What Kind of Honeymoon is This Anyway?

WHAT KIND OF HONEYMOON IS THIS ANYWAY?

Darlene Aldridge, D.V.M.

Texas Longhorns are well known for their calving ease but that doesn’t mean problems never arise. In September 1997 I purchased a heifer named Double L’s Miss Elegant, “Ellie” for short. She was pregnancy checked by ultrasound and supposed to be one month pregnant. In October I palpated her and estimated her to be about five months along instead.

John and I had our wedding date set for December 6, 1997 and had been spending every waking moment working at our farm to get it ready for an outdoor wedding and party. On November 30 we were clearing a fallen tree when I noticed all the cows gathered around something on the ground that looked like a pink balloon. When we got closer we saw that it was a calf and realized Ellie had given birth prematurely. She was frantically licking the calf and then lay down and stretched her head out over it to keep the other cows off.

The baby was tiny to say the least. The only hair on it was a small amount on the head and lower legs. We knew it wouldn’t survive the cold so we called the other cows up to the pens and set out with a towel to retrieve the calf. Ellie allowed John to carry the baby to the barn. We warmed it in the heated tack room as we contemplated what to do. I felt our chances of saving the calf were very slim. She weighed only 14.9 pounds and was barely breathing. Even though I am a small animal veterinarian, we weren’t prepared for this. We had no milk formula or colostrum and the feed stores were closed.

John went to the store for a baby bottle and milk and I took the calf to the house to better warm her and try to stimulate her breathing. We alternated whole milk and electrolyte solution and were able to get about one ounce down her every hour. The alarm went off every two hours that night. We propped her on her chest and coaxed another ounce down her each time. By morning she had gained enough strength to barely lift her head.

Honeymoon at 3 Days of Age in her “Whirlpool” Corral

John had to go to work and I went to the barn determined to get some milk from Ellie for the calf. Here’s what I learned about milking a Texas Longhorn cow:

  • The first time is a real rodeo – the squeeze chute better be tight and your reflexes fast.
  • A little feed in front of the chute goes a long way.
  • Cows appreciate warm water and warm hands.
  • “First calf” heifer’s teats may be the perfect size for the calf, but they are two fingers too short to milk. Hand cramps are painful.
  • The cow will swish her tail in your face before she kicks.
  • Use a small tin cup to milk into so you don’t spill it all.
  • The cow learns fast. She appreciates relief from that full udder. By the third day she willing goes in the squeeze chute.

I was able to give some colostrum to the calf that morning albeit a little late. I started her on antibiotics as a precaution. By that evening she was strong enough to sit up on her chest. John and I were zombies. At the 2:00 am feeding, I looked at John and said “Well, I guess her name is Honeymoon, because I think she’s it.”

At 4:00 am on the third morning I thought we were going to loose her after all. She lay flat on her side and had developed very labored respiration. Her premature lungs were failing. She was too weak to nurse, so I started her on intravenous fluids and medications to help clear the fluid from her lungs. At noon she was able to take electrolytes again. She gained strength steadily and by that night if we stood her up and propped her legs apart, she could stand to nurse the bottle.

Honeymoon Gets Introduced at the Wedding

Somehow we were able to continue with the plans for the wedding, milk Ellie twice a day and feed Honeymoon every two hours in addition to work and caring for all the other cows and horses. I thought if I could keep Ellie producing, we might eventually be able to put the calf back on her. In the meantime, Honeymoon was living in our whirlpool bathtub with a heater close by.

December 6 arrived and John and I both forgot how tired we were. It was one of those perfect blue sky, sunshine, crisp air kind of a days that we had prayed for. The cake arrived, the band arrived, the preacher arrived, the guests arrived, the caterer arrived. We had a beautiful wedding and later in the day we brought Honeymoon outside in her bright red sweater that I had gotten for her (she still didn’t have any hair to speak of) and introduced her to the guests. She was the hit of the wedding! That night John and I both knew it was worth it to us to put off the real honeymoon just to have our new addition still alive and getting stronger every day. We still got up every two hours to feed her.

I milked Ellie for three weeks then gave it up. Honeymoon lacked six inches being able to reach the teats and still didn’t have enough hair to protect her from the cold nights. She learned to jump out of the whirlpool, so she moved to the utility room. On warm afternoons I put her sweater on and took her outside to play. She would gather all her energy onto one big buck and get half an inch off the ground. John and I delighted in her antics.

Honeymoon in her Red Sweater

John and our dog Jake watch over Honeymoon

The week before Christmas we moved her to the heated tack room in the barn. We had been able to reduce the feedings to five times a day and sleep from midnight to six.

On Christmas Eve we had another scare. John found her laid out flat again and so weak she couldn’t raise her head. She had developed navel ill and peritonitis along with it. I started antibiotics and electrolytes immediately. When we went to my sister’s house for the family Christmas, Honeymoon went along. We moved her back into the utility room at home. In three days she was full of energy again and downing her bottles of milk in record time.

Another longhorn breeder may wonder why all the trouble and expense for one calf under 15 pounds that couldn’t raise her head. But then again, most probably won’t. John and I couldn’t have done anything else. The odds were stacked against her all the way, but she had the strongest will to live. She is “Texas Longhorn” tough.

Saving Honeymoon taught us lot. Even though calving problems are very rare with Longhorns, they can occur. We have many pine trees on our farm and I think Ellie probably delivered prematurely because of eating pine needles from some trees we cut. We are careful to keep the cows away from down trees now. We milk colostrum from several of our best producers and keep two gallons frozen in the freezer at all times. I have bottles, electrolytes and the appropriate antibiotics on hand. I know even full term longhorn calves can be fairly small, but I have to wonder if Honeymoon might be one of the smallest “pre-mies” to survive.

Halter breaking Honeymoon at One Month of Age

Honeymoon at 9 Years of Age

Update: FCF Honeymoon has delivered fourteen healthy calves and is pregnant with the fifteenth. She has given us seven heifers and seven bulls so far. She is a TLBAA Dam of Merit. We wouldn’t take for her!