Down on the farm

Happy moth­ers and healthy calves are the goal, but there's more to it than in­stinct.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Growing - RUTH REN­NER

7 im­por­tant things to know about spring calv­ing

Spring again. The ex­cite­ment of calv­ing is here once more.

It's of­ten a time of ex­cite­ment and joy­ful dis­cov­er­ies, but some­times there's death or com­pli­ca­tions along the way. With luck and good man­age­ment the losses and dif­fi­cul­ties can be min­imised, but so many things can go awry at any stage. For­tu­nately they usu­ally don't or we'd all give up.

I've been a mix of con­ser­va­tive ob­server of calv­ing and early in­ter­vener, depend­ing on my ex­pe­ri­ence at the time. I use quite a lot of "gut feel" and knowl­edge of my cat­tle, and most of the time I get it right. But some­times I don't.

Most cat­tle, most of the time, will easily man­age their own births and present you with easy-care calves. How­ever, I can't see why any­one wouldn't be watch­ing the process, if they're able to - birth is an ut­terly fas­ci­nat­ing event. Think of the sig­nals which must pass be­tween calf and mother as the time of birth ap­proaches, then sud­denly the time ar­rives and labour be­gins. If you're watch­ing you'll see that some­times there's an ap­par­ently gen­tle on­set. In oth­ers it ap­pears sud­denly and it's easy to see some­thing is def­i­nitely hap­pen­ing.

Be­cause I am so fas­ci­nated by it all, I no­tice most of my cows' labours from early on, rather than from when the most ob­vi­ous mark­ers ap­pear with mu­cous or mem­branes be­ing ex­pelled. How­ever, there are some cases in which noth­ing else is ob­vi­ous, ex­cept per­haps a dis­tracted look on the mother's face and in the set of her ears.

These are my tips for a good spring.

1 No progress means help

Most im­por­tantly, if a cow or heifer is mak­ing no progress with her labour, or has def­i­nitely started and then stops al­to­gether, get on and help, ei­ther by your own hand or by call­ing in ex­pert as­sis­tance.

If a calf is pre­sent­ing in­cor­rectly and labour has be­gun, it is un­likely to have the space or abil­ity to cor­rect it­self and both it and its mother need help. Of­ten it can be as sim­ple as a calf's foot be­ing folded back, but some­times the calf can be ma­jorly mal-pre­sented and it will re­quire se­ri­ous in­ter­ven­tion if it's to get out alive. Wait­ing will not help; you risk los­ing the calf, and there may be se­ri­ous im­pli­ca­tions for the mother's on­go­ing health.

2 Moth­ers can get very con­fused

Dur­ing the hor­monal up­roar of labour, things can go astray men­tally. An about-to-be mother can get con­fused be­fore she calves and be­come cer­tain that some­one else's calf be­longs to her. I've found it's best to in­ter­vene early if you see this hap­pen­ing.

Even as she's con­tract­ing to ex­pel her own calf, she'll be sniff­ing, lick­ing and avidly fol­low­ing another calf around. It is very likely that when her own calf is born, she will get up and con­tinue to fol­low the other calf, leav­ing her own new­born flail­ing slop­pily on the ground.

Re­set­ting her brain af­ter that is of­ten dif­fi­cult. I've seen a cow leap gates to get from yards where she's be­ing held with her own new­born calf, to re­turn to the pad­dock in which the other calf is still with its mother.

Nowa­days I act early. It's in­con­ve­nient when a cow shows signs of that be­hav­iour, but the best course of ac­tion is to sep­a­rate the con­fused labour­ing cow, and put her out into another pad­dock al­to­gether where she will hope­fully con­cen­trate more on her own labour once the at­trac­tive-smelling baby is no longer un­der her nose. Away from the other calf, she will usu­ally turn im­me­di­ately to her own when it is born and the prob­lem is averted.

Not all cows show­ing these signs will aban­don their own calves, but the risk is high and it can take a lot more ef­fort to put things right af­ter the fact. It's eas­ier to take pre­ven­ta­tive ac­tion.

3 If a new­born can’t feed it­self, you need to do it

Once a calf is born there are some sim­ple things which can have se­ri­ous im­pli­ca­tions for a calf un­less you get in and help in a timely man­ner.

Last year I watched an ap­par­ently nor­mal birth in one of my ma­ture cows (Im­a­gen, pic­tured left and be­low) but she be­haved as though she was in more pain than usual as she laboured to get the calf's head out, although it took no longer than ex­pected. I don't know what hap­pened in there, but the calf was born with bright red, blood­shot eyes. The whites were red and there was an ob­vi­ous pool­ing of blood across the cornea mean­ing some­thing had caused a lot of pres­sure in or around his head. He took sev­eral hours to stand and it be­came ob­vi­ous he wasn't go­ing to be able to get his first feed within the best time-frame for colostrum in­ges­tion*, so I had to help.

That calf de­pended on me bot­tle­feed­ing him his mother's milk for about four days be­fore he was suf­fi­ciently re­cov­ered to feed for him­self. He went on to grow into an enor­mous weaner.

Feed­ing calves by hand does not mean you'll have to feed them right through; it can be just a stop-gap to sup­port them in good health un­til they're able to do it alone. Do not re­move such a calf from its mother or you'll break the bond you want to pre­serve for when the cri­sis has passed.

4 Don’t as­sume in­stinct will kick in

Some­times calves are oddly stupid. A few years ago, one of my heifers spent the first sev­eral hours of her di­min­ish­ing new­born energy try­ing to find a teat high up on her mother's thigh, never reach­ing the right area to find the real source of sus­te­nance. I took colostrum from a co­op­er­a­tive just-calved cow and fed it to her by bot­tle to keep her go­ing. Once we'd walked her and her mother to the yards, we were grad­u­ally able to teach her where to find milk for her­self.

5 Don’t as­sume a calf is drink­ing, ever

Another calf, whose mother was a good and ex­pe­ri­enced cow, was left with her on the top of a hill where she'd calved un­ex­pect­edly early.

I did not re­alise that he had not man­aged to feed at all and he died of star­va­tion af­ter a few days. I didn't mon­i­tor him suf­fi­ciently, only check­ing that he was safe and near his mother each day, as­sum­ing that she was tak­ing care of him.

But a cow can't make her calf feed. If he won't and be­comes weak, even­tu­ally he will give up al­to­gether. I learnt never to as­sume any­thing ever again. I now worry much more about ev­ery calf un­til I have ei­ther seen it feed­ing well or seen def­i­nite ev­i­dence of: • shiny, clean teats • a de­flated quar­ter • yel­low fae­ces from the calf, which can of­ten ap­pear within a few hours of a first feed.

6 Have the right in­fra­struc­ture set up

Prac­ti­ca­bil­ity plays a part. It is in that area I have to make some changes within my sys­tem for this spring's calv­ing. Too of­ten I've left it too long to take a calv­ing heifer who needs help to the yards. If I'm on my own it's dif­fi­cult to get a cow away from where she is to a gate and into the lane. Mov­ing a just-calved cow and a wob­bly, con­fused calf can be hard work and some­times dan­ger­ous if the cow is up­set by your pres­ence. Be­fore and af­ter birth, they're of­ten de­ter­mined to stay where they've cho­sen to be.

This year I will have a plan of ac­tion for ev­ery pad­dock and a sup­ply of elec­tric tape and stan­dards to act as my herd­ing as­sis­tant when alone, and hope I need none of it.

7 Get the right skills

There is one glar­ing gap in my calf-help­ing strat­egy: I have never owned or used a stom­ach tube. It is pos­si­ble I may have man­aged to save one or two an­i­mals over the years had I had one, but as I've usu­ally been suc­cess­ful in coax­ing even the worst ‘dum­mies' to suck, I've not felt the need. Some peo­ple ad­vise us­ing them in nearly ev­ery case when calves are found and it is not known if they've fed. If you're go­ing to use a stom­ach tube, get some­one to show you how to in­sert and with­draw it safely be­fore you try as there's a knack to it, and if you get it wrong you can badly hurt the an­i­mal, or pos­si­bly cause its death.

There are times when we can and should stay well out of the way, but oth­ers at which in­ter­ven­tion can save a lot of neg­a­tive con­se­quences later. How to tell the dif­fer­ence is a mat­ter of care­ful ob­ser­va­tion, ex­pe­ri­ence and some­times good luck. n

Im­a­gen's son was born ap­par­ently

nor­mally, but his eyes were blood­shot and he took a num­ber

of hours to get to his feet.

Im­a­gen's son al­ways gave up look­ing be­fore latch­ing onto a teat and had to be fed sev­eral times by bot­tle while he re­cov­ered from his birth.

Safely on the ground, but some­times that's the easy part.

These days I make sure each calf has fed suc­cess­fully. Here, the back teat has ob­vi­ously been suck­led, even though the quar­ter ap­pears quite full. This calf has fig­ured out where the good stuff comes from.

Cows with huge teats can pose prob­lems for new­born calves. I was not con­vinced that this cow's calf had suck­led, de­spite the shiny ap­pear­ance of her teat. I had seen the calf mouthing the teat re­peat­edly, but she may have only licked it clean.

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