A Calf in the Bath?

It’s calving time! Winter is not the season we would have chosen to have our cows give birth. Things can happen which necessitate interventions such as… putting a newborn calf in your bathtub. Here’s the story of little Billy the calf, and how the Calvinos took a crash course in one kind of calving emergency.

Friday, January 29:

Nathan comes in as I’m getting the kids ready for morning Mass, and reports he won’t be able to come with us. “Stone had her calf,” he said “I’m going to stick around to make sure it nurses.” At almost 8 am, it was only 10 degrees – and windy.

Fast forward an hour or so. Nathan pops in again. “Something’s not right. The calf hasn’t even tried to stand. I’m going to bring it into the [heated] garage.” I grabbed some towels to give him to help dry the calf off, and started an internet search. When you don’t know what to do, look for someone who does!

A warm water bath was recommended in multiple articles as the quickest way to warm a chilled calf, but the recommendation was accompanied by a warning: “This method is very labor intensive, requiring constant changing of the water to keep the temperature up.”

I ran to relay the message to Nathan. “Bring it in the house, we’ve got to get him in the bathtub!” With very little debate about it, Nathan obliged and we started filling the tub. The poor thing was making the saddest, most desperate “moos” I have ever heard, and I don’t wish to hear that sound ever again. He wasn’t even able to hold his own head up, so we rolled up a canvas painter’s tarp to keep it out of the water. Then began the monotonous task of keeping the water warm. I ended up with a system of bailing out the cool water into the toilet, then adding new warm water, cycling every five or ten minutes.

Billy in the Bathtub

We knew it was important to get colostrum in him within the first 6-12 hours, and by the grace of God we had some colostrum replacer (read, calf formula) on hand and a calf bottle, but he he wouldn’t suckle on the bottle. I started using a syringe to squirt small amounts at a time into his mouth. Besides probably waiting too long to bring him in, this was our first mistake. The vet’s office (once we got a hold of them) told us not to feed him until he got up to temperature (normal for a calf is 101-102°F). He was 92 °F at 11 am, after having been in the bath for a few hours. Who knows how hypothermic he must have been to begin with!

A friend whose Jersey had recently calved recommended giving him a vitamin B shot to help give him a boost of energy. So I quickly ordered the necessary items and Nathan rushed off to TSC to pick them up. Thank heavens for dental hygiene experience – giving injections is no problem for me!

Almost unbelievably, by around 1 pm, Billy’s temperature was up to 101.5°. Ecstatic, Nathan and I pulled him out of the tub, and dried him with towels and a hair drier. He was holding up his own head now! We gave him an intramuscular shot of Vitamin B, and wheeled him out to his dam to see if he might perk up when he saw her. His temp was good, so we left him out for about an hour. He was shivering slightly, though, so my mothering instincts wouldn’t let me leave him out there without something covering him (hence the pink towel in the photo)! Even so, his temperature fell back down to 98 degrees, which told us he wasn’t able to self regulate that yet.

Into the heated garage he went, and there I and the kids camped out, trying to syringe feed him some more colostrum, while Nathan drove an hour and a half away to go pick up some pigs (more on that in another post). It was then that I noticed that Billy’s umbilical cord stump had come off completely at the navel. Mistake number two: not being more careful in how we carried him around. It bled a few drops, but seemed to clot just fine, so he didn’t seem to be in danger of bleeding out. Considering he was probably the cleanest calf we’ve ever had, I wasn’t too concerned about infection, but I made a mental note to monitor that situation.

At 9:30 pm, we tried once more to get him to drink from the bottle- and he did!

Before heading to the house, I set up a motion sensor camera as a sort of baby monitor in the garage so I could check on the calf overnight, and went to bed for a fitful night’s sleep – but not before setting up a barn stall as a temporary home for our new American Guinea Hogs and getting them situated. So much for going to bed with the sun!

Saturday, January 30

At 7:15 am, the motion camera sensor alert went off. Taking a peek, I was elated to see Billy trying to stand up on his own! He would have succeeded, too, had the concrete floor not been so smooth. We decided to try to take him out to pasture to his momma to see if she could encourage him and get him to suckle. It was in the 30°s, and sunny with just a little wind. Stone was so happy to see her baby!

With great effort, and some help from Mama, he struggled to his feet and began taking staggering steps try to reach her udder. Nathan stepped in to help him latch (ok, so when it’s cold and windy we aren’t as patient as we ought to be waiting for nature to take its course) and he suckled a little bit! We weren’t the only impatient one, though. After a time, Stone decided she’d like to go off and find something to eat, leaving poor Billy behind. I don’t blame her, she probably fully expected him to follow!

It appeared that he wasn’t quite ready to jump up and take on all the responsibility of newborn calf life, so we put him in a stall in the barn with a carbon fiber heat lamp (which may have been mistake number three). His temp was back down to 98 degrees at that point, so it was probably a good thing. And we decided to begin feeding him milk replacer, since he still hadn’t managed more than a few sips from Stone. He drank a pint from the bottle, and once again we were overjoyed. Everything was going well, he was showing new signs of improvement all the time: getting more confident with his standing and walking, eating from the bottle, being very alert. We were confident that we had saved him.

Other things on the farm didn’t stop, despite all the excitement with the calf. Nathan stayed up to wire electric in a stall in the barn, getting it ready to build in a larger brooder with various heat sources for the 200 chicks that are arriving next week, and both he and I stayed up past midnight installing a used dishwasher we acquired from Craigslist. It had to be done- the old one had stopped actually cleaning the dishes the Wednesday before all this craziness happened. I challenge you to imagine how trashed the kitchen was with dishes piling up for days as we took care of the new calf! Though, to be fair, I wasn’t cooking terribly much either, so that limited the mess a bit.

Sunday, January 31

After morning Mass, we discovered that our oldest, and largest cow, Tuesday, had had her calf! She was an energetic heifer, the biggest we’ve had yet, trotting around, exploring everything, evening giving a kick in Nathan’s direction when he got too close. We named her Spright, since she was so very ‘sprightly’.

But back to Billy. Billy began refusing the bottle, and looking really lethargic. He passed a stool with some difficulty, and there appeared to be spots of blood in it. His navel showed no signs of infection as far as I could tell, but when I rubbed my hand over a particular part of his side/abdomen, he tried to move away with a jerk. I didn’t think anything of that at the time; I thought I just touched a more sensitive area too quickly.

Billy trying to get some rest

When he didn’t eat all day, we decided to stomach tube him; a quart of milk replacer went down nice and easy. We also gave him his daily supplements of B, A, D, E, and probiotics, but hours later he was still lying on his side, not even attempting to get up on his feet. Every so often, though, he would move his leg as though he were trying to kick at his belly, and once, with great effort, he turned over.

Something was wrong, and we didn’t know what. His temperature was stable at 100 degrees, so there didn’t seem to be an infection causing a fever. He had a funny little slow pant as he breathed. Maybe it was just lethargy from not getting enough milk?

We tubed him again in the evening, and this time got 2 quarts in him. He as able to stand for this feeding, which was encouraging! Afterwards, he seemed to not want to lie down, but had difficulty doing so. Finally, he slowly stumbled over to the pile of pine shavings in his stall and sort of toppled over with a sigh. “Maybe we filled up his belly too full,” I thought. “Well, he’ll rest easy tonight.”

And that, my friends, was mistake number four– we just didn’t know it yet.

Monday morning, Nathan came up from the barn and told me the news.

“Billy didn’t make it through the night.”

How could this have happened? He had been doing so well, even suckling from his dam! Did we do something wrong? Was there something wrong with him that we hadn’t caught? We weren’t going to find out until a few days later.

To be continued in “A Tale of Two Calves”…

2 thoughts on “A Calf in the Bath?

  1. Oh. My. Goodness. Poor little Billy… you and Nathan certainly tried your best while being in unchartered territory. It sounds like you made rational decisions based on your knowledge, resources at the time and your instincts. You are definitely in a whole new world – good thing that you are so flexible! Sending love and prayers to all of you.


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