So, I shot a calf today…

May 30

… he was about a week old.

He was a very big calf, had looked very good early on, and seemed to be feeding well. But he wasn’t; the cow had very watery milk on one side of the udder, and that must have been where he’d been focusing his efforts.

The cow and calf were yarded for observation, to keep them together to give the calf the best chance of feeding, and so the mother could be milked in case the milk was needed later. The stock yard also affords more shelter, courtesy of a very old, overhanging windbreak of massive pine trees. But on Friday night it rained and rained and kept on raining, and despite the extra shelter the calf was a soggy, listless lump on Saturday morning, and was not interested in having a feed.

I lifted him onto the back of the ute, and down we went to the old chaff house where the small space and old hay a foot deep on the floor provided a warmer environment. I nearly buried him in a hay ‘blanket’, from which he hadn’t budged when I came back an hour and a half later to try feeding him again with his mother’s milk. He seemed a little brighter but still wasn’t terribly interested. You can get a calf’s sucking started with a finger along side the teat (why that sometimes works, I don’t know, but it can), by squeezing a little into the mouth so they get a taste of it, by moving the teat back and forth a little, and even by moving their jaw a little, but ultimately you can’t force milk down – it may go ‘the wrong way’ and promote pneumonia.

I fed him around a dozen times over the next 24 hours, not quite around the clock, but with a 1:00am feed it wasn’t too far off.  It started off as a tablespoon at most, and worked up to around a cupful each time. He didn’t move much while I was watching, but he had clearly been getting up because he was in a different spot each time I came to feed him. Over the next couple of days I reflected on the fact that I was intensively nursing him into what was looking like was going to be a steady but long recovery, to ultimately wind up on a dinner plate, but each time I wondered whether I should just put him down, he’d take another bigger step toward recovery.

On Monday morning I moved him out into the doorway of the barn so he could enjoy some of the increasingly rare, warm, late morning sun on his black coat.  He did seem to enjoy it and stayed on his feet for quite some time, sniffing around at the farm implements that were his new best friends. I didn’t bother fencing him in at that stage because he clearly wasn’t going to be going far. He was drinking around half a litre in the morning and afternoon feeds, but seemed to get quite listless and disinterested again in the late afternoons and evenings, while his listlessness seemed to be on the decrease while his appetite was on the increase. I’d started to get used to his rhythm, both between feeds and during feeds. At that stage he was only interested in a bit of milk at a time. He’d take a break between slurp sessions, change position, enjoy (or endure, who knows?) my rubbing his flank and scratching behind his ears, and eventually he’d put his nose forward a little more eagerly when he was ready for another go.

Yesterday (Tuesday) morning he mooed at me for the first time when I took the teat out of his mouth, and ‘chased’ me across the floor (if that’s the right expression for his unsteady movement) to get some more. With another fine break, on a day that was forecast to hit 17, I let him roam out in the paddock over the late morning and early afternoon, and his appetite seemed to be well and truly on the way back; he’d taken over 2 litres by the time I had to go and pick up the kids from school. But once again, back in the chaff house for the night, he wasn’t much interested at 6pm or 9pm.

By this morning (Wednesday) he was hungry, sucking well, and looking more lively. By lunch time he’d taken 3 litres; it seemed he’d well and truly “turned the corner”. I’d put him on our own lawn so I could keep an eye on him while I was working in the house. At about 2pm he wandered off into the corner of the yard under some blackwood trees, and an attempt to feed him soon after was unsuccessful; I figured he was just well and truly full, although his afternoon tiredness was still troubling.

At around 4:30pm I heard what I thought was one of the cattle in the mob on the hill above the house bellowing in their strange modulated threatening moo – probably chasing away some of the cattle egrets that had been gathering in the paddock, too close to the new calves. But then I realised the sound was closer, and ran onto the verandah. The calf – I’d just started calling him “Mook” (as in Mooc-ow, a perpetual name for calves since I was a kid) was in a different spot in the native trees treading nervously but not going anywhere, and bleating. I’d assumed the rope halter I’d put on him had somehow snagged in a branch and ran to free it. When I got closer I saw the halter was fine, saw the confusion and terror in the calf’s eyes, and realised he’d just started going into convulsions. Still hoping against all odds that he was just over-reacting to having pushed against some of the sharper branches of the trees, I shifted him from out amongst the trees into a clearer area.  But even as I was doing it I knew it wasn’t going to fix anything. By the time I got back from getting the rifle he was on the ground and kicking.

The look in his eyes is what haunts me most. That, and the fact that as he was lying dead, the images I saw this morning of the children who have just been massacred in Syria came back into my memory. I don’t intend to belittle what happened over there; quite the contrary. I was just reminded once again of how thin the line is… If we can push ourselves to do things we find personally abhorrent, where is the line? I’m sure some of my vegan/vegetarian friends would say I’ve already crossed it in some sense. Humanity is a strange thing. When you combine our capacity to move lines and shade and justify grey areas, with our willingness to obey authority as demonstrated by Milgram, the unthinkable, such as what just happened in Syria, becomes, disturbingly, more explainable, less alien, and more within the gamut of human behaviour. That’s not to say that it’s not terrible and sickening, it’s just noting that we all make what are, at some level, ultimately arbitrary value judgements in our daily existences, many of which involve contradictions at some level. No, it doesn’t excuse atrocities… if anything, it should make us more on guard against what societies can regard as acceptable.

RIP Mook. Sorry you never really got to frolic, kiddo.



  1. brendon /

    Hey mate, that would’ve hurt… Were you feeding him his
    Mothers milk or Denkavit? I was wondering if it was his
    Mums milk, and watery could it maybe have been
    Poor “quality” and lacking in nutritients and stuff?

  2. Marshall /

    Sorry, didn’t see this comment for ages.

    He had his mother’s milk for the first couple of days, then powdered. Only one side of the bag (i.e. two udders) was poor milk. The colustrum comes from the first feed, which is the most important for immunity.

    Generally speaking milk from a cow will be superior to any powdered milk. As I understand it (and I haven’t verified this so it may be wrong), even the “specially formulated” calf milk we use is based on cheap “seconds” of instant milk (i.e. for humans).