The Pleasure of Foster Calves

Barn chores are more difficult in winter but my mood these days is brightened by the pleasure of watching my newest foster calf, Gary Cooper. I often find myself leaning on my pitchfork, smiling.

At the dairy, all calves are removed from their mothers immediately at birth and fed on a bottle. A collar is made out of a doubled length of baling twine, and another length of twine ties each calf to a side wall of the barn. When I picked up Cooper there were at least a dozen calves tied and waiting for the next round of milk.

Like all my dairy calves, therefore, although Cooper was almost two weeks old when I brought him home, he had no experience with walking. He was tottery and tentative.


Such calves might as well be newborns. They have to learn how to steer those gangly legs in the right direction, and the new freedom and space are always a little bewildering.


IMG_2043Flossie and I watched Cooper wobble as he found his feet. Every few minutes he would give a tiny crow-hop of excitement.

But the biggest thrill for foster calves is always the introduction to warm milk straight from the udder.

That first morning, when I brought Moxie into the barn and showed her the strange calf in her stall, she was a bit wild-eyed at the prospect.


However, a snack of sweet feed distracted her and after that her patient nature asserted itself.

Again like all newborn calves and most bottle babies, Cooper was delighted to learn about the milk bar but not entirely sure of its location. If a teat slipped out of his mouth, he blundered blindly in search, sucking in a frenzy on Moxie’s brisket, her elbow, or any other convenient body part.

It is helpful at such times to be present to re-direct.


By evening chores on his first day at the farm, Cooper had a full belly, a warm fleece jacket, and was ready to start exploring the barn. Here he is, having tottered into the sheep stall.


Soon, every day sees the calf blossoming, growing in confidence and coordination. At first he is scattering poultry at a prancing walk on shaky legs…


… but a week later it’s at a gallop. Squawking, honking, mayhem — what fun!


Because I don’t put winter calves out in the cold and snow in their first eight weeks, I always let them have free run of the barn during the two-plus hours a day I’m busy mucking stalls and hauling hay and water. This is their play time.

Bull calves are drawn to potential sparring partners in the same way toddler boys are drawn to toy guns. Here is Cooper, on his second day, still barely on his feet — but pushing gingerly and hopefully at the muck bucket to see if it will fight back.


A few days later, between canters up and down the barn aisle, he stops to bash a bag of shavings.


All of my bull calves have had a particular fondness for bags of shavings. The bags crackle satisfyingly in response to a ramming. Then a calf can dance backwards and forward and hit ’em again.


Sometimes the bags can even be knocked over, and they spill their guts!


(More than once I have had full-grown bulls spy a bale of shavings in the barn aisle and suddenly remember this baby game. Bang! The bull drops to his knees on the bale, lowering his head to grind for the kill — and the bag explodes, with shavings everywhere.)

But for now, little Cooper is frisking and bucking up and down the aisles, coming to me for petting between adventures, his small corrugated ribs heaving, wanting a warm hand to rub his neck.

It is a great and familiar pleasure.


One Response to The Pleasure of Foster Calves

  1. Missy says:

    Oooh, yes, I love this post and I love calves! I finally have my own friendly calf this year – born to Midnight, but she loves me too. (I still don’t have a barn though!) I think it’s because this year I was confident enough about Midnight’s maternal stirrings after the birth to get in and spend a lot of time patting Misty on the first day. She likes a scratch, but wont always come to me … yet. I’m biding my time though as I know that as soon as she figures out how yummy dairy meal is she’ll be my new best friend.

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