Twin calves confuse cows as well as the cocky

This is what I found when I got to the calving paddock:

Who's who?

Too many calves, not enough cows.

Yep, two calves having a drink but what about that one over there sitting down? Twice the size of the other two but clearly still a newborn…

I watched the cows and calves for a few minutes while shifting the fence and during that time, the big one took a fancy to me as the mother cow (yes, I know what you’re thinking!).

Are you my Mother?

Are you my Mother?

Having decided I wasn’t much chop as a mother cow, this suckie decided to try his luck with another cow. A serious tussle ensued between the two mother cows over the same calf and eventually, this girl ended up with two heifer (female) calves about the same size and the other cow claimed the big bull calf. Phew!

No rest for the mother of twins

A perfect multi-tasking mother!

I say “Phew!” because the female twin of a bull calf is likely to be an infertile “freemartin” so it was extra important that the pair was two females.

And did you say “eew” when you saw the first photo? Apologies if you were eating! If not and you have a strong stomach, consider this article on eating your own placenta.

Welcome to the Big Outdoors, suckies!

Yesterday, these seven to 10-day-old calves rediscovered the joy of the Great Outdoors. They’ve been in our little calf shed since birth, warm and safe from foxes. Most importantly of all, we’ve been making sure they’ve had enough colostrum – the special milk produced by cows in the first days after calving – to set them up for long, healthy lives.

Why we raise calves away from the herd

We don’t leave calves with the herd because, if we did, many would die and I’ve discovered that, sadly, many do die on hobby farms in the district despite the best intention of their carers.

On our farm, we take calves into a shed when they are one day old. They are kept in a pen on a bed of clean sawdust with one or two other newborns so we can make sure they suckle well and get enough colostrum (special antibody-rich milk produced by a cow immediately after calving) in the first vital 48 hours of life. This long-time farming practice has been supported by studies, which show colostrum intake affects the health and milk production of a cow right thoughout her life.

We can’t take for granted that the calf will get enough colostrum in the paddock because some calves just don’t get the idea of suckling early enough and some cows (often the youngest) are not the most attentive of parents.

Another good reason to keep the calves separate from the herd is to prevent the transmission of Bovine Johnes Disease (BJD). Calves are the most likely to be infected by this horrible and fatal wasting disease, described this way by DPI Victoria:

“Cattle are usually infected when less than 12 months of age. However, due to a long incubation period, clinical disease is often not seen until the affected animal is 4 or 5 years or older. Signs may appear after a period of stress such as calving, poor nutrition, heavy milk production or any other cause.

As the bacteria lodge and multiply in the wall of the small intestine, the cow responds by producing inflammatory cells. This combination of bacteria and cells leads to a thickening and distortion of the gut wall. Eventually the gut fails to absorb water and nutrients. In dairy cattle, the first sign is often a drop in milk production. Affected animals then develop chronic diarrhoea. Cattle gradually lose weight and become emaciated, while still maintaining a good appetite. They may also develop ‘bottle jaw’, a swelling under the jaw.”

After about a week, most calves are really good feeders, so we take them out into a small grassy sheltered paddock with a group of about 20 other calves. From there, they “graduate” to a larger paddock with up to 40 other calves. After they are eating about 1.5kg of pellets or grain each per day plus hay, they are weaned. Well fed and in the company of their peer group, this is a stress-free and exciting time for the calves.

The calves are fed a special high protein (18%) ration of grain, together with grass to keep them growing at their optimum. They are split into size groups so that none of the little ones miss out. Left in the herd, the smaller ones would not be able to compete for this essential food for growing bodies.

The herd is also a tough place for little creatures. Our cows are classed as medium-stature Friesians, yet weigh in at an average of 550kg each. I’d hate to have calves weighing just 40kg in a yard with 250 car-sized cows twice a day.