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Help! My cow has rejected its new calf

By Dr. Othieno Joseph
Feeding young cow or calf from a bottle of milk. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Pedro Omolo, my high school friend, was a stressed man last month. His cow had refused to nurse its calf. I helped him select the in-calf heifer from a farm in Eldoret a year ago and also gave him the design for the dairy unit where he has kept the animal in anticipation of milk and a calf. The heifer calved down during Christmas week and I was at home when he called.

“Daktari, I do not understand what is happening. The cow calved down this morning, it is now noon and the poor calf hasn’t had a chance to suckle,” Omolo lamented.

“Is the calf sick? I asked.

“No it doesn’t look sick. It is up and walking. Had it suckled, it would have been racing around the compound by now,” Omolo said.

“Then why is it not suckling? I mean, this is an instinctive act, once a calf comes to the world it knows where the udder is and suckles automatically!”I wondered.

But he interjected: “The problem is the cow, it kicks the fragile calf whenever it tries to go near the udder, the calf has now developed a phobia.”

Rejecting an infant, though rare in the human race, is rarer in the animal world, but can still happen. In most cases, it is caused by an injury to the udder or teats but can still occur in a dam that is healthy.

In such cases, the calf has to be raised as an orphan. You can also end up with an orphaned calf when the mother dies during calving or shortly thereafter.

Omolo was lucky because the dam was still alive and all he needed to learn is how to take care of the ‘orphaned’ calf.

Critical colostrum

Orphaned calves face the greatest challenge when it comes to accessing the precious colostrum in time. Colostrum is that first thick yellowish milk meal that a newborn must ingest.

It also contains antibodies which the calf needs as it enters a world polluted with disease-causing micro-organisms; colostrum is the shield this calves must carry in their body system to fight diseases. 

Nonetheless, this colostrum must be ingested within the first 48 hours but is maximally absorbed and utilised within the first 24 hours of life thereafter the systems gradually closes its gates to these military ‘antibodies’.

A farmer with an orphaned calf must try to get the calf to ingest this precious first feed.

There are ways to do this. In Omolo’s case, he milked the dam and I had to show them how to feed the calf.

There are two ways — one is using a bottle with a nipple, (available in agrovet shops) or using what we call finger-feeding.

Finger feeding

The bottle is pretty straight forward as the nipple mimics the teats. Omolo’s farm is in Oyugis and being a festive season, he wasn’t sure of getting the bottle in the agrovet shop. I had to teach him finger-feeding.

With finger-feeding, you put the colostrum in a bucket then hold the calf between your legs and lower the head into the bucket.

Be careful not to dip the nostril but only the mouth into the bucket and insert your two fingers slightly into the calf’s mouth.

This will stimulate the suckling reflex and in the process the calf will suckle. When that is repeated for a few days, the calf will be able to suckle (I should say drink) the colostrum and later milk on its own.

In case the dam dies, it can be a problem trying to get colostrum from other dams. Chances are very low that you will get one in the neighbourhood.

If you have several cows, it is advisable that you store colostrum in a deep freezer for a rainy day. There are commercial colostrum preparations/replacers but in my veterinary life, I have only seen them in the Netherlands and I am not sure our local agrovets stock them.

If the calf misses colostrum, her immunity will be compromised later in life.

If there is a dam that has calved down at the same time, then crafting can be done by rubbing on the muzzle of the other calf and smearing that scent on the body of the orphan. This makes the surrogate dam to accept and nurse the orphan.

Orphaned calves should be feed twice a day with four to six litres of milk. This should be done regularly. When done irregularly, it may cause diarrhoea.

(The writer was the Vet of the Year 2016 and works with the Kenya Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Council – KENTTEC, [email protected])


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