These days when Kassie Dwyer is done with her farm chores and sits down on the couch to watch television, she has company: a days-old kid goat snuggled up next to her. The baby goat is one of two kids that Dwyer is bottle feeding four times a day for at least the next three weeks.
This is what happens when a baby farm animal is rejected by its mother — or is not able to nurse on its own, for whatever reason. It’s a reality for anyone raising livestock. For Dwyer, it’s all part of farm life.
“I’ve bottle fed before with kids and calves,” Dwyer said. “I don’t like to, but if I have to, I will.”
It’s not that Dwyer does not enjoy the time spent with baby animals. There are few things cuter, she said, than a tiny lamb, calf or kid happily suckling milk from a bottle while resting in her arms.
Still, it’s a lot of work for the farmer.
When a baby animal is not nursing from its mother, that milk needs to be collected. Bottles, rubber nipples and the pots used to warm the milk before feeding need to be washed. The actual feeding can be just hours apart all day and all night. The kids she is currently feeding get their bottles four times over a 24-hour period, so that means coming home from work once a day for the mid-day feeding.
Since the kids’ mothers are nursing their other offspring, Dwyer said she is able to collect milk from them to bottle feed. That’s an ideal situation, according to Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, director of the University of Maine Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. The mother’s milk is full of nutrients and antibodies crucial to the baby animal’s development.
Dwyer has no idea why a mother animal will show nursing preference to one baby but not another. The two she is currently bottle feeding each have siblings that their mothers are happily nursing. But she has some theories.
Maybe the mother believes there is something wrong with the baby, though in at least one case of a calf she ended up bottle feeding a few years ago, there was nothing wrong with it. That calf grew up into a healthy cow that she still has. The inattentive mother? She became hamburger, Dwyer said.
In another case Dwyer said a mother cow was taking care of her baby for three days and then, out of the blue, she wanted nothing more to do with it.
“It was really strange,” Dwyer said. “For three days she was great with the calf and then she was like, ‘Who are you? I don’t recognize you.’”
Veterinarians and animal scientists spend a lot of time researching the complexity of general maternal behavior, Lichtenwalner said. And there is still a lot to learn. She said you may never know why a new mom rejects one baby but not another. It can be especially puzzling when it involves a sibling, like at the Dwyer farm.
“It could be that one showed up first and that particular mom looked at the second born as an intruder,” Lichtenwalner said. “Unfortunately there will always be situations when a mom won’t ‘adopt’ the baby.”
If a farm animal mother is overstressed during the birth process, it could be enough to make her reject her baby, Lichtenwalner said. It’s a stressful situation for the new mother at the best of times, but if something spooks her on top of that, it can interfere with the bonding between a new mother and her baby. Things like strangers nearby, barking dogs, vehicles or anything out of the ordinary can be enough to disrupt that crucial stage.
“You don’t always know what happened,” Lichtenwalner said. “You need to balance that need to leave them alone when they are giving birth with the very important role of making sure she is not having any problems.”
As long as the new mother is not in distress, Lichtenwalner said the best thing to do is allow her to take care of her baby. The mother animal will do this by licking it, pulling at any placental membrane and nudging it toward the milk-laden teats.
“Let the mom do her thing,” Lichtenwalner said. “All of it is bonding behavior and needs to be allowed to happen.”
Dwyer said if all goes well, she has about 10 weeks of bottle feeding still in front of her. During that time she will start slowly transitioning the kid living in her basement back into the barnyard with the other goats. For now she is enjoying the couch and television time with the tiny kid.
“I was always against having goats in the house, but she is so small, I was afraid she’d not be safe out there and get crushed by the other goats,” Dwyer said. “She really is cute and actually very snuggly — unlike my cats.”