Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed this week, I came across an intriguing story about a rescued frostbitten calf who had received prosthetic legs to allow him walk again.
A friend had posted the story saying, "I understand the research side of this, but you can't tell me this is practical or humane."
A little background on this story …"Hero" the calf was found abandoned and freezing to death in a Virginia field back in April 2013. The calf was sent to an animal rescue in Texas and suffering from severe frostbite on his tail and hind legs to the calf, had to have his rear hooves amputated. Kitty Martin, the woman said to have rescued the calf, sought treatment for the animal, getting veterinarians at Texas A&M University to develop prosthetic legs for the 500-pound calf.
Animals wearing prosthetics is nothing new. In 2009, another calf named Meadow went through a similar procedure at Colorado State University.
My friend's statement got me thinking: "Was this really practical or humane?"
Many times when animals are hurt or suffering, we humans feel the need to intervene, to help, and to make things what seems to us "better." However, sometimes what is best in our minds is not really what is best in the long term for the animal affected.
The story of Hero the calf is no different. His rescuers wanted to see him live, not suffer. However, when I take a step back and look at the bigger picture on this issue, I say, "NO. This was not practical or humane."
In the context of agricultural production this would have never even been considered. A calf born in this particular situation would have been euthanized, plain and simple. Saving this calf may have made the rescuers feel good about themselves, but the animal's quality of life from now on will be greatly diminished.
Taking an even bigger step back, I wonder if situations such as this could be an early indicator of a much larger animal welfare issue looming on the horizon which the cattle industry has yet to fully realize. That issue is time of calving season, and more specifically winter calving.
Yes, this calf was born in April in Virginia, a month in a state which one would think the chance for frostbite would be passed. However, in April 2013 Mother Nature had decided winter wasn't quite over, hammering Virginia with a wet snow early in the month. There were likely other calves born during this time that met the same fate and didn't survive.
Reasons given for calving during winter are as varied as the styles of cowboy hats you'll see at a cattlemen's convention. The one common theme between them all is they only apply in a system built on old paradigms and usually emanate from a "that won't work here" mindset.
I have questioned this topic on multiple occasions in the past and have found it to be quite controversial, so much so that I was criticized for calling attention to it. This showed me that winter calving has become an almost dogmatic-like paradigm in the cattle business, and that my friends, is not a good thing. By taking this practice for granted, I believe the cattle business may be setting itself up for what could be another potential animal welfare issue.
Curt Pate, a well-known stockmanship clinician in the cattle business, also thinks we should look at time of calving from an animal cruelty point of view.
On his blog Pate writes, "If we control the time of calving, and that time can cause an animal to freeze to death or suffer from frozen body parts, or to spend time when it has no way to get warm in freezing temperatures it is really not any different from going out and cutting a calf's ears off or putting it in a freezer and try to raise it."
In his post Pate spoke of a talk he heard given by the late Dick Diven. The main message is how stress affects immune system development in newborn calves, which occurs in the last trimester, plus three weeks after birth. The more stress on the calf at birth, the less chance the immune system has to develop.
"A calf is developed in around a 100-degree environment," wrote Pate. "When it is born it must adjust to its new environment while still wet."
The colder the temperatures, the more energy it takes for that calf to stay alive. In turn, the more energy is taken away from the immune system.
"It is important to remember a calf is not born with a winter coat, no matter when or what part of the world it is born in." (For more on this see Curt Pate's June 2013 blogs, www.curtpatestockmanship.com/blog/.)
I think we can all agree that anything we can do to reduce stress on our livestock and guarantee a better quality of life through increased immunity would be something worth considering doing.
I realize there is no calving date which will fit every cattle operation, given the multitude of factors involved, however, there is no better time than the present to take a proactive approach by re-examining current traditional ranching practices long taken for granted. It may be time to start a new tradition.
(Read more about alternatives to winter calving and why producers made the switch in my October 2013 web exclusive found here.)