Weaned without a Moo

On September 1, 2018, a cow delivered a pair of healthy, decent sized twin heifers. As sometimes happens, the mama cow accepted one of the calves and left the other to her own defenses. Without intervention, the calf would not have survived the night. I had been out of town that day and arrived back to my farm late that evening knowing this small calf had a tough fight ahead of her.

That first feeding was a bottle of cow colostrum. By now the calf was pretty weak and only sucked a few sips from the bottle, so I tube fed her the rest. The next day, she took more cow replacement milk from the bottle and I was started to have hope she might survive. But the effects of her rough start in life lingered and on day three she stopped eating. I tube fed her electrolytes twice over the next few days, and finally she perked up.

This tiny (for a calf), super cute heifer had a strong will to live. A typical angus calf weighs anywhere from 60-100 lbs at birth, depending on many factors especially breed.. As a twin and with her rough start, this calf weighed only about 40lbs. Towards the end of her first week of life, she began eating 2-3 times a day and had seemed to turn the corner. Although she was still not completely out of danger, I named her Willow.

Willow survived one more scare during her third week of life when scours set in. Scours is a general term for calf diarrhea, and is caused by bacteria in the intestines. A calf weakened by a stressed birth is especially vulnerable. Again, I consulted my friend who had experience saving calves, and she recommended a dose of antibiotics. Within a day, that shot of antibiotics started clearing up the scours and Willow began to feel better. I was her surrogate mama with the blue makeshift udder, and this small calf followed me all around the farm.

Every day, I mixed up batches of Land-o-Lakes Cows Match powdered milk for Willow. Since she was my first “bucket baby”, getting the right amount of milk for each feeding took me a while to master. Some days, I had to go back and make more, while other days a lot was wasted. Eventually, we settled into a routine of two daily feedings, morning and evening. She had a stall in the barn where she spent the nights with feeders of sweet calf grain and water available to her.

Twice every day for 5 months, I mixed buckets of milk in my kitchen for Willow. On the few days when I was out of town, my farm sitter Bev took over the feeding duties. Willow would stand at the barn door at feeding time, moo’ing and pacing until the blue bucket was placed on the hook. As she grew, the amount of milk increased. When calves nurse, they head butt their mama’s udders to make the milk flow. Soon the small blue bucket was not big enough to hold the milk, especially through the head butts. Willow wore milk on her head after each feeding. At 6 weeks old, Willow was drinking 16 cups of milk at each feeding, and needed a bigger bucket. I bought a larger blue bucket, drilled a hole near the bottom for the nipple/check valve and it worked great!

Bev and Willow
Maeve and Willow

As the months passed, Willow grew tall and strong. She graduated from living in the barn to being in the field with our herd of young spring heifers. I had to convert her from being my calf to becoming a cow, because weaning time was approaching. The advice I received on when to wean a calf ranged from 6 weeks (from an old farmer) to four months (from a friend and my vet). Angus cow mamas will typically wean their own calves between 6-7 months old. By January 1, Willow was 4 months old, weighed about 350lbs and would now run to the rolled out hay after her bucket breakfast.

I had a half bag of powdered milk left so decided to begin weaning by cutting her feedings down to once a day in the mornings. Luckily, after a couple of evenings looking for me, she quickly adjusted to only getting her blue bucket in the mornings. After two weeks of once a day feedings, I reduced the amount of milk by half, from 16 cups down to 8 cups. Then a week before the bag of powdered milk was gone, I began putting down a pan of grain for Willow as soon as she finished drinking.

Yesterday on Willow’s 5 month birthday, there was no powdered milk left in the bag. No blue bucket appeared on the post hook that morning. I expected the worse, that she would follow me around the field looking for the blue bucket udder, then stand by the fence moo’ing sadly as I left the field. But there was none of that! She ate a large portion of grain, and then hurried to the newly rolled out hay along with the other heifers. Willow weaned without even a moo!

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