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Fed is best, in calves and in human babies

Jenny Schlecht describes how two calves on her farm needed milk replacer to stay alive.

Two girls in winter clothing feed a white calf from a bottle.
Millie the Charolais-cross calf drinks one of her first bottles in April 2022, fed by, from left, Kennedy and Reanna Schlecht.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
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It was sometime in mid-April — in the midst of the first round of blizzards and unusually cold temperatures that hit the region — that my husband called me and asked if I could go to the barn and take care of a calf.

We had noticed her at the onset of the storm, looking a little gaunt and shaky. By the time I got the call, the little Charolais-cross heifer calf was only days old and had been crying. She certainly did not look like she was getting enough milk. And, with all the extra work the storms had meant for ranchers, my husband didn't have time to identify the problem. The calf just needed to eat.

My daughters and I filled half a bottle of milk, made from milk replacer that we try to keep on hand when we're calving out cows . We started with a half because we didn't know if she'd know how to drink or if she might have other problems that hadn't been related to her mother. But she slurped down the milk so quickly that I made her another half. The girls named her Millie.

Within a few days, Millie's hip bones and ribs were no longer sticking out, and she was content and quiet after eating. The two bottles a day we gave her transformed her from a sickly little calf to a hardy heifer we're already contemplating breeding next summer.

Around the time of the second round of April blizzards, a cow delivered a huge red calf. He was the size some calves don't get to until they're a few months old. Some combination of a hard delivery, cold and wet conditions, and a mother with a large udder meant that the calf I started calling "Big Red" would barely suck and couldn't take in a full meal — especially a meal big enough to sustain his lanky body.

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We struggled with him for more than a week. We'd try to get him to drink off his mother or a bottle, with one person holding his massive frame while another plied open his mouth and tried to get him to suck. Often we'd resort to "drenching" or "tubing" him, a process that involves dumping the contents of the bottle down a calf's throat to keep him nourished. By the time he started to suck well enough that we thought maybe he'd make it on his mama, the poor cow's milk supply had dried up.

Big Red joined Millie in the barn, and he continued to struggle to take in a full bottle for a few weeks. Finally, the day came when he was rivaling Millie for who could drink the fastest and joining her in eating some special baby calf grain.

What's the purpose of these stories? These two calves were saved by milk replacer, the bovine equivalent of baby formula. There are plenty of human babies for whom the same is true. Sometimes, a man-made milk is the difference between a healthy, thriving infant (of any species) and one who struggles.

We're in the midst of a shortage of human baby formula, and you may have heard people squawking about how mothers should just breastfeed. As a mother who nursed two babies but also at times used formula, I'd like to take this opportunity to kindly ask you to stop talking if you have expressed those sorts of opinions.

Empathy is an important trait; even if you haven't been through something, you can use your imagination and think about what you would do in a given situation. Just as things don't always go as nature intends in the animal world, they also don't go perfectly in the human world for any number of reasons — none of which are anyone else's business. If you can understand why calves sometimes need milk replacer, you also should be able to understand why babies sometimes need formula.

Fed is best, whether the baby has two legs or four.

Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.

Opinion by Jenny Schlecht
Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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