Thursday, February 4, 2010

Birth of a Calf

I've tagged and weighed thousands of Angus calves through the years, but it is fairly infrequent that I get to see the actual birth of a calf. On Monday, I was making the regular rounds of checking for new calves, and looking for signs of labor in the first calf heifers, and I saw a black heifer sprawled on her side nearly hidden by the dead brown grass in the pasture; she was pushing for all she was worth.  By the time I got to her, I figured she would have the calf out, but I was lucky enough to see the front feet and a nose protruding from her and I knew the birth would be within minutes. I sat quietly and pulled out my blackberry to try to catch a few pictures to share here!

The heifer in labor is my daughter's heifer she showed last year and she was concentrating on labor so completely, that she didn't mind me watching and documenting the birth for you!  One of the first signs of labor in a cow or heifer is her desire to get away from everyone else. We provide a clean grass pasture for them to calve in, and if the weather is bad, we will roll out straw or hay to provide bedding.  If the heifer is having trouble we will bring her into a barn in a stall to calve and stay close in case she needs our help. But it is by far the best situation if she will calve on her own and immediately get up to mother her calf without us assisting.

When a cow starts to feel the contractions of labor, nature kicks in and tells her to find a safe place to calve. Early labor makes a cow excitable and she will cock her tail out from her body. She may lie down and stand up frequently and may even kick at her side as the contractions strengthen.

Once a cow finds her favorite spot for labor and delivery, she will begin to lie down and push. Calves should come out with their front feet first, followed by the head cradled between their front knees.  The calf should be lying on its belly as it is delivered, as this is the easiest way to proceed through the cow's pelvis.  The head and knees are the hardest to deliver, and once they are out, the birth should be just a few seconds to finish. Sometimes the hips of the calf may become stuck inside the pelvis of the cow; we call this "hip-locked."  The best remedy for this condition is for the calf to rotate a bit to the side, freeing the largest part of the hips from the interior pelvic opening. This is usually done naturally as the cow rolls from her belly to her side during labor. Rarely do we have to help at this stage.

Immediately after the delivery, a cow will get up and begin to call a low and short "moo" to her calf to encourage it to get moving. She will vigorously lick it all over to clean the membranes off it and this also puts her scent all over it.  Licking it dries the calf nearly as well as rubbing a towel all over it! A good mama cow will have her calf trying to stand within a few minutes of birth. By licking it all over, she gets the circulation going and the calf starts to recognize her calls as well.  Nature is an amazing thing, as the wobbly calf will immediately head toward the cow looking for milk.  The first milk, called colostrum, is very important to all babies.  It is filled with antibodies and the rich nutrition that the calf needs to be healthy throughout its life.  If a calf does not get up right away, it runs the risk of death due to cold, dehydration or a weakened immune system due to the lack of colostrum.

We check our heifers as they are due to calve about every 3 to 4 hours day and night, to make sure that they not only deliver a calf without help, but are able to get it up and sucking right away.  If they do not, we intervene to make sure the calf receives the all-important colostrum.  This calf was trying to stand within five minutes of birth and my daughter's heifer continued to lick it and call to it for encouragement.

Calves may be born breech and even upside down just like any baby.  They may be back feet first, tail first, and even upside down.  If the calf is presented in a way different from the typical way, the cow or heifer may need help to deliver the calf.  Even if the calf is coming right (front feet and head first), a cow or heifer may need help to deliver. We watch closely and are always ready to help.  Tonight I head to a junior high basketball game and I have planned to check for labor before I leave. If any heifers are in labor, I may miss my sons' game.  It is very important to take care of our cattle--and labor and delivery are critical times to assist. But Nature is awesome--when everything works right (and it does most of the time) the product is a healthy, happy calf and mother cow.

25 comments:

  1. Wow, very interesting! Thanks for sharing the story!

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  2. Debbie, this brought back a lot of memories. The heifer is a very good looking angus. Thanks for sharing this important moment in that cow's life and showing how mother nature planned so well for her living creatures.

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  3. What and excellent documentary and with the pictures added it is just awesome! Great job!

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  4. I have questions! Hope it is okay to ask...do cows give birth year round or is there a birthing season? Do you keep the cows and the bulls in separate pastures? How often do you introduce a bull to your herd of cows?

    I find all of this facinating! Thanks for your blog.

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  5. Donna: I am thrilled to answer your questions! Thanks for your interest in cattle and in my site!

    Cows are able to give birth year round, but most ranchers choose a season and breed their cows to calve within a certain number of days. There are several reasons for this. One is that it is just easier to manage the cows and calves if they are about the same age--they need more feed when nursing a calf, and as the calf gets bigger, their nutritional needs do too! Also, it is much easier to sell the calves in a group in which they are all about the same age and size.

    We keep our bulls in a separate pasture well away from cows until the breeding season. Then we put one bull in for every 25 cows or so, and leave them together to "do their thing" for about 60-70 days. Then we take him out of the pasture and put him back with the other bulls. We put all the bulls out with cows at the same time, so all our cows will calve within about 70-80 days. So we are very busy for nearly 3 months, and then we have no more baby calves arriving.

    We chose to calve in February and March and finish in April, so that we can sell our bull calves when they are a year old as breeding bulls to other ranchers. That is a common calving time in Kansas. Cows are pregnant for about the same amount of time as a human--9 months--so they are bred May through early July.

    There is a lot of planning that goes into raising cattle! And a college degree in science and genetics really comes in handy!

    Thanks for your questions.
    -Debbie.

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  6. Love the blog Debbie. This post is great, so many people can only experience something like this because you share it!

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  7. we're waiting on 1st baby..............thanks for your post...hope i can get to see ours being born............

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  8. I know the gestation is 9 months, like a human but can they have them early or late? If so, how early or late?

    My sons show heifer is not due for another month but she is acting weird and not eating.

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  9. Hey, Anonymous...you didn't leave a name, but if the heifer is still a month early and you are 100% certain of the exact due date, you may want to have the vet take a look! A calf born this early may not have sufficiently developed lungs to live. We have saved one that was 38 days early one time, but he spent a week at the vet's with extra medication and attention! They need steroids to mature the lungs, as well as antibiotics to fight respiratory infection.

    It never hurts to have the vet look at her! Good luck!!

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  10. Wow Debbie, thanks for sharing. I am a fellow blogger at blog spot... my uncle serves on the Alumni Advisory Board for the Kansas State college of ag. He heard you speak & forwarded your blog onto me. I love how you are sharing the amazing-ness of cattle ranching with the world. We have a cow calf operation in Clifton, KS which we fly home to oversee & hire my father-in-law as herdsman. We currently reside in Northwest Indiana making feed for dairies and swine multipliers. Our dairy customers are the milk of the Indianapolis Colts & have an amazing interactive dairy 'museum' called Fair Oaks Farms.

    My husband & I value being midwestern farm kids & want to pass that on to our sons... the Kansas herd is too far away to be intrenched in it... so we started buying the holstein bull steers & raising them for beef cattle. We have found that the beef industry is better in Kanas so we truck them to Clay Center to be sold at the sale barn there. One of our dairy customers has a heifer ranch in Colorado & hauls them back to Indiana when they are ready to be milked. We have started chartering his back haul, when he doesn't have any heifers to transfer back to Colorado.

    The community in agriculture is a small world. Thanks for sharing what you're up to with us!!!

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  11. It is amazing watching a calf being born and they are super cute with their mussed up wet hair doos wobbling around and demanding milk.

    Last muster we had some cows have calves in the yards which is definately not ideal. It is very confusing for them and quiet often they will loose their calf in among the other cattle. We had one that adopted us for the 2 days we were working to the point that it spent most of the day sleeping at our feet. We had to keep stepping over it while working cattle up the crush. We were all prepared to have to hand rear it but it mothered up when the cows were walked back out into their paddock.

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  12. Hello, new follower here! I would love to have you link up with my Clever Chicks Blog Hop this week!
    http://www.the-chicken-chick.com/2012/10/autumn-giveaway-clever-chicks-blog-hop-4.html
    I hope to see you there!
    Cheers!
    Kathy
    The Chicken Chick

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  13. That's so sweet. Thank you. Bet your daughter was thrilled. What a great place for kids to grow up.

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    1. Thank you so much for taking time to comment. My daughter was very thrilled to have a new calf! My kids really enjoy cattle--and showing a heifer each year allows them to "bond" with that animal. They do have personalities and make a connection to my kids....it may only be because my kid feeds them and bathes them in the hot summer. But it is a connection. So they love it when they have a calf out of an old show heifer.

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  14. I just found your blog today - well, I actually cut an article about you out of one of The Farmer's magazines :) and had it hanging on my idea board forever! So glad I stopped by. Calving is my favorite time of year - and it truly is a miracle to be able to watch. www.whitefarms.blogspot.com

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    1. Caroline, Thanks for wanting to stop by! I really appreciate it! I look forward to connecting with you on your blog, too. I'll check it out one of these late nights--after a middle of the night heifer check when I just can't get back to sleep!! I often browse the blogs then. :)

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  15. this page is super cool. thanks for the helpful information!

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  16. I'm so jealous that you were able to get pictures while she was calving! That's one of the goals every calving season. We just had our first yesterday so we will see how this year goes.

    Good luck with the rest of the calving. I guess its time we hunker in for the long haul!

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    1. It was total luck that I happened on this gal! But I have another blog post with much better pictures that I hid and waited for the heifer to calve!! Check it out here: http://kansascattleranch.blogspot.com/2011/03/baby-is-born.html

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  17. If your cow has problems and you are pulling with chains, when is that abandoned and a cesarean performed...Could I do a cesarean alone in emergency situation or is this just a bad idea to even attempt. Thank you

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    1. I have been calving heifers nearly all my life--and for the last 25 years with my husband. We have never attempted a c-section ourselves. We always call the vet. There are some people who can do it themselves, but they probably have special vet training. If you want the heifer to live--and not just the calf--there are procedures that must be followed.

      The way we tell if a c-section will be needed is if the calf is not engaging in the pelvis properly or if the feet look really huge. If we start to pull a calf, we finish it. But if there is a question, we call the vet to do the c-section. We nearly always take the heifer to the vet--more sterile and he has a much better way to hold her still. In the past 25 years, we've calved at least 2,000 heifers and had less than 10 c-sections. We breed to our own low birth weight, high calving ease bulls and we don't even pull many. So far, we have about 75 calves this year and we have pulled 2--and one of those probably didn't need our help, but we were getting anxious. That is actually more than normal!! It has been a cold year and that often adds up to a larger calf!

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  18. Would you know why our cow who had her calf 24 hrs ago is mooing? Calf is fine, up and around, we think it's nursing fine, and mama cow is just mooing and moping? Any thoughts?

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