Bringing Up Baby

Dealing with Orphan and Abandoned Calves

By Peter Haase, Buffalo Horn Ranch
April 2000

This spring we were triply blessed with a set of triplet bison calves. Actually it was something of a mixed blessing getting three heifer calves and then being confined to the ranch with the numerous feedings. We have some experience working with abandoned calves over the past three years with mixed results and one of our foundation cows is bottle raised.

The birth of the first recorded bison triplets has given us a great deal of publicity in numerous newspapers, magazines and on two national television networks. Perhaps someday they will even be in the Guinness Book of World records. With the publicity our babies have also become the poster girls for "Brown's Bison Milk Replacer" a new product that is now becoming commercially available. We were fortunate in that many experienced bison producers were able to give us advice on how to raise these girls properly.

The extensive publicity has also led to at least a dozen bison producers calling us to ask for advice. Most of them had two things in common, an abandoned calf on their hands and being unprepared for this situation. Combining gathered information with our own experience and the extensive research I have done, I feel that I can offer some good advice on how to prepare for and deal with a situation like this.

Some bison producers let their bison calve the natural way, that is on their own. They do not venture into the calving pastures but just count their calves in the fall. There is nothing wrong with this method. The cows would rather be left alone and for the most part can handle calving all by themselves. By using this method you must accept some death loss of calves and perhaps even the occasional cow. We like to check our herd carefully at least twice a day. We do this mostly with the truck and strong binoculars. Watching the miracle of birth and those first attempts at standing and sucking is truly a wonderful experience.

In the wild, bison are programmed to be survivors. The first rule of nature is survival of the fittest. Twins are rare in bison and often one of the two is stronger, making it dominant at feeding time. A bison cow normally only has enough milk for one calf, so both are compromised when it comes to competing for the limited milk that mom is able to offer. Often one calf won't get quite enough and will begin to fall behind, while its sibling grows stronger. It may take only a few hours or it might take a few weeks, but the usual scenario is that one calf is left behind as a meal for the predictors. In the confined pastures of a ranch, the likely hood of a cow raising twins is perhaps somewhat higher than in the wild. From our research we have found that most abandoned calves are twins. Are twins more common today? I don't know, I suspect that we are discovering more twins for a couple of reasons aside from there being more bison. Firstly, we producers are checking our herds more closely than before, so perhaps we discover the twins before the coyotes do. Secondly, we are more careful with the bison's nutrition and health care and this too might contribute to more twins.

It should be noted that you should check carefully any set of twins. If they consist of one bull calf and one heifer calf in a set of twins, then you will have what is known as a Freemartin. A Freemartin is a heifer calf that was twinned with a bull calf. While the calves are developing in the uterus there is an excess of testosterone in the womb from the bull calf. This causes changes in the development of the female. Outwardly she may appear to be normal, however her reproductive system is not properly developed and in at least 98% of the cases in beef, probably similar in bison, they are infertile. It would be unethical to sell a Freemartin as a breeding animal. The second major cause of abandoned calves is with heifers. Mothering ability is partially inherited and partially learned. It seems that some heifers will walk away from their calves, not knowing what to do with them. Other times a heifer will clean off her calf and when it comes time to suck she will kick at the calf. Perhaps her udder is tender or ticklish and the unfamiliar sensation causes her to kick her calf away. Cattlemen have been dealing with this for years and by putting the mother is a head stall they are able to get the calf on the cow. With bison this would be much more difficult. As bison producers we often brag that calving problems are rare which they seem to be. What we do often see are mothering problems. I like to say that with bison we have fewer problems, but when we have a problem it is often more difficult to deal with. From the many producers that I have talked to it seems that if the heifers have not been in a herd with other cow/ calf pairs since weaning their mothering ability is lower.

We had a situation with our second calf ever being born. This calf was born at night and in the confusion of 60 heifers, all but one without a calf, the heifer calf bonded with the one young cow who already had a two week old calf. The new mother was frantic looking for her calf and the other cow was running around with two calves. After about 30 hours she didn't want anything to do with this calf and abandoned it. We grabbed her at that point, gave it colostrum and bottle raised it for three weeks before she died of Navel Ill. The colostrum we gave her was too late and did nothing for her immune system. The mother of this abandoned calf found another heifer calving about the time that we grabbed her calf. She bonded with the new calf and this calf sucked on his 'twin' mothers all summer. The lessen here is that the calf must have colostrum in the first 6 to 12 hours or its chances of survival are slim. Another note here, we have a five year old bottle raised cow that we purchased as a calf. One thing that she really lacks is mothering ability. She never licks off her calf, nor does she look out for it very well. Fortunately she has had two very persistent calves who have done very well despite the short comings of their mother. There is more to being a mother bison than instinct, there must be something learned as well.

Another situation that can occur is when the previous calf crop has not been weaned or the weaned calves are put back with the cow herd in the spring. Last year's calf will still hang out with the mother and when the new calf is born, one of two things might occur. The yearling will take up nursing again and push away or even kill the new calf. The mother will not pay attention to the new calf and walk away with its yearling offspring. Or finally the yearling bulls or two year old bulls may run the cow away from the calf because they are confusing the smells of calving with the smells of a cow cycling and try to breed her, sometimes killing the calf in the process.

A neighbor once gave me some good advice. He said, "If you are in the livestock business, the best way to make money is to be there during calving." As bison producers we are often complacent about our duties as managers during calving. There are many myths and misconceptions that we have all heard about bison. They have some truth to them, but some I feel are overblown by some producers to sell there stock. We have all heard statements like; "you just count your calves in the fall", or "you only have to check your cows on Sundays" or "you just have to sit on the hill with your binoculars and count all your money". Calving difficulties are rare with bison, especially if you manage your genetics and nutrition properly.

But calving and mothering problems happen. If you are not there to check you must accept the fact that you will loose the occasional calf and perhaps even a cow now and then. When you discover that you have an abandoned calf, you as a responsible livestock manager must do something. I heard of one producer who dealt with an abandoned calf by knocking it over the head and leaving it for the coyotes. He couldn't be bothered with an abandoned calf. I would express my opinion on this practice, but this is a family magazine and my words would be inappropriate here. If you suspect that you might have an abandoned calf, prepare to act quickly. The first few hours are crucial. Watch it for a while to make sure that the mother isn't coming back to it. We have found that generally if you have to grab a calf it is best with two people in a truck. Drive slowly between the calf and the herd or distract the herd with some feed. One person must then grab the calf. The calf will begin to beller which will have the whole herd running towards you. It is best to take the calf into the cab and turn up the radio. The herd will search the area around where the beller came from and generally not relate it to the truck. You may need to drive around the pasture a few times until the herd settles down. You should now take the calf back to the farmyard and put it into a covered pen or stall with fresh, clean bedding. Make sure the rails are covered or narrow enough so the calf cannot get its head through. The first thing that we do is to ear tag the calf, give it a shot of 1ml of vitamin A & D and 1 ml of vitamin E and Selenium. To prevent it from getting navel ill, we swab the navel with a liberal dose of iodine.

The next step of the process is to get a warm meal of colostrum into the calf. The sooner after birth the calf receives this the better are its chances of survival. We always try feeding with a bottle first. For newborn and very young calves we find that a 1 litre pop bottle with a soft nipple is easier for the calf. When the calf gets older you can switch to the bigger and firmer nipple of beef calf bottle. If your calf won't take that first drink from a bottle then you will have to feed it from a stomach tube. This can be a tricky process if you have never done it before. Get a cattlemen neighbor to help you if possible. Most of them have lots of experience at this. It may take two people to hold the calf as even young bison calves are exceptionally strong. I like to coat the tip of the tube with Vaseline to make it slip in easier. The tube must go down the left side of the throat into the stomach. Insert the tube fully before you begin feeding.

There are two types of feeders commonly available. The best is a Springer Magrath Fluidfeeder which has a bladder shaped bottle and slightly flexible tube. The beauty of this unit is that the tube flexes slightly as it goes innd is easier to insert. The other good feature is that the bottle is at the end of the tube. If you get the tube in all the way the bottle will be at the calves mouth. If the calf begins to struggle you can let go of the bottle and the flow stops immediately. There is another style of feeder that is commonly available. It consists of a large bag with a rigid stomach tube at the end of a long hose. We have found these difficult to insert because of the rigid tube. The second problem with these is that if the calf begins to struggle the tube may come out partially before you can stop the flow. The fluid may enter the lungs and the calf will drown. This happened to us with a weak calf. We found a three day old calf in the pasture that was extremely weak and seemed to be dehydrated. We grabbed it and after trying the bottle with no success we tried to administer an electrolyte solution with the tube feeder. Partially into the feeding the calf got a burst of energy and in the struggle the feeder pulled out. It is a sickening sound to hear that gurgle come from the calves lungs. You know that in trying to help the calf you have drowned it. My recommendation is that if you do not have a tube feeder, buy a Magrath feeder. If you have one of the bag type feeders, throw it out and buy a Magrath feeder and learn how to use it.

Colostrum is the first milk produced by the cow. It is highly nutritious and contains the antibodies that will build the immunity in the calf until it develops it's own immune system. The calf stomach will only accept the antibodies during the first few hours of life. It is vital to get one or two litres of colostrum into the calf during the first 12 hours. After 24 hours it is just about worthless as far as antibodies goes. I would still feed it as you have to keep trying. The best colostrum for a calf is that of his mother or another cow in your herd. Since this is near impossible to obtain you should stock up on an alternative. Most dairies will sell excess colostrum frozen in one litre bags for a few dollars. Brown's Feeds also makes a dried form that can be reconstituted in warm water. Thaw the frozen colostrum in warm water, do not use the microwave as this might destroy some of the antibodies.

After feeding colostrum for the first day or two you can switch over to milk replacer. Traditionally lamb's milk replacer was used as it was closer to bison milk in its levels of fat and protein than beef milk replacer. When the triplets were born we contacted Brown's and they began packaging Bison Milk Replacer for general merchandising. Brown's has been making the bison milk replacer for five years and it has been shipped to Wood Buffalo National Park. This is being used in the Wood Bison Recovery Program, where bison calves are kidnapped at birth and bottle raised in the hopes of one day building a disease free herd for the park. I think that the Brown's Bison Milk Replacer will be a great benefit for the growing bison industry.

We began feeding four times a day giving each calf about 1/2 to 1/3 litre at each feeding. After a few weeks we slowly increased the feeding volume and dropped back to three feedings a day. At about a month of age we were feeding two litres twice a day. We continued this level of feeding until the heifers were four months of age and then slowly working up to six litres until they were about six months old. Browns had suggested we feed 10% of body weight, but we felt that this was too much feed. I think that over feeding is more likely to cause problems than under feeding slightly. The result was that the triplet calf that was on our cow Nakimu weighed 460 lbs at weaning and her two sisters averaged about 370 lbs. We bottle fed the girls for the entire time. This is more natural and it avoids the pot bellied look that is often the result of pail feeding calves.

Getting the calves onto dry feed was a bit of a challenge. Within a few days they were nibbling on a few blades of grass. By June they were eating quite a lot of grass. They had a large play area with lots grass to grow up in. I always had some grain available for them and would put some into their mouths after a feeding, but they never really took to it. I had tried Brown's milk frosted flakes, oats and Co-op calf pellets. They would occasionally nibble on these, but never really ate much. In September we bought a newly weaned Appaloosa Filly. We put her in with the heifers. The filly was getting some oats which we coated in molasses. The girls watched her eat this and then began stealing some of these from her. I then began to put molasses on their oats and they took to them. We then began to decrease the amount of milk replacer down to one feeding a day. With this they were hungry enough to go onto the grain ration. We then slowly decreased the amount of milk replacer until they got only a taste. Finally we had them weaned. In the future I would try to get the calves onto dry feed sooner as it is less labor intensive and less expensive. It is probably not cost effective to raise a bull calf on milk replacer until it is six months old. These girls being the first recorded bison triplet heifers were something special and we wanted to do things right for them.

Bison are a herd animal and it is important that they have social interaction with other bison. If I ever have another orphan I will either look for another orphan calf to act as a playmate for it or give my calf up to someone who does. Another option that I considered was getting a diary bull calf to raise with the the heifer when I only had one. It is also important that they get some exercise so running around with them keeps their spirits up. I would be careful how much I do this as it is easy to get the bison too tame. We find that they are difficult to move when they get older as they are not afraid of you.

We have a bottle raised cow that we bought as a weaned calf. She is a pet that I don't trust any further than I could throw her. She is always being picked on by the other cows and recently she put me over the fence. I certainly would not want more than a few bottle raised bison in my herd, let alone a whole herd of them. They are potentially more dangerous than a wild bison. They are just as strong and not afraid of you.

We debated on how we would get the girls back into the herd. One rancher raised his orphan in with his yearling heifers, another put his back in with his herd of first calf heifers. They didn't have problems. Another rancher put the calf that was bottle raised by their children back into the herd in the fall only to have it killed by the herd. Hearing this we decided to keep ours separate until we weaned the other calves. We did let them have nose to nose contact through a page wire fence over the summer and fall.

It was interesting because we first captured Moon Shine at about three hours of age. She bonded with us and became more human than bison. Moon Beam was not abandoned until she was about 36 hours old. She had already become one of the herd. She would never let us just touch her unless she was being fed. Moon Beam would be over at the fence grunting at the other bison while Moon Shine could care less when they came around. When we finally did put them back in with the other calves we first let them in a pen with about four calves. They promptly took them on and beat them up. We let them in with ten more and they beat up the biggest bull calf. Once they were in with the whole group of 60 calves they took everyone on they could. Within a few days they settled down to being the bottom of the pecking order and now stay somewhat off to the side of the herd. Moon Shine still comes up to me with her sister in tow. The third triplet doesn't recognize her sisters.

Anytime you have calves you might have some illness. We are fortunate as bison ranchers that we have an animal that has a strong immune system and rarely do we have to treat sick bison. Calving on open clean pastures in late April and May also contributes to healthier calves. Abandoned calves are at a disadvantage because of their situation and the lack of bison colostrum. It seems to be more likely that they are susceptible to more illnesses than their siblings in the pasture. The following are some of the most common illnesses that you might run into:

Scours and Coccidiosis can be a problem for calves. Keeping them in a clean dry area will help to reduce the chances of this. As a preventative we mixed one teaspoon of diatomaceous earth in with the milk replacer each day. A charcoal Coccidiosis bolus is an effective treatment. An easy way to administer this is to grind it up and mix it in with the milk replacer. Scours can also be treated by adding 4 oz of frozen colostrum or 2 tbsp. of dried colostrum into milk replacer. This will act as a probiotic to protect the stomach from the bacteria. It won't give any antibodies but will coat the stomach. A calf with severe diarrhea may become very dehydrated. It should be fed one litre of electrolyte solution and a few hours later given another litre of the solution along with any treatment it might require.

Navel Ill can also be a serious threat to a newborn calf. This is commonly caused when bacteria enter the body through the navel before it heals up. It is easily preventable by swabbing the navel with a generous dose of Iodine solution and keeping the calf in a clean and dry environment. It may also be caused by bacteria entering the body through the digestive tract. The symptoms of navel ill include, convulsions, arthritis, pneumonia, peritonitis and diarrhea. It is most common in calves that have received little or no colostrum. As death will often come within 12 hours it must be treated with high doses of antibiotics. Consult you vet as soon as you suspect such an illness. Navel ill is highly fatal.

Pneumonia is another serious threat to young calves especially if they received inadequate colostrum. Moon Beam had two serious bouts of it in her first month of life. At about four days of age she went off her food and refused her bottle. When this happens take note as it is often the first sign of illness. It may also be that you are feeding her too much and if she takes her bottle a few hours latter then you should back off on her feeding a bit. We noticed first that she did not want her bottle. She was breathing very quickly so we took her temperature 104.8 F. Her sisters temperature for comparison was 102.5 F. We contacted our vet and he recommended 3 cc's of Synergistin for five days. Within hours her temperature went down and she began to eat again, often finishing her bottle ahead of her sister. At about 16 days of age Moon Beam was again off her food, she was lethargic and didn't have any spunk. The vet recommended that we treat her with 3 cc's of Nuflor for five days. She was up and down, sometimes she would eat, sometimes she wouldn't. After several days of not eating much we decided that we would offer her the bottle every six hours, if she refused it more than once we would tube feed her. We tube fed her for several days every 12 hours always offering her the bottle every six first. After more than a week of this she took her bottle and sucked it dry and never missed a feeding afterwards. Persistence had paid off. A word of caution is that you should consult your veterinarian about any antibiotic program before you start treatment for any serious illness.

In the future I might consider drafting the calf onto a Jersey cow. I am told that the rich milk of a Jersey is similar to a bison and this calf will do well on it. We are raising a few Highland cattle as a hobby and I would run the pair with them. This I feel would be the next best solution. The calf would receive the next best feed and care to what it would receive from it's own mother or another bison cow. What I have been told though is that these calves are afraid of other bison because they think they are cattle. Some producers have also raised their calves on goats. These nannies seem to adopt them well, but it becomes a challenge when the calf gets bigger than the goat. It is also important to have the goat tested for various diseases.

The most important health issue is MCF. This is a disease that is carried by sheep and goats and is fatal to bison. This is something I definitely do not want in my herd and for this reason I would not consider a goat to nurse the calf. I have heard of drafting a calf onto another bison who has lost her calf. This can be done by skinning out the dead calf, paying careful attention to keep the navel on the hide. Tie this hide onto the abandoned calf and let the cow try to sniff it. If you can get the cow into the corral you might have better luck. After she has accepted the calf you must separate her and cut the old hide off the calf. This is probably easier in the corral, but might still be possible in the pasture. This would be the best solution for the cow and the calf.

Several weeks before calving you should assemble some of the supplies that you might need. These would be standard items in a cattlemen's calving kit and should be for every bison producer's kit. Frozen dairy colostrum or dried colostrum, electrolyte solution powder, Iodine Solution, Vitamin A & D, Selenium & Vitamin E, a Magrath Tube Feeder, milk bottle and nipple, Brown's Bison Milk Replacer and a good antibiotic such as Synergistin or Nuflor (consult your veterinarian about these). Hopefully you will never need these, but if you do, it will likely be late in the evening or early Sunday morning when all of the stores are closed. I would like wish everyone a successful calving season. I hope the information here might be helpful to you should you ever be unfortunate enough to have an abandoned calf. There are skills that every herdsman should have and we as responsible bison producers need these just like our cattlemen neighbors.

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