Column: Baby animals - AW! Aren’t they cute?

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Roger VanHaren

A little over a year ago, I saw an item on Channel 4 news in which the Milwaukee County Zoo introduced three Amur tiger cubs to the public. The cubs, one male and two females, had been born a few months before. It was big news because Amur tigers are endangered. The news lady who was doing the story was ooh-ing and aah-ing about how cute they were. And she was right; they were cute.

That’s one of the neat things about animals — the babies are usually cute. Everybody loves kittens and puppies because they’re so cute. They may not like cats and dogs, however, because often the animals lose their cuteness factor when they get older.

Farm kids are no different. The kittens, puppies, chicks, ducklings, goat kids, lambs, colts, piglets and calves are all cute and fun to play with. But their cuteness wears off after a while. Cute little calves grow up to be clumsy cows. Cute little pink piglets grow up to be cumbersome sows.

When I was a kid, one of my jobs was to take care of the little calves. We’d sometimes have four or five of those little rascals at a time in a pen in the north end of the barn.

We usually let the calves nurse from their mothers for the first week or so, because it is critical that the calf receive colostrum (the milk given during the first five or six days after calving) from a mother cow if the calf is to have any chance for long-term survival. Colostrum contains antibodies to common diseases. If the calf doesn’t get the colostrum, it probably will not survive for very long.

Once we took the calves away from their mothers, it became my job to try to train them to eat and drink. We had some pails with big rubber nipples which I’d use to start them out. I’d fill the pail about half full of warm fresh milk and try to get them to suckle.

If you’ve ever watched little calves nursing, you’ve probably seen that they have an instinctive “rooting” (for lack of a better word) movement. They’ll suck for a few minutes and then they head-butt their mothers’ udders. I don’t know why, but they do it.

So when I’d get them on the nipple pail, they’d butt the pail, too. I usually ended up with a wet jacket or pants when the milk would splash out of the pail. Hard to avoid. And the calves, those cute little buggers, had to be fed several times a day. Those nipples and pails had to be carefully washed after every feeding, too, because bacteria could easily grow in them.

Once we were pretty sure the calves were healthy, we’d start them on a milk replacer made from dried milk which we’d dissolve in water. And then we’d try to get them to drink from a pail rather than sucking the nipple. I’d get the calf to suck on my fingers for a few minutes, and then while it was sucking, I’d lower my hand into the bucket of milk replacer and hold the calf’s muzzle down. Sometimes they’d catch on right away, and sometimes they’d come up coughing and blowing the liquid all over me. Some of the slow learners would take a week of the finger-sucking technique before they’d get the hang of drinking from the pail.

Have you ever had a little calf suck on your fingers? They have very rough tongues, and those little guys have teeth when they’re born! After all, they’ll start eating solid foods before they’re a couple of weeks old. I’d put some alfalfa hay and some kind of commercial calf starter ration in the manger in the pen, and they’d eventually start to eat it. But until they were eating five or six pounds a day, I’d still have to give them the milk replacer every day. That could take a month and a half or sometimes two months.

By the time the calves were totally weaned off the milk, I usually wasn’t so fond of them anymore. Somehow, they didn’t seem so cute anymore. They weren’t babies; they were growing up pretty fast. I have to admit, though, that when I see little calves staggering around on wobbly legs, or I see older ones gamboling around in a pasture, some pleasant memories of the farm come reeling back. Once a farm kid, always a farm kid, I guess.

Contact Roger VanHaren at