Last Monday, my mom enlisted me to help with some calf maintenance duties. While the everyday feeding of the calves can easily be done by one person, the "extra" stuff goes smoother and is easier with two people.
The first job was tagging. Each calf gets two ear tags. The first is a metal tag with a number unique to that calf. No other cow in the United States has that number. That is her official identification. We use the final three or four numbers to identify her withing our computer system.
The second tag is a large, yellow plastic one. On this tag we write the calf's name and birthdate on the front. On the back we write the last four digits of her ID number.
While the cows are officially identified by number, we prefer names for our own use. When someone talks about Phoebe, Elenor, or Delta, I know exactly who they mean. I have no idea who 1776 or 1792 are.
Tagging calves is essentially piercing their ears and giving them earrings.
"I could go into the ear piercing business," I once told my mom. "I've had lots of experience!"
Our experience of the morning was tagging Mountain Dew. Her mother is Pepsi, and she is just over a month old. She is also an escape artist. She kept escaping from her hutch, and now she is a free range calf, running with the herd. She had found her way down to the maternity pen and was in there when we went in to tag new baby Winona.
"We should catch her while she's right here," Mum said. We got her cornered, caught her, and then I sat on her while Mum went to get the tags. Mountain Dew was ready to kick free of me and be gone, but I held on tight until we got her tagged. The problem with calves raised by their mothers is that they are little wild animals.
Our next task was dehorning. Most dairy cows will naturally grow horns, but for their safety and that of the farmer, they are usually removed. The most common method of dehorning involves cauterizing the horn as soon as it starts to grow with a hot iron. In the past, it was said that a calf would not feel much pain during the process due to an undeveloped nervous system. Current animal welfare guidelines, however, recommend at least a local anesthetic. Our veterinarian mixes a sedative into the local anesthetic, so our calves are not only numb, but sleep through the whole process.
We caught our calves that needed dehorning and tied them up with halters. They may miss out on getting their horn buds cauterized, but they still feel the stick of the needle! I injected the nerve block/sedative. I worked as a veterinary technician for 10 years, so my needle handling skills are pretty good.
Once the calves were injected, we stood back and waited. Their eyes began to roll up in their heads and they shifted unsteadily from one side to the other. Finally they sank down on the straw covered floor and tucked their heads to the side, eyes closed, sound asleep.
At that time, we brought out the dehorning iron, white hot and ready to go. It only took a few minutes and the horn tissue was burnt off and dead. We left the calves to sleep off their sedative and put away our equipment.
We finished by moving a calf that was past three months old into the heifer barn. She joined the other older calves that we weaned three weeks ago.