort passed and she was fine. Then on Palm Sunday we came home from church and one of our cows (eight-year-old Inny) was dead, right by the water tank. She’d been okay that morning when we fed hay, so whatever killed her was very swift. Her two-week-old calf didn’t even know it yet; we had to go find him farther up the field. We slipped him through the gate and cornered him in the calving pen by using the jeep to make a chute against the fence. We put two halters on him and were able to take him down to the pole barn where we could easily corner him to feed him a bottle. By 11 pm. that night he was hungry enough to be co-operative when we stuck the nipple in his mouth. Within 24 hours it no longer took both of us to corner him, and he was soon coming eagerly for meals.

Two days after Inny died, a three-year-old cow (Leena) was dull and colicky in the afternoon, getting up and down and kicking her belly. She was much worse than Rodadendron, so we brought her and her calf in from the field to a small pen, but stopped her at the headcatcher on the way through the barnyard and gave her a shot of Banamine to help ease the gut pain. That evening she nibbled at some hay. But she didn’t eat much, and didn’t pass any manure during the night. So the next morning we put her in the headcatch again and gave her a gallon of mineral oil and a pint of castor oil by stomach tube, along with more banamine and an injection of antibiotic. By evening she started passing manure, after being plugged or shut down for 24 hours. She also started chewing her cud again, and eating. We kept her in for another two days just to make sure she was OK, then put her and her calf back to the field.

Then last Saturday one of the pregnant cows, Cub Cake, had a bellyache in the night and we thought it might be labour pains, even though she wasn’t due to calve yet. She had some udder, but not as much as she usually gets before calving. We put her in the barn because it was another stormy night, and I kept checking her. She periodically had horrible cramping and pain, kicking her belly and pawing up the bedding, but never had her tail out. By morning we were certain it was gut cramps and not labour, and we were worried because she wasn’t passing manure, except for some scanty stuff that had a little blood on it. Then her pain eased and she seemed OK and we put her back out in the maternity pen and she ate hay awhile after we fed, then quit eating. She’d also stopped chewing her cud.

So we put her back into an isolation pen, to be able to tell how much manure she was passing (not much at all) and monitored her through the night. We were about to give her mineral oil the next morning, when she went into labour and quickly gave birth to a red heifer. By this time the cow had diarrhea. But the calf was healthy and nursed, and the cow started eating again and chewing her cud. We kept that pair in the barn a couple days till the weather cleared, then put them in a side pen for a day. By last night her manure was more normal again. This morning we put her and several other pair up into the lower part of the swamp pasture. It’s a nice clean place for the little bunch of late calves — so they won’t have to be in the dirty field with the older calves. I don’t know what’s messing up the digestive tract on these cows, and neither does our vet. We’re hoping it’s not something in the hay — and also hoping we’ll have green grass SOON, because we are running out of hay.

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



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