A Heifer and a Hiccup: A Calf Adoption Story
Calving season is one of the most beautiful and joyous times of the year. Fluffy calves can melt your heart with a look and make you laugh out loud with their shinanigans. The excitement of new life is intoxicating and the thrill of guessing who will calve next is a rush... but the joy of it all comes to an abrupt halt when a calf dies.
When a calf comes into this world, it is not much more than a breath of life. In most cases, the mother will lay down to give birth and then quickly get up to lick her calf clean, encourage it get up, and help it find her udder. Cows are naturally very well equipped to give birth, but bad weather and unlucky birthing positions can quickly complicate things. In the worst situations, the vulnerabilities of a newborn calf will overcome its strength.
As the primary caretakers for our animals, we take our midwifery responsibilities very seriously. Even though we check our cows at the crack of dawn, the day’s last light, and many times in between, we can’t be there for every birth...
On February 13, one of our heifers lost her first calf. When we arrived in the morning, we found her standing beside the clean, dead calf. Our best guess is that she was tired and uncertain after giving birth, and probably was too slow to get up and remove the afterbirth from the calf’s nose. The breath of life does not last long if the newborn’s nose is covered.
More than a year’s worth of planning, hoping, and hard work was lost with that calf. With a heavy heart, we walked the heifer to the barn and milked her into a bottle the first day.
Since we were still in the early stages of calving season, we decided we would milk her daily to keep her milk fresh. This would be extremely beneficial if another cow had twins. Most cows will choose to keep the stronger twin and abandon the other. The weaker calf would need a mother, and this heifer needed a calf. At this point I should clarify... the heifer did not know she needed a new calf. She still greatly missed and remembered the one that died. However a young heifer’s body needs the natural work of raising a calf to stay in shape and remain healthy. Her body, her natural hormones, and her maternal instincts would be the tools we used to win her over when the time came.
And it came sooner than expected. My father called and said he had twins born that night. With thankful hearts, we brought the weaker calf home with us.
The sweet little bull calf had my heart from the beginning, but the heifer was not so soft. We caught her in the chute where we could safely introduce them without the possibility of her kicking at him. She did not like him, but after nursing for a few minutes she relaxed as her udder was relieved of pressure and her body began producing natural, maternal hormones from the process. He nursed until her udder was empty, and then we gave him a small bottle to hold him over until the morning. He enjoyed the bottle so much that he got the cutest little baby hiccups! The first night little Hiccup slept outside the heifer’s stall.
The second day was the same, as was the third and the fourth. With great care we caught the heifer at least twice a day to let Hiccup nurse. The heifer would relax in the chute, but wanted nothing to do with the calf when we put them together in her stall. We pushed on.
Day 5, Day 6, Day 7... and just when we were begin to wonder if we would ever change her mind, she began softly calling to the calf at night. With that sign of encouragement, we let Hiccup sleep with her.
Day 8 saw another positive step. She let the calf nurse in her stall. Of course it was only while she was busy eating her feed and he was behind her so she couldn’t see him. But it was a very sweet little baby calf step in the right direction. We still caught her in the chute twice a day to let him nurse until he was content.
On Day 9, she made more progress letting him nurse (only from behind) when she was simply eating hay.
On Day 10, we decided it was safe to give them a small pasture of their own. The heifer could not abandon him, and he was strong enough and smart enough to avoid getting kicked. We brought them back into the barn at night.
We repeated the process again on Day 11 and 12 until...
On the evening of Day 12, Hiccup went to her udder and without nursing walked back to me. All along he had wanted to nurse the heifer before taking his bottle. That night it was like he knew the heifer didn’t have any milk left. And of course, he was right. He had nursed her udder empty all by himself. This was the breakthrough we had been hoping for.
When the same thing happened on the morning and the evening of Day 13, we knew it was time to put them to the test.
On February 27, the heifer and her Hiccup went out with the rest of the herd for the first time. The heifer hung out with the other cows and Hiccup ran and played with the other calves, but when it was time to eat they came back together. My friends, watching that scrawny twin nurse behind his new mama all by himself was all the reward I will ever need for the labor of love that went into pairing these two up. The overwhelming happiness came anew the first time I caught them snuggled together, and again when I found her licking him clean.
Along the way we tried many old school tricks to get the heifer to fall for the calf (including drizzling molasses on the calf’s back to encourage licking and even pouring her urine on the calf to make him smell like her) but at the end of the day, it was hours of relentless dedication that recreated the natural and powerful bond between Hiccup and his new mama.
On every farm, there are days that cause heartache in the farmer’s chest. On every farm, there are miserably repetitive tasks that cause headache in the farmer’s mind. But everyday on the farm requires the farmer to get up and push on, because there will be a day when all the work and worry will be worth it.
Just like a foggy spring morning spent watching a young heifer love on her newly adopted calf.
Hiccup’s #1 Fan,