Newborn calves and the energy hard deck

If you ever seen the Naval Aviation movie Top Gun, you might remember some mention of the term “hard deck.”
The hero, Maverick, chases his opponent Jester below the hard deck in order to win the dogfight and record a “kill.” And he got in a lot of trouble for it.
In the world of military aviation “hard deck” is a risk management term, part of a scheme designed to keep people from hitting the ground in airplanes. Everybody understands that it represents a cushion between a reasonably safe training altitude and the actual real Hard Deck, which is the ground. There’s a huge difference between busting the risk management hard deck and the real Hard Deck.
Here in the 21st century we have a lot of cushion betwixt ourselves and various forms of Hard Deck. So much so that a lot of folks don’t really understand that reality has hard edges. It’s worth thinking about.
I’ve written about energy and metabolism in cattle and newborn calves before. It works the same in people and in all living organisms. When the energy tank runs dry -- when there’s not enough energy left in the living system to keep it going -- the organism dies. It’s too late at that point to take in some food for a “burst of quick energy.” Because it takes energy to run the gut, and without energy, the gut can’t digest food for the organism
to metabolize.
So there’s a Hard Deck when it comes to energy.
A couple of days ago we had a calf born and he very nearly hit the energy Hard Deck. It shouldn’t have happened. Mama was a healthy cow, the calf had a normal birth, the air temperature was in the 40’s. He should have gotten up and nursed and got on with being a normal baby calf, just like the three others that were born at about the same time.
But he didn’t. What should have happened doesn’t matter a bit, only what did happen. Or didn’t happen.
The thing that didn’t happen was he didn’t get any milk in his belly. Within about four hours of birth his energy reserves were very nearly expended. He became hypothermic, with his core temperature falling to about 88 degrees. His temperature should have been around 99-101 or so. He was so weak he couldn’t hold his own head up, let alone get up and try to nurse or even take a bottle. If nothing had changed he would have hit the Hard Deck very soon and he would have died.
I got warm colostrum into him with a stomach tube and parked him on the passenger seat of my pickup with the heater turned all the way up and the blower on full blast. With the pickup providing a 90-100 degree environment, he didn’t have to expend energy to make body heat, so he was able to use the slim energy reserve he had remaining to digest the colostrum. Within a couple of hours his temperature came up to normal and he was headed in the right direction.
I kept him in a warming box overnight and he was doing pretty well in the morning. He was still too weak to stand, but he had enough energy to bawl for food.
I fed him by tube again and he got stronger by the hour.
In the meantime I got his mom in and milked her out, giving the calf part of her rich colostrum and freezing the rest. In the evening Mama is in the barn eating hay and the calf was in a warming box digesting milk and gaining strength. I left it that
way overnight.
Externally applied warmth and colostrum were the keys to allowing the calf to survive his close brush with death. Colostrum (from the Latin for first milk) is the first milk produced by a lactating female immediately after giving birth. All mammals, including humans, produce this first milk which is very energy dense and loaded
with antibodies.
As I’ve written before, baby calves (and really all mammals) are born with a razor thin energy margin. They’ve generally got just enough energy to start up all the systems mama was taking care of in the womb and to get up and nurse. With a little bit of a cushion. Usually. The energy they are born with includes the sugar in their blood and stored fat. Those energy stores don’t last for long, so it’s really important that the newborn nurse as soon as possible and that the milk be colostrum, which is loaded with more fats and sugars than “regular” milk.
Colostrum is also loaded with antibodies. The calf is born with an intact immune system  -- in other words -- an immune system that’s ready to begin functioning. But it doesn’t have any antibodies yet, because the placenta filters the cow’s own antibodies out of the blood supplied to the calf in the womb. It makes sense if you think about it, because antibodies are very similar to pathogens. The cow might be sick, but the placenta shields the the calf from anything that might be a pathogen, including her own antibodies. Therefore the calf is born without being sick, but also without the vital antibodies which will fight disease.
When the calf consumes its first milk, the antibodies in that milk are absorbed by the gut and become part of the calf’s immune system, where they immediately begin protecting it from disease.
As you can see, colostrum is very important to the newborn calf.
Sometimes -- as happened with the calf in question -- the calf doesn’t nurse. Fortunately we live in the twenty-first century and have access to processed, freeze-dried colostrum which has nearly all the energy and most of the antibodies of mama’s first milk. Just mix with warm water and feed it to the calf via a bottle or stomach tube. It’s not exactly as good as mama’s, but it’s close enough to bridge the gap.
Mama’s colostrum is the best, because it’s fresh and hasn’t been processed or freeze-dried, which does eliminate some of the antibodies and a little bit of the energy. It can be frozen at the ranch, though, and simple freezing does little or nothing to degrade its effectiveness. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity to do so we harvest and freeze colostrum. Once thawed out it’ll be fully effective for any calf that needs it. Frozen colostrum is an important commodity.
So that’s the reason I milked out the cow, gave part of the milk to her calf, and froze the rest.
This morning the calf -- which was christened “Nip” yesterday -- was bright-eyed and ready to get on with the rest of his adventure. He was a little wobbly on his feet, but he hadn’t yet had the opportunity to do much walking. His mom recognized him immediately and began to lick him and urge him to nurse. So far so good.
In the meantime, more calves are hitting the ground. It’s calving season after all!

More In Opinion