Wilbur wouldn’t drink off his mum. The all-important time for colostrum [a form of breast milk] was passing him by when we noticed he wasn’t suckling. He wasn’t frolicking, or even walking much. He was listless and skinny. Apparently, a lot of calves are born with a poor suckling reflex, and Wilbur’s was at the bottom end of pretty damned poor. The outlook for calves that show this behaviour isn’t all that good. Many die before they learn to drink off their mother, and most of the information on the problem includes using a tube to get food into the calf’s stomach; how long they can go before the first feed; and what happens if they don’t drink. Die, apparently, is high on that list of happenings.
So it was a huge relief when, after a day of milking a feisty Priscilla to feed Wilbur, a day of using three different bottles and two different teats, of forcing him to swallow when he wasn’t interested, Wilbur finally drank off Mum. I’d become accustomed to straddling him to lift him up off the ground so he could be bottle-fed safely; a sack of bones that felt as heavy and cumbersome as a bag of spuds. We were already in the habit of stroking his throat, using molasses on our fingers to try and initiate what should be a natural instinct and pressing his head up near his mother’s teats so he could smell the milk as we sprayed it onto his face.
It should come as no surprise that Wilbur wouldn’t suckle. Our son did the same when he was born, though there’s a lot of expert help in a hospital for a human baby. Out here, we had help from Aiden, the local dairyman. From Elsie – the legendary owner of house cows for many decades. But what eventually worked was nature. We managed to get about a litre of the good stuff into Wilbur’s tummy in that first 36 hours, and the rest he did himself. He found his mother’s teats, somehow decided that suckling was a wonderfully satisfying thing to do, and quickly learnt the characteristic head jerking movement to help let Priscilla’s milk down. His belly looked full straight away. Within minutes, he was gambolling. A day later, his coat gleamed and his body had filled out and he was as playful as a pup.
Today, nearly a week later, Wilbur looks like a different calf. He’s bigger, very long legged (especially at the back), and is seemingly good buddies with Bobby, our six-month-old Hereford cross. Having a new calf is a total joy and there’s a sense of triumph as we see the young one being as adventurous as the pioneers and pacing the paddocks with Mum.
I think we’re through the danger period, though, by the way, the formerly completely calm Priscilla kicks when we try to milk her … danger on the farm is never that far away.