Country Living Series

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Last calf of the year

I've had a very very rough couple of days. That's because Matilda had her calf yesterday morning -- the last calf of the year. Normally this would be wonderful news, but there's been a complication.

Poor Matilda had been looking very misshapen for the last week or two. Unlike our Dexters, Matilda (being an older Jersey) gets all bent out of shape toward the end of her pregnancy, with a massive, pendulous, ginormous udder that makes her walk splay-legged.

We've been keeping her close to the house since her due date was September 14. But, just like with people, due dates aren't precise. For the last few days, I've been checking on her every hour or so, and especially before I go to bed, for signs of labor.

Despite this, Matilda had her calf in the wee hours of the morning. When I walked out yesterday morning at 6 am, the baby (it's a little girl) was already dry and on her feet. Beautiful little thing!

But as daylight crept in, I noticed something was wrong. Matilda's teats were caked with mud and dirt (not surprising, after giving birth) -- but there were no signs the calf had been nursing.

This meant that despite being a few hours old, the little baby still hadn't had her first drink of the life-nourishing colostrum all calves need for a strong start in life.

Despite this, the baby -- Younger Daughter named her Amy -- was strong and healthy.

The other calves were eager to greet the newcomer.

But despite the fact that Matilda's teats were constantly dripping colostrum...

...little Amy showed absolutely no inclination to nurse. This was getting me worried.

By this point Amy was probably seven hours old (assuming she was born around 2 am) and hadn't yet received her first nutrition. It dawned on us that Matilda's teats were hanging so low the calf just didn't "see" where they were. It was time to intervene.

I don't have any photos of the ensuing couple of hours because we were, to put it mildly, busy. I didn't have a halter that fit Matilda any more, so I put a rope around her neck and coaxed her into the milking stall, where I practically had to hogtie her (because, trust me, she didn't want to be there). I tried to box the baby in with us so Matilda wouldn't worry too much, but she managed to escape despite Don's efforts to prevent it. I hastily stripped some colostrum out of Matilda's teats and released her, then we closed both her and Amy into the corral. I poured the colostrum into a bottle with a teat, and we tried and tried and tried to get the calf to nurse.

This was tougher than we ever thought it would be. The calf wanted nothing to do with the bottle. At first we tried straddling little Amy and holding her still, then forcing the nipple into her mouth. That didn't work. I dribbled colostrum into my fingers and tried to get her to suck. That didn't work. We tried guiding her head toward Matilda's teats. That didn't work. The morning was a rodeo.

Poor Matilda, still recovering from calving, was tired and stressed, compounded by the pitiful bleats of her hungry baby. Both animals ended up lying down in the barn, exhausted. I was afraid the baby was getting weak. Every half hour or so, I'd take the bottle of colostrum and try to get the baby to drink... nothing doing. She refused all attempts to get the teat into her mouth.

Until it happened.

It was a magical moment, when the calf finally understand what I'd been trying to do. You could almost see the wonder in her eyes as she started mouthing the nipple, then sucking, then greedily drinking the colostrum so fast that the little eight-ounce bottle drained in a couple of minutes.

I didn't realize that Don was watching through a slat in the barn. He immediately went into the house, poured the bowl of colostrum into a pitcher, and came out to refill the bottle... and refill, and refill, and refill. Baby Amy drank all the colostrum I had milked out of Matilda so far, maybe a pint and a half, but we weren't sure how much to give her.

With a full belly of warm milk, that was one happy calf! The animals relaxed during the rest of the morning...

...but I was worried because I had to go into the city for the rest of the afternoon (Tuesdays are my "city days"). Matilda won't let Don milk her, so it was up to me to get more colostrum. So I tried squeezing into a bowl at any random moment I could, without Matilda losing patience with me.

Don found some information online about bottle-feeding calves. I managed to get a couple of quarts of colostrum out of Matilda before leaving for the city. Colostrum is very thick and creamy yellow, almost like custard.

I strained it to get out any impurities (bits of hay, etc.) and we filled another bottle for Amy.

This time Younger Daughter came out to feed. It took a few minutes for the calf to realize what we were trying to do, but then drank greedily.

She tried to bring the bottle close to Matilda's teat in an attempt to transition the calf, but no go. The teat is only a few inches from the ground, you see, so the calf would practically need to lie down in order to drink.

But at least she had a full belly, and more important, she had the critical life-nurturing colostrum that is so essential for babies.

Late that evening, after returning from the city (where I made sure to buy a halter for Matilda), we warmed up some bottles and went out to feed. Like bottle-feeding human babies, milk needs to be body temperature (I tested it on the inside of my wrist). It took a few minutes for Amy to understand what we were doing with the bottle, and then there was no stopping her.

Of course since the calf isn't nursing, I needed to milk Matilda as dry as possible, twice a day. It was almost dark as I did this, crouching so low to reach her teats that it was almost hard for me to breathe. No wonder the calf couldn't nurse.

I came in, strained the colostrum milk, poured two quarts into a pitcher for the next day's calf milk, and then bagged up the remainder. Believe me, there is nothing finer than having fresh real colostrum in the freezer, just in case we ever need to rescue another calf.

I made sure to label and date each bag...

...before indulging in a much-needed glass of wine after such a stressful day.

Early this morning I started warming up milk for the calf. Like human breast milk, colostrum cannot be microwaved, so I heated it in a bowl of hot water (refreshed when necessary) until the milk was skin temperature.

Matilda was bedded down with her baby, looking bucolic and happy. She's a born mama and loves having calves, and it saddens me that this will probably be her last.

Little Amy is beginning to understand what a bottle is for.

Younger Daughter says she never thought she'd become so intimately acquainted with a calf's nostrils. They flare when she nurses and you can see waaaaay up.

Looks like this will be our routine for awhile.

After both Matilda and Amy had their breakfast, it was time for me to milk Matilda.

Her teats are splayed so far apart that, to achieve even a modicum of comfort in my squatting position, I use two separate containers.

There's less colostrum in this milk (for the next few days we'll get "transitional milk") but I'm still freezing it.

I'll probably freeze three days' worth of colostrum and transitional milk.

There is a chance, as Matilda's udder begins to get less swollen with the postpartum hormones of fresh motherhood, that the calf will start nursing on her own. But for now it's physically impossible. This means we've been roped into a twice-a-day milking and feeding schedule, without fail.

Such is life on a farm.


  1. Wow, Patrice, Amy is beautiful! Thanks for sharing your journey with her so far! Makes me wonder if I have the time/dedication to raise cows, tho...something I was contemplating for the future...

  2. Wow, I've never seen a cow udder look like that! Looks like everyone is doing well---I fostered a bull calf this year for a friend whose Mama cow didn't survive birthing. I fell in love with little Cowboy. He's back with the herd now and I don't go see him so he'll forget me eventually. But I'll never forget him! Best wishes.

  3. Farm life is full of surprises. You need a cow sized milking stand like the goat folks use! Or maybe have Don dig a depression for you to sit in while you milk sweet Matilda.

  4. Easier said than done I'm sure but is there any possibility of tethering Matilda up on a plinth (of palettes or something) so that her teats are at a more convenient height for the calf (not on the plinth)?

  5. Patrice -
    Unless you want a bottle calf
    *you probably have one now :-)*
    there are udder supports avilible at NASCO
    A udder support will stop the leaking & make Matilda more comfortable. It will also reduce the risk of mastitis. It's like a bra for cows.
    If you didn't want to buy a support, you could make a makeshift one with a bath towel & baling twine.Cut 4 holes in it so her tits are exposed and maybe Amy will nurse.
    Good luck.

    1. I was wondering if there was some kind of udder sling. Now I know!

  6. That first picture of cow and calf, it showed the calf tried to nurse, and I figured your post would turn out as it did.
    It was obvious, as you say, that Matilda hung too low.
    Good luck!

  7. I feel for you, early last January we had a female goat kid that had major complications (we didn't breed her to kid at that time of year, we got her in the fall and she was already pregnant), and the temp barely got above zero that day. She couldn't nurse the baby at all because of complications and we ended up having to put her down because she couldn't deliver the second kid, which actually ended up being dead and starting to decompose inside, guess its a rare thing that occasionally happens to goats. So we got stuck with a bottle baby and because of the extreme cold temps had him inside for the first 2 weeks before he would be able to survive the cooler temps in the shelter outside. Such a time consuming task to take care of a bottle baby on top of everything else you need to do, especially this time of year with canning and gardening still going on. Good luck and hopefully she'll start nursing on mom soon. Or is it possible to convince another cow to take on another calf? I know of a few people who have done that successfully.

  8. Congrats on the calf. Glad she and mama are both well.

    We had our jersey adopt three calves this summer. We milked her before bottle feeding the calves, with them loose around her. We'd get our fingers wet with milk and let any curious calves suck on them, constantly drawing them closer and closer to the teats. Within a few days they each figured out where the milk comes from and started nursing on their own. Mildred's teats are not much higher than Matilda's, and the calves we have are holstein crosses (longer legs), so it can be done, once they figure it out. Good luck!

  9. I have been in this situation before and managed to force the calf down on its front knees. It is definitely a two--or three-- person job to keep the calf on her knees and convince her to suck on the teats. It worked and the calf learned to always nurse kneeling.....
    Also, some of Matilda's swelling will go down but it seems to take some Jerseys a couple of weeks....

  10. Good work Lewis Family. That kind of day will sure wear you out, but there's nothing like the experience of saving a newborn critter. I'll be keeping an optimistic thought going forward that Amy will begin to nurse and y'all will soon get to take yourselves off "bottle detail."

    And (udder issues aside) Matilda looks goooood!

    A. McSp

  11. excellent, granny miller.
    what about auto ramps >? use for car and for cow milking stand. amy can stand under her mom and drink.

    if you spend for the cow bra i'm sure it will earn its keep as time [and gravity] go on. the rest of the herd will eventually come to it, and we all know how much weight a nursing bra helps hold!!

    deb harvey

  12. My goodness. I hung on every word and photo of this post! What a story. I kept hoping it would turn out okay. Looks like it did for now.

    It's times like these that we wish that we could speak "animal.": "It's good! Drink! It won't hurt you! PLEASE drink!"

    Whew. I need a glass of wine, too, after that.

    Just Me

  13. Looks like this calf has a whole family of Moms.

    - Charlie

  14. Put some dynamint udder cream on her to help reduce swelling.

  15. Hi Patrice - Here's a link to a youtube vid on how to make a rope halter. Extremely simple, and if the rope is too stiff to easily unravel, a Phillips head screwdriver is useful. Also, bind end of rope first with electrical tape. Good to have a few already made up and a good kid project!

  16. I'm having sympathy pains in empathy with Matilda and her huge udder. Has it reduced in size yet? DWLee3 in Bend, Oregon

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  18. Milk needles are a huge blessing with that huge udder. We used them with our Jersey after she calved. It was nice for her (and us) to get her completely milked out and more comfortable during those first few weeks. You might want to milk 3 times a day until she "shrinks" some. Watch carefully for mastitis, with her teats so close to the ground, she is more prone to picking up dirt and manure on them. Amy is a beautiful little girl!

  19. Hello Patrice, I was wondering if you could let us know when Amy starts to nurse off of Matilda? It's crazy, but this has been on my mind and I keep checking back to see if there has been an update. Crazy, huh? Thanks.