The Elk Breeders Homepage

Raising Babies

by Patsy Davis Dyar
reprinted with permission

This article is about some of the ways in which I have been successful bottle feeding calves. It is not my intention to cover all the basic skills of hand rearing. This has already been done by people far more expert than myself. It is easy to find out what and when to feed. It is the question of HOW that I want to address. How do I make this wild animal trust me enough to survive? Not just survive, but thrive. How do I eliminate the stress that will inevitably create health problems? How can I best communicate with this creature, and how do I modify my approach depending on the individual's personality. How are these elk different than my dog, horse, bird, or child and what communication methods will be best understood? These are the questions, I believe, that when answered will save that tough little elk calf that refuses to eat, or is so stressed that scours takes over.

Our very first calf crop presented me with three bottle babies. Others, who had been raising elk for some time, assured me that this was not so unusual, that approximately 10% of the calving resulted in either a lost calf or at the least, a problem. Though I had had quite a bit of experience with a variety of animals (dogs, horses, birds etc), I had not spent much time with elk. Now, here I was faced with one heifer with a broken back leg, one paralyzed in front and unable to nurse, and a bull calf with a broken front leg. All three were born within 72 hours. All were from heifers, with no interest in mothering up to their broken babies.

Fortunately, I had prepared for this possibility. Earlier, I had ordered colostrum from Brown's Feeds in Alberta Canada. (Head Start) Of course I had the "Farming Wapiti and Red Deer" by Jerry Haigh and Robert Hudson, where I was able to read up on all the basics of hand rearing. It was an excellent reference that I could not have done without. I found that the formula suggested in this book worked well, and made the most sense. Because I did not want to expose the calves to Johne's decease, I decided to stay away from goat's milk or fresh bovine colostrum. We were also able to milk one of the cows. This alone I considered a great feat! My husband Barry cut the top off of a syringe, put the plunger in the opposite end and placing the wide end on a teat drew back on it to draw out the milk. This method produced about 12 ozs. from one Cow and nothing from another. (Other more conventional methods were also unsuccessful.)

We are very fortunate to have a terrific vet who worked very hard to help us fix all the immediate problems. My first calf, Crash, had a broken hind leg. She was a rear presentation, and her leg was smashed up against the barn. We toweled her off, cast the leg, and waited approximately four hours. Mom wasn't interested. Perhaps because we intervened from the start this calf was my easiest. She had imprinted on me, not her mother with all the toweling, casting etc. This was true as well, with the other calf with the broken front leg. (We had broken this leg pulling him.) He was so stuck we finally did a c-section. In both cases the calves had spent little time with their mothers and getting them to take a bottle was no problem.

Lamb nipples on a plastic bottle worked great for the first meal! I spent most of the night with each calf, offering the colostrum every 15-min. until they had consumed 200ml. Then I waited three hours and started again with 200-250ml. (Approx. 8 0z) This I continued for the first 24 hours, gradually mixing formula with the colostrum, to ease the transition. By standing over them and holding the bottle against my waist, they are able to press their faces into my stomach. This seems to be natural for them and offers some security. It is also helpful to place the other hand under their chin, cupping it gently and covering most of the side their mouth. Often, pulling the bottle away a bit and making them "work for it" made them eat more aggressively. As I said earlier, these imprinted babies were very easy.

My third bottle calf that spring was a little more challenging! She was pulled at 4:30pm, and left with her mother, apparently healthy. It was soon obvious that this calf could not stand up to nurse. Both her front legs appeared to be paralyzed. It was already too late for a true imprinting, and she wanted nothing to do with me! Her condition left her no way to get away from me though, so after tube feeding about 250ml of her mother's colostrum, we both had a nap in the hay! It was not until 12 hours after her birth that I was able to get her to take the bottle. That was at about 4:00am and she was christened "Night Cap". I believe that my spending the night with her close to my body facilitated the bonding. It gradually desensitized her natural instinct to be afraid, and gave me the opportunity to offer the bottle frequently. Had I left her alone and returned only to feed her, I do not believe she would have made it. In spite of the fact that the mother will leave her baby unattended for hours, this can not happen until bonding is achieved.

It has been my experience that most animals do not understand human hands. They don't have hands and rarely use their front legs as tools. They never offer a front leg for another to smell, nor do they caress one another with a hoof, paw, claw or wing. In most cases, any movement toward another with a front limb is aggressive. For this reason I minimize the overt use of my hands. When I am feeding with the bottle my arm is against my body with the bottle in "udder" position. Especially with the babies, touching noses is the thing they are least intimidated by. With an adult you might want to avert your gaze to make them feel more at ease, but with a bottle baby you want to look at them, but keep your face close. This is why I like to lie down with them for the first night or so. Cats will run if you hiss at them (I have to frequently hiss the kittens away from the elk pens). If I need to discipline a calf or a foal, I will strike it, or lunge at it. A puppy on the other hand does not understand striking. That is simply not in their vocabulary. When I have raised puppies, I will pin them down on their back with my hand to show dominance the way their mother might with her paw. When, and only when they submit, will I let them up. Barry has seen a Sow bear smack her cub so hard she sent it rolling! In short, any way I can mimic the behavior of the animal is going to enhance my communication with it.

Of all the animals I have raised, elk are most like horses. Being an animal of prey, they are both flight animals, and born with fully developed senses. Within hours of birth they need to be able to see, hear, smell and most importantly, recognize and flee from danger. For this reason truly imprinting the newborn calf must happen moments after it is born. However, because we want the cow to "mother-up" to her calf we do not interfere immediately. It is only in the case of the babies that I have toweled off and handled from the start that I have not had to work to gain their trust. Most of the time, once we have determined that the calf is rejected, the fright/flight instinct has already set in.

That summer was really an education. " Cowboy", the bull calf, had a non-union on his broken leg, which required surgery, and the paralysis on "Night Cap" lasted over a week. All three are fine now and integrated with the herd. Both heifers conceived their first year and weigh in at over 550lbs.

The following spring was an altogether different set of bottle babies! Once again there were three. (About 10%). This time two out of three were really wild! One of our heifers had had a tough time with her calving, and was still recovering when a pasture mate calved beside her. (I watched this occur as we monitor all of our cows throughout the calving season with binoculars) She began cleaning the other calf before it had even dropped and laid claim to THIS baby, rejecting her own. After a few hours we isolated her with her calf hoping she would mother-up to it. Only when she was completely exhausted from pacing did she allow her own calf to nurse.

This particular cow had always been a "crazy" one. I believe she was genetically programmed to be nuts! This is one reason I think her baby was hard to raise, and a good argument for breeding genetically quieter animals. After a few days it was obvious that the calf was failing. Her mother could not deal with being isolated from her herd, so was finally put back. Once in the big pasture (not with the baby she wanted) she would not have anything to do with her calf. Three days after this calf was born I went out and caught her. This one we named "Snood".

She HATED me! This little three-day-old baby, finally cornered in the pasture, was grinding up a storm! She even tried to fight me. Not only was she genetically hyper, she had had no contact with people except seeing her mother frantically trying to escape as she was herded into isolation. (Her mother had been purchased and was not raised by us.) Once again, I believe forcing her to lie beside me for several nights desensitized her to me. Once that was accomplished she would take a bottle. This particular calf never liked it though. She would not tolerate any petting and would only eat if she were very hungry. She only took her bottle about 50% of the time, and then it was only by stimulating the rectum to make her defecate that she would stand and suck. Wearing a plastic surgical glove I poured warm water on the perineum then massaged the area gently with an upward stroke to simulate the mother's licking. I could absolutely not restrain her in any way, nor convince her to take the nipple after she let it go. If I could keep her on the nipple she would actually eat more at one time then the others, but it always had to be her idea. Her mother had played "hard to get" from the start, and this baby had never had an easy meal. She, more than any other bottle baby, only responded to "elk-like behavior." To this day, though very approachable and unafraid of people, she does not particularly like us.

Right on the heels of Snood we had "Riot". Barry saw this day old calf being beaten up by another cow. Even one of the other calves was stomping her. After this cow picked her up with her teeth and threw her, we took her away with her mother and put them in their own pasture. Her mother, a rather timid cow, never quite connected with this calf. Though she was not mean to it, she would not stand for her to nurse. The next day things had not improved so we took the baby in to bottle-feed.

This was another case of bonding to a "wild" baby. By this time I had set up a nursery in my house, as sleeping in the barn was not my idea of a fun campout! An old rug on a tile floor, with lots of hay and a camp cot. During the day everyone moved to the backyard. Riot caught on fairly quickly and was a good eater after one night. She had been so traumatized by her own kind that I believe she preferred my company to that of the other elk. For some time she continued to be afraid of the other bottle babies, coming to me whenever I was near. Some of this behavior is due, I believe, to genetics. Her mother is a very quiet cow, unlike Snood's mother.

Later that spring I was able to co-mother a very sick bull calf. This was absolutely due to the gentle nature of the cow and her allowing me to administer electrolytes and medication while she continued to nurse him. It was another opportunity for me to employ some of the communication techniques discussed in this article. Within 10 days this week old baby went from almost dead, (he was completely dehydrated) to a perfectly healthy, tractable but not tame, bull calf.

With the price of animals in the thousands, not to mention semen and AI costs, every animal is an investment worth saving. The calves mentioned in this article are sired by Reedson, Chief Dakota, and Weapon, to name a few, and represent a considerable amount of time and money. Just as important, they are precious to me as living creatures that I am responsible for breeding and therefore bringing into this world. Each time I raise one I marvel at their strength, their beauty, and their intelligence. Nature is a strict mother. If we are going to interfere with her we need to pay close attention to what she can teach us. So far she has been good to us. We have never lost a bottle baby.



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