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