September 16, 2008
Tift Co. - A blue Chevrolet pick-up truck comes down a dirt road leaving a light orange dust trail, easily seen against the dark green corn in the background. Then the truck slows down not so much to make a right turn, but to give its diver a little more time to look for something special.
"I'm looking to see if anyone calved or if there are any tails-up, if anyone is trying to calve," says Wildean Easters-McClelland, who looks after dairy calves at the University of Georgia's Coastal Plain Experiment Station.
Dairy cows give birth this time of year and the Station has a good crop of young animals, but occasionally, the mothers don't act very motherly.
"Sometimes a cow won't let her calf nurse," says Easters-McClelland.
"The first 24 hours after birth are critically important for the calf," says Dr. John Bernard, a dairy scientist at the Experiment Station. "There're all kinds of bacteria ready to infect a new-born."
The early feedings of mother's milk, called colostrum, contain a rich source of anti-bodies, says Dr. Bernard. If a cow won't let her calf nurse, then it presents a golden opportunity for the bacteria to infect the young animal and make it so sick that could significantly alter its quality of life for the rest of its life.
Easters-McClelland provides the motherly care starting a few hours after birth when she literally picks-up the newborn, weighs it and puts it in its own, clean apartment that looks like a fiberglass hut.
"I look after 50 babies," says Easters-McClelland as she mixes dry milk powder with water for those calves born a couple of days ago. She pours the milk into four black, rubber pails, carries two on each arm, and quickly walks down the calf barn's walkway to a few mooing cows ready to eat.
"They're our future moo-juice," says Easters-McClelland.
The calves welcome the fast food, drinking almost breathlessly. While she's there, she refills water bucket, and gives each animal a visual inspection. Her keen eyes check their respiration in particular, looking for early signs of respiratory problems.
"I can tell by the way they act if they're starting to get sick before they actually start showing signs, like a mom does with her kids," says Easters-McClelland.
One calf gets her attention.
"Hey, Bud, what's the matter?" asks Easters-McClelland. "Let me look at you breathing from the front." The calf continues to face the opposite direction. "I'll come back and look at his breathing later on."
Her co-workers bring two more calves to the barn soon after she finishes feeding the first group.
"We have to get their birth weight," says Easters-McClelland as she connects wiring from a weighing platform to an electronic control panel.
"The little bull calf was 91 pounds and the little heifer was 77 pounds," says Easters-McClelland. "They're healthy."
Another calf holds an unofficial birth weight record.
"The biggest calf we have had was 126 pounds; a heifer and we named her Big Bertha," says Easters-McClelland shortly after weighing the two new calves, now making 52 hungry mouths to feed.
She names a lot of her children, especially females that get incorporated into the Station's milking heard.
"Usually the ones I give names to have outstanding personalities," says Easters-McClelland. "I give names to females because they're going to be milkers in two to three years after they are bred."
She named one Pippi.
"Her first day in the barn she was just real outgoing, real fun," says Easters-McClelland who named the calf after the character Pippi Longstocking from the popular children's books.
Some of the grown-up cows, that she looked after when they were first born, remember her niceness.
"They'll come up and rub me when I'm in the field with them," says Easters-McClelland, but she has many more hungry mouths to feed.
She sees several hutches with white and black colored animals from the door of her kitchen and hears a few moos.
"Hold on boys and girls. I know you are hungry," says Easters-McClelland.
She quickly scoops the powdered milk from a plastic container and pours it into one of her mixing containers. When it fills, she makes sure to mix all the powder using a kitchen whisk, lifts the heavy container of milk and puts into the back of an all-terrain vehicle. She puts a bucket with a plastic bottle and nipple on the back and drives the short distance to a cow nursery.
The older animals get a bucket of milk gently placed inside their hutch, and fresh water. The two newborns get their nourishment from a bottle that she holds patiently. They must drink about a-gallon-and-a-half of colostrum. Easters-McClelland hand feeds each one, even if it's raining.
Before hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike became made landfall, she thought about her four-legged children and their safety. What if a storm hit? She said she'd be with her children, re-assuring them, going from hut-to-hut to let them know she was there.
If dairy cows could vote for a Mother of the Year, no doubt they'd select Wildean Easters-McClelland hoofs down because motherhood has no limits.