Calving season is almost here! We can hardly wait here at Pine Crest Ranch, we’ve been waiting for this day ever since loading up the last truck of calves in September.
There’s something about having scampering, bucking, playful calves around that puts everyone in a good mood (at least until they crawl through every single fence on the property, twice).
Whether you’re patiently awaiting the arrival of your first milk cow calf, or you’re gearing up to calve out hundreds of beef cattle, it’s always helpful to get a refresher before the inevitable organized chaos.
Some cows will show obvious signs of calving. Pacing around, licking their belly, and holding their tail out at a sharp angle are all clear signals that baby is on the way! Some cows will continue grazing the entire time and hardly seem to notice an 80lb animal hanging halfway out of their backside.
Heifers are more likely to fall into the second category, they’ve never done this before and don’t really know what’s going on. Most of the time their maternal instincts will kick in once baby is out.
If your cow is a heifer, she might need a bit more help and attention with her calving, but most cows have got the process down and will not need (or want!) any of your help. It is important to recognize that in a normal birth, the calf will present two hooves first, followed by their nose and the rest of their body.
Signs of calving distress
A cow being down for over an hour with no progress
The calf may be too large or may be breech. Call the vet if you are unsure and unable to handle this problem.
The calf having one foot stuck out and not the other
Get the cow into a head catch, and secure her body with a gate or panel. Reach in and try to feel for the other foot, many times it will be bent back under the calf’s body which is preventing any birth progress. If you need to, push the outside foot back into the cow and rotate the calf so you can get both feet out at the same time.
Two feet out but no progress for over an hour
This calf is in the correct position but is likely too large to get out naturally. If you can, get the cow in a head catch and secure her body. Use calf chains to wrap around the front two legs and ratchet the chains back as the cow pushes. Do not just pull the calf out on your own terms, this can tear up the cow and seriously injure the calf. If you are unsure how to pull a calf, ask someone you know or watch a video on the process.
Tools to assist with calving
Calf chains or straps – Many ranch and farm stores will have these available, if you need to purchase online, here is a great resource
Head Catch or stall area – A place where you can secure the mama cow without injuring her or adding additional stress. Also a place where you can get calving cows out of the weather if needed.
Blankets or old towels – Need a use for those old raggedy towels you have at the bottom of the closet? Turns out they’re perfect for wrapping up and toweling off cold calves.
Warmer – A calf warmer is an expensive but often invaluable tool if you’re calving out multiple calves at time, or are in an area with adverse weather. Getting a chilled calf’s body temperature back up as soon as possible is often the difference between life and death. Luckily, you can achieve the same results by sticking them near a warm stove or in a heated pickup, but sometimes a designated place such as a warmer is more convenient.
If you are in any sort of odd situation or something just feels off, call your vet! It is far better to call them up and have them reassure you there’s nothing to worry about, or have them come visit, than to risk your cow and calf’s lives.
She did it! What to do post-calving
After your little bundle of joy has hit the ground, give mama some time to clean them up. Heifers might have a harder time understanding what to do, so it’s important that you stick around to make sure baby gets all the care they need.
Licking, nudging, and mooing softly to their baby are all good signs. It is especially important that mama starts licking off the calf immediately if it is cold outside, a cold and wet calf will not last long without being dried. The licking also stimulates the calf and encourages them to get moving.
If your cow is not paying much attention to her baby after fifteen to twenty minutes and it is cold or wet outside, that’s when you should get involved. If she calved out in a pasture, pick up the baby and get it dried off, try to get it moving and standing. This would be an ideal time to tag the calf and give its first shots.
If it’s a nice day out, try to give mom up to an hour to figure out what the heck to do with this new furry bundle. Most calves should be up and nursing within an hour, getting their first dose of colostrum. If your calf does not get up, or if it is having a hard time nursing, using a bottle and some milk replacement (or pre-frozen and rewarmed colostrum from another cow) is your next step for a healthy calf. They must eat soon to get moving and get growing.
Make sure you’re keeping careful record of the cow/calf’s tag number if you’re calving out lots of cows. Some cows get overly protective and try to ‘claim’ calves that aren’t theirs, and it can get confusing trying to sort out who belongs to whom when every cow insists the new baby is hers.
All in all, don’t stress! Cows are naturally wonderful mothers and calves are almost always born full of energy, bucking and playing within hours of being born. The general rule of thumb seems to be if you’re prepared for the worst, everything will go just as planned.
If you’re as excited as we are for calving season, congratulations on your new calves, and best of luck to all your mama cows!
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