Simple things are hard

KIMBALL, Neb. – As the 19th century Prussian military strategist Karl Von Clausewitz famously said in his treatise “Vom Kreige” (On War), “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.”

As it turns out, the General’s dicta can hold true in ranching as well.

Take the case of the chilled calf. A chilled and hypothermic calf needs to have its body heat raised back to normal levels via the application of external heat. In a profoundly chilled or hypothermic calf, the best method to do this is to plop the calf into a tub of warm water. It can be a pain to do this, what with separating the calf from the cow, bringing the calf inside and making a big mess, drying the calf, etc.

But it’s a simple concept. The calf is too cold, therefore it needs to be warmed. So you warm it. Then what?

Warming the hypothermic calf brings its organs back up to operating temperature, but then it’s time for the calf to get back to producing its own body heat through metabolizing milk. In the short term you can tube- or bottle-feed the calf, and in the first 72 hours of the calf’s life the milk you feed should be colostrum.

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.

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. 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.

First warm the calf. Simple. Add colostrum so the calf can produce its own warmth. Simple. When the calf is warm, dry, and has a full belly, return it to the care of mama, who is by far the best equipped to care for the calf. Simple.

But returning the calf to mama can be quite difficult. In some sense, warming a profoundly chilled calf is like a new birth for the calf. As far as the calf is concerned, you are now its mama, and its instinct is to seek nourishment from you, and not from some cow.

The cow, on the other hand, has a powerful hormone-driven instinct to nurture her calf. The key though, is her calf. She identifies her calf by its unique smell, and while she is driven to nurture a calf, she will only nurture the calf that smells like her calf.

If you’ve had that calf in a tub of water, you’ve washed away most or all of the odor the cow associates with her calf. So it’s not uncommon in these situations for the cow to reject the calf because, as far as she’s concerned, it’s not her calf.

The simple process of warming a hypothermic calf can be quite difficult.

Fortunately, time, effort, and perseverance can usually win out. Sometimes penning the cow and calf together is sufficient. The cow’s udder is engorged and uncomfortable and she wants to be nursed. The calf is using a lot of energy to stay warm and active, so it gets hungry and wants to nurse. You can often help the process along by putting the cow in the chute and “teaching” the calf to nurse. Often shoving its head up to the udder and squirting some milk on its nose is enough to do the trick. Sometimes it’s more difficult.

In most cases, once mama’s milk goes through the calf’s digestive system the calf will start to “smell right” to the cow and the pair will re-bond. Sometimes it’s fairly easy, sometimes it’s fairly difficult.

At the end of the day it’s simple. But simple things can be difficult on the ranch.


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