Blue has another name. We called him “Little Al” when he was first born.
Here he is getting his first bottle on September 9, 2017.
He was not a big calf, but neither was he noticeably teensy, at least not at first. However, he just didn’t grow fast.
We raise calves in groups. They do better if they are part of a herd. Here’s one of those herds. There are five calves. The two in the middle are the oldest, the two on the far left are the middles and the one on the very far right is the youngest.
Little Al became Blue when he moved into this herd. That’s because each that doesn’t have some distinctive marking wears a colored plastic chain so we can keep them identified and Blue’s chain was. . . blue.
When they move from the barn out to the calf paddock, along with some other stuff, they get an ear tag for identification and we remove the plastic chain.
The large dark calf in the center back is Red. He’s about three days older than Blue, who is standing right in front of him. Look at the difference in their size.
Blue also has a very curly coat. That’s not a problem but it’s odd. Our calves typically are very smooth-coated, like Red and the others.
Blue and Red are besties, as you can see. They were in the little pens side-by-side and have been buddies since birth.
But Blue’s slow growth sort of worried us. Finally, we put him back on the bottle. Everyone else was weaned. I would put him in a separate stall, milk Frances, and then make bottles for the bottle babies, and Blue got whatever was left.
This is a royal pain in the ass, so Jason suggested that I try to bucket-feed him the milk. Teaching a calf to bucket-feed is another royal pain-in-the-ass because they don’t get it, but I decided to try.
Blue learned to drink milk from a bucket in approximately 90 seconds, which makes him sort of a Jersey bull calf genius. I put down the bucket, put my hand in the milk, let him suck my fingers and then gently moved my hand into the bucket. I had to repeat that process about four times and suddenly he got the idea.
At the same time, while he was shut in his lone stall having his bucket of milk, I started giving him grain separate from the others.
I told him not to tell anyone. The others had no idea that Blue was getting extra dinner.
But he began to take off. He hasn’t exactly become a giant, but he sure looks more robust than he did. He’s a very docile, amiable little guy and we think he was just being bullied and intimidated by all the other calves and not getting his fair share.
That’s where we were when Frances began experiencing the Great Mastitis Difficulty. We began to think about Blue’s future. He’s not going to make it as a bull. Nobody will want him for breeding purposes. He’s too small, and scrawny and just no.
And in Jersey bull calf land, if you’re not an intact bull, you’re hamburger.
Jason suggested that we steer him and raise him for the freezer. We’ve done that before, but somehow we didn’t want to do that to him. He’s a plucky little guy and he’s Frances’ son, and well, no.
So, we made a decision about him.
Frances is looking at possible retirement. She’s doing well, really well, and she’s bred and will calve barring unforeseen troubles in August. We will, of course, raise that calf and milk her for a few months, but we’re not going to take her into another winter. Whether or not she is rebred will depend entirely on how she handles the August calving.
Regardless, she needs a buddy. Cattle do not do well alone. Frances needs a friend. And who better than Blue?
To accomplish that, we had to do a few things.
Here he is just before he had all the work done. See his big belly? That’s really good in a calf. It means he’s developing a nice rumen (the big part of the stomach that digests hay and grass).
When we move the calves from the barn to the calf paddock, they get three things. They get a tag in their ear if needed, they get vaccinated, and they get dehorned. Blue had had his vaccination with the others, but we decided to delay the dehorning because he was so scrawny.
So, it was time.
First he got banded. This is simply the process of putting a very tight rubber band around his testicles so they wither away and fall off. It castrates him. This was absolutely necessary because we don’t want him to breed his own mother, nor will we allow a grown intact bull to live here. They are too dangerous.
Dave and Jason got him down on the ground and went to work.
Here’s the tool they use. Little bitty bands, aren’t they?
You can just barely see the edge of the green rubber band. This will take a couple of weeks to a month or so to fall away.
This is a really good time of year to do this, because there are no flies and no warm weather. Calves object slightly right after banding, and sort of dance a little as they walk, but that subsides in a matter of five minutes and then they don’t seem to even know it.
Blue then had to have his dehorning done.
Dehorning is also necessary because no horned animal can live here, period. They are too dangerous to have around. Adult cattle know exactly how to use those horns. Frances sometimes wags her head at me when she’s irritated, and what she’s doing is the movement that comes instinctively to her. She’s waving her non-existent horns. She is reprimanded for that behavior when she does it to humans.
Being gored is not fun, so the horns have to go. And it’s way easier to burn the horn buds off when the calves are babies than to wait and have to saw them off later. Horns aren’t like fingernails. They have a blood source going right up through them and sawing them off is a bloody, horrible, awful procedure.
Burning isn’t fun, but it’s way better than the alternative.
Early on, I asked a vet about anesthesia for dehorning. His reply was that it’s possible but really double pain for the animal. The burn hurts (as you can imagine), but so do the shots. It’s not feasible so it isn’t generally done.
Here’s a dehorning tool. The copper-colored end gets really hot. It’s a tube, not solid, and that fits right around the horn bud (the horn bud is just a small protrusion, present at birth, which grows into the horn). A calf can be dehorned with that tool provided the horn bud will fit in that tube.
The burning isn’t a solid area. It’s a ring around the horn bud, and it disconnects the horn bud from the calf’s head and ultimately it scabs over and falls off. Generally, the adult animal looks like s/he was born with no horns at all.
There is another way to do this, using a caustic paste. We did this ourselves for a long time, dozens of calves.
To use the paste, you have to first have a calf that is only a few days old. The younger, the better. You shave the horn bud and the area around it, getting as much hair gone as possible. You then use a Q-tip and put a thin smear of Vaseline as a perimeter around the horn bud, leaving an area about the size of a quarter. Then you fill the shaved area with the paste, which looks like red peanut butter.
The stuff is caustic and burns. It does the same thing the dehorning tool does, but slower. The calf will toss its head and be obviously pretty uncomfortable for about 30 minutes. We generally had a bottle ready and used that to comfort him during that time. He has to be isolated for at least 24 hours because you don’t want the paste getting all over somebody else.
The paste dries and forms a burned area, which scabs and then the horn bud is gone.
Here’s a calf not long after being dehorned with paste. See the shaved area? the reddish area is not blood. That’s the paste, which is red-colored.
Here’s the same calf two weeks later.
Perfect job. When the scabs fell off and the hair grew back, you couldn’t tell he’d been born with horns.
There are pros and cons to both methods. The paste can be pretty disastrous if you happen to get it in a calf’s eye, for example. The Vaseline helps to ensure it doesn’t migrate, but calves screw up everything if they can possibly do so. The period of time that the calf experiences pain is prolonged, 30-45 minutes. Granted, it doesn’t look awful because it’s just this red paste, but it’s obvious that it burns.
Sometimes the paste method simply doesn’t work well and it cannot be repeated. If it doesn’t work, then you have to use the burning tool anyway, so you gained nothing.
We used the paste because it made us independent of Jason. I just don’t want to dehorn a calf with a hot iron. Dave doesn’t want to. Jason doesn’t mind, but we know it’s a pain for him to come out and do it.
Jason detests the paste. He doesn’t like it because he thinks that it’s cruel to do that to a calf who is only two or three days old. As he says, they are just babies and leave them alone to figure out the world before you burn the hell out of their heads. He doesn’t like it because of the time factor.
Here’s what it’s like to do the burning with an iron.
No shaving is necessary, because the tool burns away the hair.
This produces all that god awful smoke, and it smells like burning hair. Burning hair doesn’t hurt, though. It’s the ring on the skin that hurts.
The right side is done. I put a small red arrow point to the horn bud. It’s the dark place in the middle and it wasn’t burned. The burn area is the lighter-colored ring around it.
This takes about a minute on each side, maybe a bit longer depending on how wiggly the calf is.
When it’s over, he is immediately released. He’ll get up, shake his head a bit, usually slightly dazed, and then recover in seconds, and run off to find his brothers and tell them what assholes human beings are.
Jason has done thousands of these, so he knows exactly how long to leave the iron in place to get a good burn. It’s not kind to do a half-ass job, but you can’t leave it too long or you can kill the calf. In the entire time he’s been doing this, he’s seen one calf killed by dehorning and it wasn’t him wielding the tool.
There have been breeding programs designed to breed out the gene(s) that make horns but they have been relatively slow to catch on.
Some breeds of cattle are naturally polled (without horns), for example, black Angus. There is a strain of genetically polled Jersey cattle, and it’s possible to purchase semen for artificial insemination from a polled bull. However, it’s often a trade-off. Apparently, there is more than one gene that affects horn existence and growth, and the genes that do affect other things too.
Another issue is that when an owner is selecting semen for his herd, he’s faced with paying a higher price for semen from a polled bull, even if that polled bull is inferior genetically. Being polled or not is simply not a good criteria for selecting a sire.
When people who are breeding for the polled trait finally are able to produce a very high quality bull with great genetics and the polled trait, and when it gets popular enough that lots of dairy farms choose that semen which will bring the price of the semen down so it is competitive, then we’ll start to see naturally polled calves.
In the time that we’ve done this, we have had two naturally polled calves. One was Blackie, a black Angus calf we raised after his mother rejected him, and the other was a Jersey calf who was born to a polled cow and he inherited the trait.
Frances, of course, had horn buds removed when she was a baby, and thus will pass the horn gene(s) on to her offspring regardless of her mate. The horn trait is dominant, so all her calves will have horn buds. Therefore, disbudding our calves will remain a very unpleasant but necessary procedure.
Blue is now happily in the paddock, having forgotten all about that no-good, very bad day when all those horrible things happened, and destined to live here for the rest of his life. When he gets a little bigger, we’ll put him out in the pasture with his mother and they can be best friends forever.