The daily Nebraskan. ([Lincoln, Neb.) 1901-current, April 13, 1998, Page 8, Image 8

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Students aid heifers in labor
By Erin Gibson
Senior Editor
At 8:45 on the last Saturday night
of spring break. Jason Swanson pulled
long, bloodied gloves off his striped
shirt sleeves.
“These gloves aren't worth a.
aren't worth a damn," he said beneath
his worn khaki Pro Rodeo cap.
It wasn't clean, this business of
sav ing lives.
The thin UNL sophomore in thick
boots never flinched but stopped to
stare at the steaming new life covered
in white strings of afterbirth - the life
he just pulled from its mother with
With a gentle hand, he petted its
head, pulling a few strings of placenta
from the blood-caked, curled fur.
“Hello, Junior.”
Junior was one of about 300
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
calves at the Cow-Calf Management
Research facility helped into the
world bv students each nipht dnrinp
the busy spring birthing season
between late February and early April.
The seven students’ sleepless
devotion at the facility about 30 miles
from Lincoln saved dozens of calves
like Junior from tragic births and
helped them through their critical first
In turn, the students received an
experience no classroom can mimic -
defying death to bring a living, breath
ing mammal into the world to experi
ence a robust life on the Nebraska
Reaching in
Swanson spent every night of
spring break from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
birthing cattle at the facility.
It wasn’t unusual for a heifer to
have trouble giving birth or for
Swanson and the others to use a
mechanical calf-puller to yank a babe
from warm womb to cold world,
Swanson said.
On this Saturday, the calf’s moth
er. a red-colored heiter, didn t moan
when the contractions came swift and
But when they stopped. Swanson
had to take action.
He moved her from an outside pas
ture to an inside, concrete pen rimmed
with red fence.
He caught her head in a tall brace
to keep her still, but she flailed her
hind legs and sucked deep but irregu
lar breaths of cold night air.
“Swush ... swUSH .. swush.”
The calf’s two white hooves were
all that protruded, and the heifer's
crazed wide eyes screamed in fear.
“She's a first-year mother.”
Swanson said.
He dipped his glove-covered arms
in a solution of strong-smelling soap
and reached into the heifer.
He pulled, yanking along with
what could have been a contraction. It
The mother’s rump writhed from
side to side.
The slime of birth flung far and
some caught on the brim of Swanson’s
baseball cap. He used the heifer’s tail
to wipe his hat clean.
Q lit tKo O <1 1 f /A i /A +-\ ' + Ui I rl o n a
Swanson fetched a long metal pole
with a brace and a lever that helps pull
the calf out. He strapped the brace to
the heifer’s rump and tied a chain
around the calf’s protruding legs.
If you attach the chain wrong,
you’ll break the calf’s legs, Swanson
He continued to struggle, and the
crude device worked after a few min
utes. The mother flopped to her right
hard and went down onto the pave
Immediately, a few tough contrac
tions spewed the young calf out onto
the cement.
The calf’s eyes were peeled back,
wide open but unaware. Steam rose
from the animal.
Swanson moved him away from
his mother then removed the ungrace
ful brace from her, breaking a placen
tal balloon of yellow amniotic fluidt.
When he released her, she nearly
trampled her babe. She smiled him.
She didn't want him. She would never
claim him that night.
Within moments, the calf began
shivering in his cold, new' world.
Without Sw anson, the calf would
have shivered and starved through the
night into weakness and death.
But Swanson carried the calf into a
pen filled with warm straw and his
mother. Other calves and their moth
ers laid inside this closed barn with
white walls and a mud floor.
”1 hope she claims him," Swanson
said. "He's a pretty nice little calf.
"Too bad your mother doesn't like
A dying breed
The others there had been born in
the pasture during a snow storm.
They got too cold, and the sickness
that trailed the storm kept them from
growing much, he said.
In warmer climates, a birthing
hand like Swanson would check for
calving problems among the herd but
not worry about calves dying in the
damp cold.
lexas cows might be happier this
time of year, Swanson said with a soft
But in Nebraska, he said, a snow
storm will kill calves. Their wet births
make them more susceptible to the
cold especially cold in the negative
teens, like one week this year in
“A wet ear doesn’t fare very well in
a 35 mile-an-hour wind” said James
Gosey, an animal science professor
who oversees Swanson and the other
students. “It gets frozen off.”
And when the weather warms and
the ground thaws, the calves wallow in
mire thicker than cold molasses. That
mud kills calves, too, Swanson said
because it’s mixed with cow manure
and laced with the bacteria that cause
scours - a messy, green diarrhea-type
illness for cattle.
After an hour, Swanson took the
newborn inside a small office in the
bam and cleaned and warmed him in a
plywood box scooted up to a wall
mounted room heater.
He rubbed him with a big, white
cloth. He heard his first “moo,” and
left the newborn to sleep by the heater.
Later, the mother escaped from her
pen. Swanson and two Daily
Nebraskan staffers, who traded cam
eras and notebooks for flashlights,
tramped through chilled, muddy
woods following hoof prints.
“I just don’t know what to think
about her,” Swanson said just after the
hunt began. ‘I thought she would have
stayed around here. She’ll come back.
She better.”
More than an hour later, his tune
changed as he bounced in a Ford truck
aged beyond its years.
“She wasn’t a good mother any
way,” he said, his eyes troubled and
head nodded. “What the hell. She’s
only worth hamburger price.
“I just don’t know how to tell the
He mocked himself: “Well, Mr.
Gosey, she wouldn’t take her calf, so I
turned her loose.”
Calming the herd
Not every night was so traumatic.
For other students, an entire night
could pass without a single birth, let
alone a troublesome one.
On those nights, the bulk of the
students’ time was spent roaming,
checking university cattle in several
different fields spread miles apart.
One calm but rainy night, senior
Chris Ibsen drove the flatbed pickup,
which bounced hard around dark pas