Calving Day

Saturday our new calf was finally born, and a week late just as I had thought he would be. (Yes “he”, we had a bull calf again.) As the due date kept approaching, I just had this sneaking suspicion that my heifer (Which my oldest son will be quick to tell you is the proper name for a female animal of the bovine species who has yet to calf. Only are they called a cow when they have given birth.), the daughter of my previous cow, would follow the same time clock on gestation as her mother who was always 1 week late. And today was exactly a week after she was due, so my premonition was right on.

And, because when I got started with all this hobby farming stuff I had no idea what I was doing being an animal mid-wife, I thought I would journal the day for you in case you may be looking forward to welcoming a calf onto your hobby farm. But, if you are not in that position, and would still like to know more about the process feel free to read on and learn about a “typical” birthing process for a cow.

Well, the preparation for the calf comes way before the due date and so that is where I am going to start. Here is what I do ahead of time:

  • I make sure to fill with milk house with a good sized grocery bag of clean towels so the calf can be put on them as the mom really isn't too concerned about plopping the calf down onto dirty hay or in mud, both of which would cause an infection.
  • On top of that I keep a shallow cup with iodine in the milk house so I can dip the torn end of the calf's umbilical cord – also as to keep the calf from getting an infection.
  • Another thing that is prepped or bought: two calf milk bottles with the snap on nipples (the screw on ones never work).
  • Also, a cleaned calf hut with dry hay in it and a fence that is well maintained (that I wrote about in a previous post called Where I Have Been)
  • A good bucket for mom to drink out of, and two 5 gallons pails prepped with some energy boosters for mom who is always thirsty and tired after giving birth. These 5 gallon pails are shown here below: In the first pail (which I label #1) has 3 ¾ cups of molasses mixed with ½ cup Epsom salts. In the second pail, again labeled, just has 3 ¾ cups of molasses. You will see in the pictures I will show later that I give these to our cow right after she gives birth, the molasses helps her regain energy fast and the Epsom salts keep her stools soft for the first day so she will not strain and hurt herself.

  • In addition to all of those supplies I also keep 4 to 5 bottles of calcium gluconate on hand with 6 needles and a delivery tube for putting the solution sub-Q (that is under the cow's skin layer so she can absorb it slowly) These supplies are used to in older cows as a precautionary measure in helping them fight milk fever. The reason I didn't need these extra supplies this time though was because Jerseys do not get milk fever with their first calves, only subsequent ones. Whew! One year off from that regimen. If you have an older Jersey make sure you read up all you can about milk fever and how to detect it because it is a very scary sight to go out into the barn and see you cow flat out on the floor, unable to even lift her head. That happened to us once and even after a few rounds of sub-Q calcium. For that cow we learned she needed 5 separate treatments after each milking.

Now onto the delivery day. As you can imagine, a cow does not have the ability to verbally tell you they are in labor, but oh how I wish they did. Then, it would be as simple as waiting for the call and then heading down to the barn for the event. Instead, the night watches start as the milk bags start bulging and the cow starts to show signs of discomfort nearer her due date. Now, that is a general rule of thumb, but each cow does have their own tell-tale signs such as my previous cow who would always start coughing a week before she would give birth. Below is a picture of my heifer who is giving the most tell-tale sign and something we found her doing on frequent basis yesterday morning before she eventually calved: she sticks her tail out like she is going to go to the bathroom, but nothing comes out and then she almost drops down to the ground and stretches her head out like she is pushing. For her, this was her reaction to a contraction and I could tell they were getting closer together so it would be any time.

This is when the waiting game intensifies and my checking becomes more of an obsession. I have to admit thought, I did go in and make myself lunch just as she was starting her more intense labor, knowing I needed energy too for what was ahead. And, when I got back from my lunch break I found her on her side with a single hoof sticking out the back. 

So, I waited and prayed silently that the other hoof would present itself too in a short manner of time – this is how you want the calf to come out, front hoofs first, then head, and finally the rest of the body. And again we had a perfect delivery (that is 3 for 3 with cows for our farm) although I did help with pulling the calf when she had a hard time with getting the head out and seemed like she was going to stop pushing. (By the way, if you ever do need to assist make sure you pull the calf down towards the feet of the mama cow then she will not tear in the process and also only pull when she is pushing unless she has given up pushing because it is really hard to pull them out on your own without tying something to the hoofs and getting additional leverage.)

After all was said and done, my new cow was a bit bewildered about what had just happened. She just looked at the calf with a quizzical glance and then looked away at me. That was when I wiped the calf up a bit and left briefly to go fill the first molasses container. She actually drank the majority of the first one still lying down, and then by the time she was presented the second bucket she was up on her feet drinking which was quickly followed by her licking off the calf – instinct had kicked in.

As a rule of thumb, I usually try to hand milk the cow while the calf is stumbling around mom trying to figure out how they are supposed to get milk out of the teats. This way I can train the calf on the bottle while it is still with mom and it is then more likely to get the association that the bottle is where the milk comes from. This step is especially crucial if you have a calf in very cold weather because they need that milk to generate heat and the longer they go stumbling around not finding it on mom, the more issues you will have with a cold and tired calf. A good rule of thumb is that you want the calf to drink 1 gallon of colostrum within the first 24 hours after birth to maintain good health for the calf. And, although I got an eighth of a gallon in the calf right away from the bottle, this calf was really tired by the time all was said and done for the night and he was moved into his new home. So, to ensure he would do well through the night, I ended up using a giant feeding tube syringe to get another eighth of a gallon in him before we went to bed. Fortunately by the next morning he had regained his energy and was able to suck down an entire half gallon bottle before we headed off to church.

As for mom, she is still adjusting to the separation (calves take the move so much easier) and I am very glad that I bought the Kow Kant Kick device since she may be rather good through most of the milking, but when she starts to feel relieved from the pressure on her bags, she then starts to try lifting her foot up to kick off the milking machine. Easing a cow into a milking regimen is also something you want to make sure to do. As I said above, I only milked out a half a gallon the first night and I make sure to do that my hand so I don't milk out any more. The following morning, I hooked her up to the milking machine for the first time and only let it run a minute, and then I shut it off – mostly just to relieve her pressure. That evening I then let it run about a half milking – 3 minutes. It was then a day and a half after delivery, this morning, that I milked her until the tubes stopped running milk. Each day her supply will increase for a while, but today we got almost 5 gallons running two full milkings – yes I see cheese in my future very soon.

Well, that about sums up calving day here. I hope this post was informative whether you will need to use the information or not. The miracle of life is one of the greatest things to witness on the farm and we feel so blessed that everything went so well as we welcomed this new little calf into the world and onto our farm.


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