Our last 25 calves arrived in February. We're all getting more sleep but still taking turns going through the four fields of cows and calves at midnight. It's a task that takes one to two hours, depending on whether we need to treat any calves.
It's a long time between our 5 p.m. feeding and our 9 a.m. feeding. A calf can be fine in the evening and nearly dead by morning from acute gut infection if you don't find him in the night and treat him before he goes into shock.
We've had only five cases so far this year, but the muddy month of March will bring more. We had one yesterday - a five-week-old calf that was feeling good at morning feeding and in acute pain by 11:30 a.m. when Lynn found the calf throwing herself on the ground to thrash and kick.
We immediately got the cow and calf into a doctoring pen, where it's easier to corner and catch a calf. We gave the calf 6 oz. of castor oil and a teaspoonful of neomycin sulfate solution by stomach tube.
The calf was feeling much better within 30 minutes. Castor oil stimulates the gut to relieve the blockage, pressure and excruciating pain of a shut-down gut.
When you witness the extreme distress of a calf violently writhing in pain, then see the swift easing of pain (often within 30-40 minutes) and the complete return to normalcy, it really makes a person realize the benefit of castor oil. I've mentioned this treatment before in my column, but I mention it again because many people have asked about it.
We learned about using castor oil from the veterinarian we had 30 years ago. Most veterinarians don't recommend castor oil because they've never used it.
They generally don't have the opportunity to see it work. And, they don't get to see their patients at the beginning of the problem, when the calf is suddenly hit by extreme abdominal pain or suddenly starts to bloat.
They only see the calf after it goes into shock, (castor oil won't help at that point) and the rancher brings it to the clinic to try to save it with massive amounts of intravenous fluids (IVs).
Some ranchers are adept at giving IVs themselves, but others may have trouble. It's tough to get a needle into a vein on a shocked calf because there's no blood pressure.
Several liters of IV fluid will save a calf if you can get it into him, and if he's not too deep in shock with too much damage to the kidneys, brain and other organs from the circulating toxins. The bacterial toxins damage the gut lining and leak into the bloodstream. This is what sends a calf into shock. Once the kidneys shut down, the calf will die regardless of treatment.
But diligent calf checking and treatment with castor oil at the first sign of trouble - before the calves go into shock - will save them. At least it has here on our ranch, where we usually have 12 to 40 cases each year (for the past 34 years) in our herd of 160 cows.
Over the years, we have also had many types of scours, which we've learned to treat and which are not as life threatening after a calf is three or four weeks old. Many scours are minimized by calving when the ground is frozen and clean instead of wet and muddy.
The acute gut infection that causes colic or sudden bloat is a danger to our calves even up to three months old. It can kill a big, healthy calf before he shows any evidence of scours. It is probably caused by a strain of E. coli. That's what our vet suspects, though the causative organism has not yet been isolated. It is not C. perfringens (enterotoxemia).
So we try to see our calves often enough to detect a problem early - and treat them (very effectively) with castor oil. In many ways calving season is not the biggest challenge. Sometimes keeping those calves alive can require as much diligence and effort!