DALTON, Ohio – Dan Gault isn’t sure why he was so intrigued by the news from his feed man this summer that there was a three-legged calf born on a Holmes County Jersey dairy.
Was Gault interested in raising the heifer, the sales rep wanted to know.
Gault, who raises a few heifers on his small farm south of Dalton, wasn’t sure.
Was she healthy? Did she have a chance? Could a prosthesis work? If not, how long could she support her weight on just three legs?
“It just kind of gnawed on me,” Gault said of his decision.
Dairyman Phil Miller kept the calf for six weeks until Gault, still undecided, took the heifer to Ohio State’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital for a thorough examination. The first time Gault saw the animal was when he loaded her into his truck for the two-hour trip to Columbus.
“I hadn’t bought her yet, hadn’t even seen her.”
But he named her Tripod.
50-50 chance. The news from veterinarian David Anderson, who examined Tripod, was bleak, but held a glimmer of possibility.
Her left hind leg is malformed just below the stifle joint, or the joint between the hip and the hock, which corresponds to the human knee.
The bones, Anderson told Gault, are just too malformed and fragile at that point to support a prosthetic limb. And there’s no treatment or surgery available to correct the deformity. But otherwise, she’s healthy and her motor skills are normal.
Isn’t there anything I can do, Gault wondered?
Anderson said there’s a small chance that Tripod could hold her weight on her three good limbs and live a reasonably normal life.
That’s all the Wayne County farmer needed to hear.
Watching and waiting. Gault bought the calf from Miller and brought her home, housing Tripod in a 20-by-20 box stall bedded with lots of straw and kept clean for solid footing.
“We thought we’d give her a shot in life.”
First on the scene was Gault’s veterinarian Nathan Steiner, who gave her a good once-over, too.
Tripod adapted to her missing limb by making do with what she has. To get up, she lunges forward on her front legs, then places her rear right leg underneath to get better leverage and stability to push up.
She has to get up to eat and get water, Gault said, and once up, she moves and stands with little problem, sometimes staying up for at least an hour.
“I don’t lift her up,” Gault emphasized. “She’s handicapped, but we’re letting her do what works for her and we’re going to leave it that way.”
In fact, Tripod came through her late October dehorning and vaccination better than another Jersey calf about the same age that Gault is raising.
Uncertainty. Gault knows the next six months will be critical. Right now, she’s about 280 pounds at six months, but will she be able to support more weight?
Her right rear leg will be the determining factor.
His hope is simply to get her to 600 or 700 pounds and see if her heat cycles are normal. Then, a veterinarian team will try to harvest her eggs, artificially inseminate them and transfer the embryos to another host cow for gestation.
Tripod comes from a good registered cow family, Gault said. Her deformity is not genetically linked, so why not try and keep those improved genetics alive?
But why? Gault is asked all the time why he’s raising a three-legged calf with only a 50-50 chance of making it to her first birthday.
He doesn’t have a good answer.
“I don’t know why this calf came into my life,” he admits, “or why I came into her life.
“I guess I’m just up to the challenge.”
“We’re not all cruel to animals,” Gault said of his decision to give Tripod a fighting chance.
The day she can no longer get up or is in some other kind of pain, he said, is the day he’ll call the vet to put her to sleep.
Until then, Gault says, “I’m thinking positive.”
“I’ve been blessed.”
(Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 1-800-837-3419 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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