Jason, a farm helper, found the white heifer moments after she was born. The calf was already walking, and her mom, Sarah, was licking to clean and dry her. The calf, named Sugar, was small enough to carry to the barn, but when I reached to pick her up, Sarah glared at me as if to say, "Hands off my baby." Always one to respect 900-pound mothers with horns out to here, I backed off and put Plan B into operation.
We put the baby in a small trailer hitched to an ATV (four-wheeler). Jason rode in the wagon to keep Sugar steady, and husband Bruce drove, with me beside him telling everyone what to do. Being careful to keep the baby within sight and scent of Sarah, we drove slowly out of the pasture as she walked beside, gently cooing to her baby. Near the gate, the ATV got stuck in a foot of mud, and Bruce and Jason had to get out and push. Sarah had the heft, but not the training to be of any help. Eventually, we prevailed and continued on.
We keep newborns and their moms for a day or more in the holding pen (an enclosed shed) where we can watch them and make sure they bond. We also watch the baby who must nurse with 24 hours, not only for nutrition but to absorb colostrum to protect from infection. After 24 hours the calf's ability to absorb it diminishes and the baby could sicken.
Most calves stand and then nurse within an hour or two of birth. While Sugar did the standing thing fine, she was confused about nursing. She tried to suck on her mom's butt, then she latched on to my finger but never found her mom's teat. Somehow I had to get Sugar to nurse, a task I've done before but it varies with each calf.
Calves do not like to be pushed, pulled or forced into place; just like human babies, they have to be coaxed. As Sugar sucked on my finger, I walked her to her mom's udder. She followed my finger and stood next to Mom, but this is where the challenge started. She didn't want to give up my finger for a teat, so I had to trick her.
While supporting her bottom to encourage her to stand close to Mom, I moved my hand behind a teat and lifted it to Sugar's mouth. After several unsuccessful tries, she eventually grabbed it and sucked. Twelve hours after she was born, she finally got a belly full of milk.
This is usually where my job ends. Most calves need this training only once. Not so Sugar. Six hours later her belly was flat again, and she was searching for milk in all the wrong places; she even tried to nurse on an annoyed steer who was sharing the pen.
I repeated the routine, and again she latched onto her mom and drank her fill. That was not the end, though. For five days I've had to re-introduce Sugar to her mom's teat twice a day. She seems to wait for me to enter the pen and lead her to that mysterious source of milk that she can't seem to find on her own.
I'll continue to be her guide, but I sure hope she figures this out soon. I don't think I'm alone, though. Not just a calf problem, human mothers sometimes face similar challenges with their new babies.
Other than this feeding challenge, Sugar is a fluffy, white and healthy heifer who is clever enough to claim a cozy bed of hay in the squeeze chute as her crib. (The chute is a tight enclosure we use to get total control of a cow for injections, etc.) Maybe Sugar's not so inept as she seems to be. What if I think I'm teaching her to nurse, while she's busy training me as her personal wait-staff?
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Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm, where she raises and sells pastured pork, lamb, eggs and grassfed beef. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.