My Farming Week: There’s Something About Mary

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, is the reason this Hereford-Friesian calf is called Mary. Yet, by the end of her third day of life I had to admit there was definitely something about Mary. She was a tad infuriating for the first couple of days of her life although, being so young, it’s not like there was any point getting cross with her.

We had Hereford calves last spring for the first time in decades and they all took to food like a duck to water, they drank quickly, they were greedy, they grew before our eyes.

Mary and another calf were born around 3 am one night. We tend to bottle feed the calves with the colostrum within a couple of hours of birth but on that night, let’s just say, sleep was in short supply and both calves suckled their mothers. It can happen that a calf that suckles initially proves to be difficult to bottle feed but the Friesian fed without any problems. Mary, though, was another story. The bottle just lolled around in her mouth, and we had to tube feed her with her second feed.

No luck with the next feed either, she swallowed a bit but if she got half a litre that was it (a normal feed would be 2.5 or 3 litres). Sometimes a calf gets such a big feed initally that it just wants to sleep for hours and hours and won’t feed for almost 24 hours and of course, we didn’t know how much she had drank. Therefore, we decided she’d be hungry by morning and hunger was the best sauce. The next morning, she was bawling but she remained lying down at the far end of the pen. Normally a hungry calf would be up and searching for the source of the milk.

Yes, another 3 litres given by tube and we don’t like giving it by tube too often but her tongue was just lolling around in her mouth, it just wasn’t curving to suck yet she had suckled her mother so she knew how to do it. I tried two different bottles, I tried adjusting the amount of air going into the bottle to adjust the speed of the flow, I warmed up the milk again – nothing worked. She just didn’t seem to cop on that it was milk that was going to fill her and that was exactly what we were offering her.

So it went on until the evening of day 3. I had tried honey on the teat that morning but to no avail but this time, something had to work. The only other option was letting her suckle a cow but we’re not set up for that and it would be a right nuisance. I asked on Twitter and suggestions included sprinkling sugar on her tongue, sprinkling salt on her tongue, putting honey or marmalade on the teat, giving her a square of dark chocolate, administering Vitamin E and other injections.

I went out armed with a little container of sugar and a bottle of honey. She’s female so I decided to try the sweet option first. I didn’t have dark chocolate but had a bar of caramel chocolate I could always try.

I must have put three dessertspoonfuls of sugar on her tongue in three goes and it didn’t work. I put honey on the teat and she sucked it off but didn’t seem to like the taste of the milk. The rest of the calves had finished their milk this time and had decided to start headbutting me thinking that milk would gush out of me if they headbutted me hard enough. I called Brian for help and we decided to put honey into the milk as well as on the teat. I’m not sure how much we poured in but it was going to be sweet!

There's something about Mary

It worked! She guzzled it down, drinking the 2.5 litres in a couple of minutes. She probably would have drank more but I decided that was enough for now and better to leave her wanting some in the morning rather than being too full. I did wonder if she’d expect milk to be sweet from now on though. At least I still had my chocolate to have with my cup of tea when I went in!

The next morning, once she heard me coming, she was up and looking for milk. She latched onto the feeder in seconds and guzzled it down. She hasn’t looked back. There’s definitely something about Mary now – another calf that I’ll have a bit of a soft spot for!


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