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Bella's calf - when things don't go to plan #2

I was expecting this week to post all about the birth of Bella's calf.  I was expecting it to be a happy post, with lots of cute photos, but unfortunately I have bad news.  If you are following me on facebook (for up-to-the minute reports on farm life) you will know that we came home from work yesterday to find Bella had already had the calf, but it was dead.  We think she was born alive, and maybe suffocated due to the amniotic sac remaining over her head after birth.  When I found the calf she was in an odd position and when I rolled her head around, a lot of fluid drained out, she was already cold by then, so there was nothing we could do.  Poor Bella had already licked the calf clean and was eating the afterbirth, so we only missed the birth by maybe an hour, which is the hardest part for us, as we may have been able to help if we had been there in time.  (more here).

Bella is upset and confused.  We left the dead calf with Bella overnight to give her some time to accept that it had died, and she has been licking it and mooing softly.  This is her third calf, and she is probably just waiting for it to stand up and drink like the rest of them.  She hasn't been over-protective and has allowed up to come close and to move the calf over to the milking bales so that we could milk her.  I think she was hoping that we would help.

After milking, we called around and found a little foster calf to try with Bella.  She doesn't have to have a calf, we could just keep milking her twice a day until we got sick of it and then dry her up, but if we can get a calf to start taking the milk we will have a share-milker to take the milk when we don't want to, which will allow us to keep milking for longer (and make more cheese!).  This little calf is a Fresian-cross, so he's the wrong colour and huge compared to the calf that died.  He's one week old and his mother died shortly after his birth.  If you know what happens to boy calves on dairy farms (if not, google "what is veal?"), he didn't have much longer to live anyway, so I'm glad we could rescue him.  He has a very strong suck and loves his bottle.  He is also very tame with us, so we couldn't ask for a better foster calf if we have to try one.  (AND he has a black face with a love heart white mark over his forehead, very very cute!).

We kept him in a separate area overnight, and this morning we gave him a quick wash, and then poured some of Bella's urine over him to try to disguise his unfamiliar smell (yes we were up early and following Bella with a bucket until she pee-ed for us).  We got Bella into the milking bales and brought the little calf in behind her and got him sucking on her back teats.  She was not really impressed, but did let him get a good drink (he took a while to figure out that there was more than one teat because he's only ever had a bottle).  Now she is out in the paddock with him and not taking much notice of him, as she is looking for her calf, but we already sneaked the dead calf away so that she could meet the new calf.

Our plan is to keep letting him feed from Bella in her bales and we hope that she will eventually start to mother him.  The worst that can happen here is that Bella refuses to let him drink from her and we end up bottle feeding him until he can live on grass, and then we will be stuck milking Bella every day, but it was worth a try and we are now learning all about fostering a calf (see more good advice here and here).  Its still really sad for us and for Bella, but as I said on Facebook, when you farm you have livestock and deadstock and you have to able to deal with both of them, we don't have time to feel sorry for ourselves, we just have to get on with Plan B.  And I liked Ohio Farmgirl's comment too: the hardest truth about farming is that not everyone makes it and not everyone can stay.  That's the truth!

And if you were wondering about the poor little Braford calf that we bought home, he is too big, too weak and not keen on milk, so we didn't think he would foster, better to get a strong young calf with a good suck, so that he will persevere even when Bella kicks him off.  The Braford is doing ok, still alive, but still weak, we just keep giving him hay, calf pellet and the occasional bottle of milk and he seems to be improving slowly.

So yesterday we lost a gorgeous little heifer calf, but we gained a sweet little bull calf, and maybe everything is going to be ok in the end......  Any tips on getting a cow to take on a new calf?

If you want to know more about house cows, my eBook is available for purchase on Scribd.  Its only $4.99, and it includes lots of information about keeping a house cow in Australia.  There's more details about the eBook on my house cow eBook blog.  If you don't want to go through all the Scribd/paypal effort, just send me an email on eight.acres.liz at and I can arrange to email it to you instead.

You might also be interested in my series on getting started with homestead dairy


  1. I think you've handled this disappointment well and there's one little calf who is now happy as a result.

  2. i'm not sure if the dead calf is still okay to work with but on old trick is to take some skin from the dead calf and wrap it around the foster calf. It works well with bella picking up the scent of her own calf and makes the transition a little easier. hardest part is finding the will to skin the dead calf. Good luck with fostering

  3. Ah nuts! Stuff like that happens, but it doesn't make it any easier when it does.

    I can't give any cues for foster calves, sorry. But I hope it works out in the end.

  4. You are probably doing most things right I think. We sometimes skin a calf and put the skin over the new calf. Otherwise , just keep putting her in the bales and letting him drink is the can sometimes take two weeks. Even with Bradford...we had a month old hereford calf that had its mother die... it would not drink for us ...went on for a fortnight with us jiggling the teat etc.. and getting some milk down and then suddenly he started sucking and became one of our healthiest friendliest calves- I will never forget how much joy we felt at it working and David and i looked at each other while the calf sucked eagerly and said, 'This is why we farm!'
    So I guess the best advice is keep perservering - and don't give up .

  5. Got to agree with the other commentors about skinning the dead calf - but that wouldn't be an easy job. Hopefully Bella will accept him - if her udders are tight and uncomfortable it may encourage her if only to relieve the discomfort. Good luck with it all.

  6. Bummer Liz.
    It is situations like this that remind you that in farming there are no grantees and you are not always in control no matter how good you plan. But the real proof is in how you deal with the situation and you sound like you have it all under control. Keep us posted on how it goes.

  7. The dairy farmer where I got my Guernsey calves puts milk in buckets and has a culture growing in it, kind of like yogurt I guess. That is what he uses to feed bottle babies, he has little trouble with them and they lover the stuff. Probably easier for them to digest.

  8. Oh Liz! How sad. Sounds like you came up with good options given what you were faced with.

  9. One of the comments said to keep trying but that it could take a couple of weeks. It could take even longer but is still easier than bottle feeding. I've got some cows that will never take a poddy, but if you put her in the bale night and morning and if you miss a feed the calf will survive. It's worth persevering with because you would soon get sick of milking twice a day they will eventually get used to each other. And think of the cheese!


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