Dealing with a late-season orphan calf |

Dealing with a late-season orphan calf

Heather Smith Thomas
for Tri-State Livestock News


Lisa Surber, PhD Ruminant Nutritionist at WestFeeds, Bozeman, Montana, says calves are consuming a significant amount of forage by the time they are 90 days of age. “Less than 90 days, the calf is still receiving the majority of nutrient intake from milk. After 90 days calves consume an increasing proportion from forage. The problem is that this increase in nutrient requirement from forage for spring-born calves in the West comes at a time when the nutrient density of pastures are rapidly declining,” says Surber.

“Early weaned or orphaned calves can be raised to a normal weaning weight in a dry lot situation with good feed. This gives the calf the greatest chance for success as opposed to leaving the orphaned calf with the herd. If left with the herd, he may survive by stealing milk but won’t have the same gains as herdmates. The calf would have more chance for success if herdmates are being creep feed,” she says.

Young calves need a ration that is highly palatable and highly nutritious -16 percent crude protein and 70 percent TDN—total digestible nutrients, she says. “There are many options including a commercial calf starter or a corn-oats-barley mix with molasses. Commercial calf starter is ideal because of fortification of vitamins and minerals and the option for medication such as Rumensin, Bovatec or Deccox to prevent coccidiosis. Because of the stress of sudden weaning, make sure the calf is vaccinated for clostridial diseases and possibly respiratory disease,” Surber say.

“To begin with, give the calf long-stem grass hay and top dress with the grain ration for 3-5 days until he is eating the ration well. Make sure calf has access to cool, clean water at all times,” she says. During heat of summer, also make sure he has shade.

Many ranchers have raised calves on bottles (a twin, or a heifer’s calf that isn’t accepted by its mother) and it’s easy with a newborn or young calf. More challenging is the 2-month-old calf that’s been out with the herd all its life and suddenly loses mom. Freak things happen – a cow getting on her back or dying from larkspur poisoning, being killed by predators or bloat. This leaves an orphan that might be wild but too young to go without milk or high-quality feed.

Dr. Ray Randall, a veterinarian near Bridger, Montana says some of those calves are good enough robbers to survive out with the herd—sneaking up to suck alongside the calf of another cow. They are comfortable out there with herdmates and seem to manage, though they might be a little smaller than the other calves when you round them up and bring them home.

“If they are only a couple months old when they lose their mom, and you can find a way to get them home from the range or in from the pasture, they can probably do all right even without milk, if you can put them on some good quality hay and concentrate like grain or calf pellets. You don’t need to put them on milk replacer. Milk replacer is expensive, and it can also be a hassle to get a calf that age sucking a bottle if he’s afraid of people,” says Randall. Instead, you might put the orphan with an older animal in a small pen for security, and give them some good quality feed. Once the calf learns to eat it by following the other animal’s example, you could then utilize a creep situation—if you didn’t want the older animal hogging all the calf feed.

“If you have some good pasture and a little herd of cows on pasture, sometimes another cow will adopt the orphan. If that happens, the motherless calf will do fine. But if the orphan is very young and you need to bring it home to try to bottle-feed it, you just have to find a way to get a rope on it without chasing it. Or, you can bring that calf home with a little group of cattle—and get your hands on that calf in the corral after you’ve brought those cattle in. The last thing you want to do is stress the calf trying to catch it—or it might get pneumonia and you’ll lose the calf.”

If the orphan doesn’t have good pasture and a cow to rob from, find a way to feed it milk or milk replacer, or a high-quality concentrate diet. The rumen isn’t developed enough yet to handle enough forage, but the calf can digest grain or a more concentrated feed like calf pellets.

“Depending on when the calf lost its mother, it may have already been vaccinated (at branding time). In that case, it will be ok, but if there is any doubt about immune status you could give that calf another vaccination with one of the 7-way clostridials, for adequate protection,” Randall says. Keep that calf in a clean environment because it will be vulnerable to diseases like coccidiosis or calf scours. Sometimes if you don’t have a really clean place for that calf, you are better off leaving him out at pasture with the herd, and just monitor him closely to make sure he stays healthy.

Andrea Daine, who has been raising cattle on her family’s ranch in Idaho for 40 years, has had several experiences feeding orphaned calves. “The first one I remember was a calf whose mother was rustled and butchered out on the range when the calf was only a couple months old. We rode for days trying to find that calf and didn’t find him because he’d gone through several fences into another range—and came home with the neighbor’s range cows that fall. He’d survived but was stunted and unthrifty and it took all winter to nurse him back to health and get him growing again,” she says. The calf needed better feed than dry bunch grass.

“Then when my oldest daughter was 6 years old, we lost two cows one spring from freak accidents. One got on her back in a ditch and we didn’t find her in time. We got her steer calf from the field pretty easily; he followed his dead mother as we dragged her body down to the gate with our feed truck. We cornered him in the barnyard and fed him a bottle. He wasn’t very wild, and hungry enough to suck it,” recalls Daine.

But just a couple weeks later another cow in their herd suddenly died, leaving a 2-month-old heifer calf. “She was wilder and more scared than the steer. We had to bring a few cows in with her to capture her, and when we cornered her to try to feed her, she was too scared to suck a bottle. We finally used a nasogastric tube. At the next feeding time she was still too scared, and had to be tubed again. I think it was the third or fourth feeding before she finally realized people meant food, and decided to suck the bottle! After that it was easy. Those two orphans lived together, and my 6-year-old daughter enjoyed feeding them bottles,” says Daine.

They had good pasture in the back yard, and grew nicely. When they got a little older they were fed grain. “The heifer gentled down and became a pet and is now a 12-year-old cow in our herd,” Daine says.