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Stories from the valley

Mysterious and Miraculous

Contributed by Dan Macon

We’re wrapping up an intensive calving season at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley.  Since mid-November, we’ve had 88 first-calf heifers give birth – about 57 more will calve in the next two weeks.  These heifers are part of a vaccine trial conducted by the UC Davis Vet School – they are developing a vaccine for epizootic bovine abortion (commonly known as foothill abortion) – a tick-borne disease that causes spontaneous abortion in cattle.  While the vaccine looks promising, my day-to-day work at the moment involves caring for the heifers and their new calves.

A cow and her calf

Like most prey animals, calves are precocious.  Most newborn calves are up and nursing within 30-45 minutes of their birth.  Soon after birth, each new calf receives a bright orange ear tag with its mother’s number written on the front.  These tags allow us to make sure that cows and calves are paired up, and the color allows us to determine if a calf is tagged from a distance (no tag means a new calf).  We also weigh the calves and record data about the ease of birth, vigor of the calf, and maternal ability of the cow.  All of this takes about 3 minutes – as long as we catch the calf shortly after birth.  Being precocious, a day-old calf is much more difficult to catch than an hour-old calf (especially with my poor roping skills)!  While most cows are simply curious about what we’re doing with their calves, come aggressively protect their young.  In these cases, tagging and weighing takes considerably less time!

weighing a newborn calf

Most of us are familiar with the cliché “herding cats.”  Herding newborn calves and their mothers is even more difficult!  We try to go slowly – cows and calves that are paired up move more easily than cows that are searching for their calves (and vice versa).  This pairing up process takes time – we try to let the calves get up, find mom, and get a drink of milk before we move them.  Even with our patient approach, however, sometimes calves get confused.  Cattle have a powerful instinct that drives them to return to where they came from; calves that can’t find their mothers will walk back (sometimes run back!) to the pasture they were just in.  Similarly, cows that can’t find their calves will go through fences to return to the previous field.  Like must animal husbandry jobs, I find that I must be on “cow time” rather than human time – doing the job correctly requires patience and dedication.

Like most stockmen, I’ve studied the scientific aspects of cattle (and sheep) conception, gestation and parturition.  Despite my technical knowledge about this process, I find the arrival of new life to be awe-inspiring.  I’m amazed that a first-time mother cow (or ewe) knows what to do with her newborn.  I laugh at the playful behavior of the 2-day old calves.  Even with my scientific understanding, new life remains mysterious and miraculous.