Last February, a calf was born on Heather Smith Thomas’s ranch during a stretch of brutal winter weather. Heather shares an update after a long year of recovery.

Bringing the cow and rescued calf out of the barn to a separate pen

Bringing the cow and rescued calf out of the barn to a separate pen

After the rescued calf and her mama had been in the barn for a few more days, the calf seemed to be getting around okay on her frostbitten feet. Michael and Carolyn shoveled snow out of the windbreak corners of a pen below the barn and put down hay for bedding. We moved the pair down there, and they were happy to get out of the barn.

We thought our “surprise” calf would be would be the only surprise, but on the morning of Valentine’s Day, we found Michael and Carolyn’s skinniest old cow was calving. A few hours later, our second surprise calf had arrived. Michael pulled the calf down through the two fields in a sled, with the mother cow following. We put them in the barn, out of the wind and snow. It snowed hard all evening.

That Sunday it quit snowing briefly. Michael, Carolyn, and Heather helped vaccinate and delouse the bulls and yearlings and tag the yearling heifers with brisket tags with their permanent cow numbers. Then we put the skinny cow and her new calf out of the barn, down in the pen with the frostbitten calf and her mother.

The two cows and their calves in the pen below the barn

The two cows and their calves in the pen below the barn

The two cows and their calves in the pen below the barn

The pair of surprises, with their mothers

After 3 weeks I started calling the frostbitten calf Pig because she was losing the ends of her ears, and the stubby ears made her look like a pig. The skin was peeling off her red, frostbitten nose, but there was healthy skin underneath. Her feet still pained her, however, and she spent most of her time lying down instead of walking around; she’d only get up to nurse her mother and go to water. When we fed hay to the little group, she’d plop down beside the first pile of hay, eating hay while lying down. We hoped she didn’t have permanent damage that might result in deformed feet as the hoofs grew. In spite of her sore feet, she would often play-fight with the other heifer calf for a few minutes and then lie down again.

Pig at 4 weeks of age, losing more and more of her ear tips, and skin peeling off her nose.

Pig at 4 weeks of age, losing more and more of her ear tips, and skin peeling off her nose.

The mother of the other calf was old and thin, and didn’t have much milk. Her calf started nursing Pig’s mother, who didn’t mind having Pig’s young friend come to dinner. She had enough milk for the both of them.

The two cows and calves spent 6 weeks in the small pen, until it was time to split our cows from Michael and Carolyn’s herd. Michael and Carolyn trailed the cows up the road three miles with horses, but brought their trailer down to haul Pig, her friend, and their mothers, because Pig’s feet were too painful to walk that far.

Out in the big field, Pig gradually got over her sore joints, and no longer spent all her time lying down. She was losing even more off the ends of her ears, however, and her ear stubs were barely big enough to apply her ear tag.

Pig at 3 months of age, out on pasture.

Pig at 3 months of age, out on pasture.

As more babies joined the group, Pig and her friend had a lot more friends to play with. The two continued to be best friends and were always together. Pig’s mother continued to feed the extra calf; having two mothers all summer was probably the only reason she grew very well at all, since her own mama was still short on milk.

By the time all the cows had calved and Michael and Carolyn put their herd up on our mountain pasture, Pig was no longer lame. She was able to travel with the group and did fine all summer in the mountains. At weaning time she was the biggest heifer, being 2 months older than the main group.

In spite of the fact that we’d rescued her from freezing to death, and had close interaction with her for 6 weeks, Pig didn’t trust people. Perhaps she’d mistaken Andrea for a wolf during her rescue, or perhaps she associated us with the misery of thawing out her frozen ears, tail, and feet. All the time she lived in the small pen below the barn, she was very distrustful and would move away from us, whereas the other little calf was very friendly and would come up to us when we brought the hay for the group.

At weaning time, Pig was the biggest heifer and the most wild. It took a few days to gentle her down, but feed soon won her over. When she saw the other heifers coming to me for some hay, she didn’t want to be left out, and would reluctantly come, too. Then we turned them all out into a lush pasture for the fall, and didn’t start feeding them again until their pasture snowed under in mid-December.

Pig and her best friend, on snowed-under pasture in December.

Pig and her best friend, on snowed-under pasture in December.

By then Pig was gentling down and no longer so standoffish. Whenever I walked out see the heifers she would come with the group. Humming softly as I walked through them or alongside them as they ate their hay seemed to calm her and she wouldn’t back off as quickly as I got closer to her.

Now, as a big yearling, she’s the first to come to the hay. We are very pleased that she survived her close call, and that her feet seem to be okay. Her joints are still a big enlarged, but there is no soreness. She looks a bit like a dragon pig with her short ears, but she’s very happy to be alive!

The frostbitten calf turned 11 months old in January.

The frostbitten calf turned 11 months old in January.

Pig is now the biggest heifer in the group.

Pig is now the biggest heifer in the group.

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas has written extensively on animal health care, authoring thousands of articles and 24 books on the subject. Her books include Storey’s Guide… See Bio

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