Affton Schlochtermeier, 16, is spending her spring break feeding bucket calves.
Also called bottle calves, these aren’t like the other calves she’s raised over the years in 4-H.
Orphaned by the fires that swept through Clark and Comanche counties, these calves are stressed and hurt. One calf in Affton’s family barn has badly damaged hooves. Some have hair melting in patches. Several have singed eyelashes.
A few have swollen or burned throats, making them unable to swallow. These calves have to be tube-fed until they can drink from a bottle.
And the orphaned calves keep coming, sent by ranchers to Affton’s mother Rachelle Schlochtermeier, who after making sure they can take a bottle and aren’t too badly off, sends them to other 4-H families for care. If they’re too badly off, she keeps them in her barn or gives them to a select few families who know how to tube-feed.
4-H families have taken on at least 85 orphaned calves since the fires. They’ll raise them by hand until they’re old enough and healthy enough to return to their original owners.
The group has established a Facebook page for people who want to get involved with the effort, “Orphan Calf Relief of SW Kansas.” Relief funds have also been set up at Ashland Feed and Seed, Meade Co-op, and Country Feeds in Montezuma.
“Simply put, this is about all the ranchers have left,” Rachelle Schlochtermeier said. “There’s generations and generations of bloodlines that were lost. … Maybe it (the 4-H program) will give them some hope to start all over.”
On Saturday, Erin Kaltenbach Boggs helped her father’s family round up what was left of their cattle north of Ashland in Clark County. Boggs, a 4-H leader in Meade, has been sending orphaned calves to Schlochtermeier all week after developing the project.
As the Kaltenbach family loaded cattle into a trailer to move them to a friend’s grassland, they found one calf without a mother. Strapping it to the back of a pickup truck, they prepared to send it to Schlochtermeier.
Boggs, whose father lost many cattle in the fires, said she knows the 4-H students caring for orphaned calves will be a great deal of help to ranchers.
“I know what it takes to feed a bucket calf, and they don’t have the time or the labor,” Boggs said.
Normally in 4-H, a student might raise a bucket calf until the fair, then sell it or keep it for a second year. This is different, since the calf will go back to the original owner.
Saturday evening, Affton, her mother, two sisters and a friend set to work feeding the five calves in their barn – some of the calves in the worst condition.
Two had to be coaxed to their feet.
“I think he likes a massage,” joked Ashlynn Schlochtermeier, one of Affton’s sisters, while putting ointment on one calf’s burns.
“A mani and a pedi,” another sister added, putting ointment on a calf’s hooves.
But some of the calves were recovering quickly.
One, a black heifer, was in such poor condition when brought in that the family thought she wouldn’t survive. By Saturday evening the heifer was butting her head at the sisters, trying to steal an extra bottle. Failing that, she sucked away at their fingers, making loud slurping noises.
The oldest member of the Four Leaf Clover Club, Affton said she loves seeing different ages coming together to help.
“Just being a part of it and being able to help these ranchers, it’s been awesome to see,” Affton said. “It’s a great feeling to know you can help someone out, especially when it’s their livelihood and it’s what they’ve known all their life.”
After feeding the five calves in their own barn with electrolytes and milk, Affton and her mother rushed to make up three extra bottles to take into town for the Carpenter family.
The Carpenter family, who are with Town & Country 4-H, were caring for three more bucket calves.
Ashley Carpenter, 11, fed one of the better-behaved calves, while her mother straddled another to keep it still for feeding.
Tori Carpenter, 14, fed the third calf.
In 4-H, the sisters have worked with goats and pigs, also learning about things like insects.
“We have had to bottle feed babies before, bucket calves,” Tori said. “This time we’re not really raising ones for 4-H, but we’re helping ones that need help.”