The Bathtub? Really?!
Jan 09, 2014
Polar Vortex Calving
As I was attempting to get a giddy-up in my hitch this morning, I was thinking back to an episode of This Week in Agribusiness on RFD-TV I saw quite a few years ago. Max & Orion were featuring a Farm Broadcaster of the week. That week it was Mr. Ron Hayes from the Radio Oklahoma Network. He was talking about reviving newborn calves in your bathtub! I remember feeling a sense of relief come over me to learn that I’m not the only one who, (as my wife put’s it) "pamper my cattle". She jokingly tells folks that if she would let me, I’d have winter born calves in our house. I’ve never actually pressed my luck by trying to bring one in, but it’s just nice to know other farmers wives (although reluctantly), allow this practice of re-warming calves.
I’ve also seen on Facebook a lot of fellow beef producers who have been rescuing their newborn calves from the "Polar Vortex" and throwing them into the front or back seat of their trucks and taking them back to the barn. And the most disturbing thing that’s been frequently happening is that the momma cow’s aren’t surviving. Which leads me to one question, why are these producers calving in January?
Think about it. This isn’t the "natural" time of year for cattle to have calves. Deer don’t have fawns in January. Bears don’t have cubs in January. So why are Beef producers putting themselves and their animals through the stress of "Polar Vortex Calving"?
This winter is proving to be colder and bringing more snow than our average. The old timers around here are saying it is more like the way winters used to be. Personally, I do not remember it ever being this cold (-36 wc)
in Pennsylvania. In July of 2006 we moved from Kutztown, PA to our current farm near Troy, PA.
Folks in Kutztown were questioning our move farther North because of how cold and the incredible amounts of snow we would have the potential of getting in Bradford County. For the last 7 years the folks we left "down South" have received more snow and ice than we have. But no one has been able to escape the latest round of polar freeze.
Getting back to calves in the bathtub. Another feature of Max & Orion’s show was a rancher who was sharing her experiences of wrangling somewhere in the Dakota’s. She stated "We were in the process of building a herd and had used AI (artificial insemination for city folks) to breed about 300 first calf heifers (no one in their right mind would do this). We did not want to purchase older cattle to build our herd and preferred to start with healthy, young heifers. Only problem is a heifer will run the chance of having a dystocia (difficulty calving) a lot more than a cow. Hence, they have to be watched more. We breed our heifers to calve about a month earlier than the rest of the cow herd (gives them more time to recover before trying to rebreed). That puts these heifers calving in February where the rest of the cows start the calving season in March."
I have to admit it was nice to hear she & her husband had a game plan, but it was the timing of calving that had me perplexed. If you have the wit’s about yourself to make a schedule for calving, why wouldn’t you aim for spring (April-June) calving?
She went on to say…."We had 300 head and along comes a whale of a snow storm. It was bitter cold and over the course of the day and night we got over 14 inches of snow. Since this is extremely unusual in our area, we do not have indoor calving facilities. As we checked the heifers through the night it became increasingly difficult to do so and finally had to resort to using nothing but the tractor as it was the only thing that would go through that much new snow. We had moved all our "girls" into the front pasture so they would be easier to check".
I don’t know about you but that one experience would be enough for me to re-think a winter calving schedule! But wait folks! She goes on to say…."As luck had it, this particular night was a birthing bonanza. We had 8 or 10 calves born that night. We would typically observe that the calf was born . . . yet wanting to give the mother time to clean it up on its own we would check the other heifers then come back to check to see that the calf was up and nursing. It was cold enough that if their mama had not gotten them up right away they would already be suffering from hypothermia (low body temperature) by the time we got back. In a couple of the cases the water from the placenta had actually frozen to the ground and the calf had to be pried free. Several calves succumbed to hypothermia and needed immediate help or they would be dead in a short time. Sometimes you can put these little fellows in the pickup truck and use the heater on high to warm them up in the floor board. But this night we had too much snow to use the truck and by the time we got them in from the pasture they were in pretty bad shape. We needed some heroics to pull these calves through. So, we brought them in to the house and filled the bathtub up with warm water. We submerged these nearly comatose animals (weighing 60-80#) in the warm water and would leave one of our boys with them."
"The boys kept the calf's head out of the water so he could breathe as they poured cups of water over the newborn. It is the neatest and most miraculous experience. As these cold and near dead animals began to revive . . . they would start to suck on your finger. In a short time, they would be struggling to get out of the tub. We had spread out quilts and these newborns who had never yet stood up would wobble to their feet and another boy would begin to dry him with a hair dryer. By the end of the night, we had repeated this procedure 4 times and by daylight the bathroom was becoming a bit cramped so we also blocked off an area in the kitchen to hold them. At daylight we walked the mama heifer/cows into a stall in the barn and took their babies back to them. All accepted their calves and they received a full warm belly of mama's milk. It had been a long tiring night for the entire family, but good tired when it ended with the saving of 4 newborn calves who would have otherwise been dead by morning. It was a memorable evening for our family. One that we often laugh about now and yet not one I would want to repeat. On cold winter nights, I can still see those gangly calves in the bathtub."
And ya wanna know the worst part about this woman’s background in raising cattle? She’s a Veterinarian!!
If you find yourself in a predicament like severe weather calving, the following info. Should be helpful.
Re-warming Methods for Severely Cold-stressed Newborn Calves
Canadian animal scientists compared methods of reviving hypothermic or cold stressed baby calves. Heat production and rectal temperature were measured in 19 newborn calves during hypothermia (cold stress) and recovery when four different means of assistance were provided. Hypothermia of 86 degrees F. rectal temperature was induced by immersion in cold water. Calves were re-warmed in a 68 to 77 degrees F. air environment where thermal assistance was provided by added thermal insulation or by supplemental heat from infrared lamps. Other calves were re-warmed by immersion in warm water (100 degrees F.), with or without a 40cc drench of 20% ethanol in water. Normal rectal temperatures before cold stress were 103 degrees F.
The time required to regain normal body temperature from a rectal temperature of 86 degrees F. was longer for calves with added insulation and those exposed to heat lamps than for the calves in the warm water and warm water plus ethanol treatments (90 and 92 vs 59 and 63, respectively). During recovery, the calves re-warmed with the added insulation and heat lamps produced more heat metabolically than the calves re-warmed in warm water. This represents energy that is lost from the calf’s body that cannot be utilized for other important biological processes. Total heat production (energy lost) during recovery was nearly twice as great for the calves with added insulation, exposed to the heat lamps than for calves in warm water and in warm water plus an oral drench of ethanol, respectively. By immersion of hypothermic calves in warm (100 degrees F) water, normal body temperature was regained most rapidly and with minimal metabolic effort. No advantage was evident from oral administration of ethanol. (Source: Robinson and Young. Univ. of Alberta. J. Anim. Sci., 1988.)
When immersing these baby calves, do not forget to support the head above the water to avoid drowning the calf that you are trying to save. Also it is important to dry the hair coat before the calf is returned to cold winter air. If the calf does not nurse the cow within the first few hours of life (6 or less), then tube feeding of a colostrum replacer will be necessary to allow the calf to achieve passive immunity by consuming the immunoglobulin’s in the colostrum replacer.
Obviously not every calf born in cold weather needs the warm water bath. However, this is apparently a method that can save a few severely stressed calves that would not survive if more conventional re-warming methods are used.
Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Emeritus Extension Specialist.
I hope this information is helpful to all producers since winter weather is not just above the Mason-Dixon line anymore! This winter has showed us what we are in for in coming winters even in Texas and Florida. I’m not expecting my wife to allow me to do it, but luckily so far, we haven’t had to bathe any calves. And if I have anything to do with it, we never will!