Dead Calf

Anyone who deals with cows, we’ve been told, is eventually going to run into calving problems. Sooner or later.

For us, it was sooner.

Coco tried to have her calf yesterday, but it went very wrong.

Our neighbors let us know that Coco seemed to be starting to have her calf. Becky went out but didn’t see any hooves coming out. We left Coco alone. We went back out later and saw two hooves and a bit of a tongue coming out, as one would expect. However, Coco wasn’t making any progress.

The calf wasn’t coming out.

The calf definitely wasn’t coming out.

We knew we had a big problem on our hands.

Our neighbor, Dennis, tried to tug on the hooves. The calf wouldn’t budge. He reached inside Coco a bit to try to get a grip on the calf. Coco didn’t mind. She seemed to know we were trying to help her.

“Big calf. Very big,” said Dennis.

Then he got a rope. I knew what was coming next. I tied a knot around the calf’s legs.

Dennis moved the tongue out of the way. The tongue was slack. It didn’t move. I knew the calf was dead but I didn’t say anything. I mean, what the *!&^ do I know about this? Something between nothing and not enough. Maybe the calf wasn’t dead…

And then we started pulling. Oh shit, did we pull. Coco started to walk away, with two massive hooves sticking out of her fanny, a rope and two men being dragged behind. I dug my gumboots into the slop and so did Dennis, but still, the calf would not come out.

“What should we do?” I asked him.

“Tree,” he said.

Somehow, don’t ask me how, we managed to tie the rope to a tree in the hope that Coco would use only enough force as necessary to dislodge the calf. We knew we could easily wind up losing both the calf and Coco at this point.

She pulled and pulled, but eventually toppled onto her back, against some saplings.

She started pushing and Dennis and I were pulling. The calf was finally coming out. And coming. And coming. It just kept coming.

He was shockingly large.

He was much larger than either of the other two calves when they came out of Esmerelda and Rosie.

Before he was out, I could see he was dead. He was not moving at all.

We kept pulling, and he was finally out. We had a dead bull calf in front of us in the muddy grass.

Dennis immediately tried to massage the calf. So did I. Nothing. No spark at all. I kept trying to massage the calf’s heart area. Nothing. I tapped on his nose. Nothing. Clapped. Snapped. Yelled at it. More massage. Nothing. He was gone.

Becky was remarkably calm. Much calmer than me. I was kneeling down in the slop, covered in shit and slime, sand flies biting me, just looking dumbly at the dead calf.

“Well,” Becky said, “I’ll go see if I can find a calf to try to mother on to Coco.” She took off back to the house to call her aunt and uncle.

Dennis coaxed Coco into righting herself.

Dennis said, “Let’s bring the calf over to her, she’ll want to lick it.”

We did. Poor Coco licked her dead calf.

Coco wasn’t bleeding. As badly as this went, it could have been much worse.

Becky came back a few minutes later and said that her aunt and uncle would put a calf in a sack for us and that we could just carry it back here in the ute. (Ute means pickup truck, for those of you who aren’t from New Zealand.)

I washed the slime off my hands and Becky and I immediately drove over to her cousin’s farm. Linda, Becky’s aunt, waved us right over to a shed that was full of calves. Donald, Becky’s uncle, was in the pen with the calves, trying to pick out a good one for us.

He selected a week-old Friesian Hereford cross heifer calf that was an aggressive feeder. He picked her up and Linda and I held an old feed sack open. Seconds later, Donald had a string tied around the calf’s neck and through a hole we cut in the sack. We loaded the sack full of heifer calf onto the floor of the ute and Becky and I zoomed back to the Farmlet.

(Becky noted that we have had goats and now a calf on the floor of this ute. What other creatures will be carried in it???)

We got this new little calf back down to where Coco’s dead calf was lying. I tied her to a tree.

Cows have an instinct that causes them to want to kick other calves—that aren’t theirs—away if they try to get milk. We had to try to trick Coco into thinking that this new calf was hers.

I had learned a lot that day, but I was about to learn even more: We had to try to get the smell of Coco’s dead calf onto this new calf.

“Grab the back,” said Dennis, gesturing toward the dead calf.

He grabbed the front legs and, together, we slathered the new calf with slime from the dead calf. We rubbed it in well. Then we gathered more slime in our hands from the dead calf and rubbed that in.

The heifer calf seemed a bit perplexed, but she didn’t seem to mind these macabre antics too much.

I released the calf and she walked over to Coco and started looking at her udder.

“Please work,” I mumbled.

Coco looked at the calf, and sniffed at her. She wasn’t fooled. She wasn’t fooled, even for a second. The calf tried to go for a feed on the big, inviting teats. Coco kicked the calf away.

It’s tough to explain the sinking feeling I had at that point. Things really hadn’t gone well, and we’d been running around like lunatics. The sun was going down, and that calf just had to suck and Coco had to let her suck.

Coco kicked the calf away again.

We decided to put Coco in the milking bale. (Oh yeah, Bruce and I built a milking bale in Dennis’ shed.) We enticed Coco in there with a bucket of cow treats (black strap molasses and some feed pellets). I captured the calf and walked her over to Coco’s udder. Coco was devouring her treats. I pushed the calf’s head near Coco’s udder and it didn’t take long. The calf hooked on and started sucking. Coco tried to kick but was more interested in eating her treats in the bucket. The calf kept feeding.

It was nearly dark. I gave a cow shit covered thumbs up to Becky and Dennis.

Then I dragged the dead calf back into the pasture, dug a shallow hole and put him in. I looked at him for a few seconds. He just seemed to be sleeping. Calm and peaceful. As I started shoveling dirt onto him, heavy rain began to fall.

I was glad to finally see the end of that day.

– – – – –

This is just the beginning of the saga and it’s still unfolding. We’ve been too busy to write the rest down. Stay tuned…

** Just a couple of points to add/clarify in response to some questions/comments from a reader (thanks Ronnie):

1) Obviously it is usually best to leave a cow to deliver a calf on her own. Most of the time, human intervention is unnecessary and even harmful. Coco had been in labour for a very long time with no progress when Kevin and Dennis intervened. It had become obvious that she would be unable to deliver the calf on her own.
2) When helping to pull the calf out, it is important to wait until the cow is having a contraction. That way, you are working with the forces of the cow’s body and minimising the chances of harm. Coco was having strong contractions when Kevin and Dennis were pulling on the rope.

9 Responses to “Dead Calf”

  1. Rebecca KS says:

    I was so sorry to hear your news.

  2. rich says:

    I’m so sorry about the lost calf. Thanks for sharing such a tough day, and here’s to hoping that the grafted calf thrives.

  3. gaile says:

    I’m sorry your calf didn’t make it, but really glad Coco seems to be okay so far. I know it’s part of the reality of having calves, but still, it must be a disappointment and a stress. I hope Coco is okay after all this and lets the new calf do his thing.

  4. rk says:

    I remember this happening at my grandparents, but we ended up usig calf’s meat. How comes you just buried it?


  5. Michelle says:

    Sorry about the calf. We once had a stillborn
    colt, it had to be expelled in bits with the vet
    and hubby working together. Sad stuff.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Sorry to hear about the calf.

    I remember once doing a job as interpreter for a Japanese agricultural high school group visiting a Manawatu dairy farm. It just happened that the vet had been called out to help get a calf out. We went up to the paddock to have a look and of course got roped into helping out too. It isn’t pretty or subtle, and always involves rope (and often a piece of wood or fence post). But luckily the calf was alive. For you with a herd of only three, the loss is so much greater than the people with hundreds who lose a few calves.

    But at least you have seen for yourself what can happen.
    Best of luck next time.

  7. tochigi says:

    Sorry to hear about the calf.
    I’ve seen this process close up too, it takes a bit of getting used to.
    Best of luck next time.

  8. Frank Black says:

    So very, very sorry. Heartfelt condolences.

  9. Nicole says:

    Wow, what a lesson in keeping cows! You are fortunate to have family and neighbors who can help you learn to deal with the downs as well as the ups.

    Sorry you lost the baby, and I hope the foster calf continues to do well for you.