by Patricia Grotenhuis, lifelong farmer and agricultural advocate
Sometimes when an animal is born, it may need a little bit of extra care to get going, just like some babies need more care than others. For whatever reason (they may have been born early, been a multiple birth, or been slow to nurse), they end up needing extra attention, and sometimes, extra warmth.
Since we had a mixture of dairy cattle, beef cattle, sheep and goats on our farm growing up, we also had a variety of experiences with these special animals. During a barn check, we would go out, and occasionally notice a newborn animal that was weaker than the others. Since the weak ones always seem to be born during cold weather, the barn that other newborn animals found comfortable was too cold for the weak newborns.
We had a system at our house to nurse these animals back to health. During the late winter and early spring, we would create a special care area where we knew the small, young animals would be warm and watched very carefully. As soon as we had one which we were worried about, we would wrap it in blankets, towels, our coats, or anything else that was handy, and off we would go. To where? The kitchen, of course!
Our house was divided years ago, and actually has two kitchens: one for Grandma and one for us. Our kitchen had a wood stove which kept it nice and toasty warm, while Grandma’s kitchen was always warm from the oven and stove being on. We would find a cardboard box in the basement which was the right size for our newest addition to the farm, and fill it with blankets and towels. Then, we would dutifully place the box in one of the two kitchens, and the family would be notified about our house guest.
Since Grandma was semi-retired and later then retired, she would take care of the animals while we were in the barn. When we were in the house, all of us would take turns. We kept colostrum in the freezer in different sized containers, so there was always some ready to be thawed and warmed. Colostrum is the first milk produced by the mammary gland of a cow after calving. It is a rich source of nutrients, fats and antibodies. Feeding colostrum to the calf is critical in the first hours of life as it provides essential nutrients and infection-fighting antibodies to the newborn. If the animal was strong enough to drink on its own, we would feed it using a bottle. If not, we used a syringe to squirt small amounts of milk at a time into the animal’s mouth.
Besides feeding the animals milk, we would move them around in the box and rub them with blankets, towels, or our hands from time to time to make sure their circulation was okay. It was a big job whenever one of these needy animals was born, but it had to be done, and we did not complain. We would even set our alarms to go off in the middle of the night when the animals would need more milk.
At one time, I remember there being several lambs who were from multiple births and whose mothers did not have enough milk for and a tiny, premature calf in Grandma’s kitchen. This was not a common thing…most of the animals born are healthy, and their mothers can care for them from the start. Often there were no animals in the house at all.
We would always become quite attached to these animals, and they would become attached to us, too. In most cases, within a few days they were strong enough to rejoin the herd. Sometimes, the animals would not make it. Whenever this happened, the whole family would try and think of what more we could have done. We always hated those days. We had tried as hard as we could, but that specific little one just was not strong enough.
Farming is full of good days and bad. We never know what to expect when we wake up in the morning, but some of the best days are when you see the special nursing and attention given to an animal pay off, and a formerly sick animal become healthy again.