Cow birthing–or “calving,” as it is primarily known as–can be an anxious and highly anticipated time for any farm or ranch, large or small, especially one where calving season is defined, or if you have a small herd of only one to five cows in your care. One thing that should be stressed when dealing with calving out cows is to be patient. Waiting for a cow or heifer to calve is just like watching for a pot of water to boil.
A cow or heifer’s gestation period–another word for length of pregnancy–is around 285 days long. During that time, from the point where the sperm from the bull penetrates and fuses with the ovum or egg of the cow, initiating cell division into a blastocyst then to an embryo which grows into a calf fetus, the living being inside the uterus of the cow is constantly growing and developing until it reaches a point where it cannot grow anymore because the uterus of the cow can only stretch so far. It is at that point where the labour of the cow begins. Little to many know that it is actually the offspring inside the mother’s womb that is responsible for the initiation of the onset of labour, not the mother herself. Stress signals from the calf travel through the umbilical cord to the placenta all the way to the cow’s brain and ovaries where different chemicals and hormones are released to ready for the birth of the calf, from the release of the cervical plug, to the initial uterine contractions to get the calf into the normal position for birthing. The first stages of calving occur in a cow hours before the actual event of calving takes place. This is where you need to keep an eye out for signs that calving is imminent.
What are the signs to look for in a cow or heifer about to calve?
Her udder may initially start filling out with colostrum–the first milk for a calf–but the teats themselves may not become engorged until birth is quite imminent. Her vulva will also be engorging with blood making it look a bit swollen, her sides will be sinking in in front of her thurls (this is the smooth part of the pelvis) and there may be some mucous coming out from her vulva. She’ll get fidgety and start looking for a place to calve. When her udder is full, she’s about 3-7 days from calving. However some cows or heifers won’t show any freshening until the day they are about to calve; still others may have a full bag for weeks before they drop a calf. When her sides sink in, she’s around 1-3 days from calving. When there is discharge from her vulva being the clear, non-sticky, stringy stuff, she’s usually less than a day away from calving. However if the discharge is more sticky and thick, this is just the mucus plug being removed, which occurs about a week or so before calving. When you see that water bag, which is a yellowish sac hanging down from her vulva, it’s pretty obvious she’s in labor and it’s just a matter of minutes before the feet and head of the calf begin to show.
The annoying thing about heifers is that you just never know when she’s going to “pop.” She could be showing all the signs that she’s any day from dropping a calf and not do anything for two or three solid weeks! Or it would be the exact opposite: she’ll show absolutely no signs but all of a sudden there’s a calf on the ground that she’s making it obvious it is hers. A lot of cows may be the same way, so it’s always best to be prepared for the unexpected.
How does a cow give birth anyway?
As mentioned above, the initial signs are her pacing around and being quite fidgety. A lot of cows will get themselves away from the herd and look for a private place to give birth in peace. She’ll be acting quite uncomfortable, laying down then getting up, then laying down again after a few minutes before getting up again. Suddenly she’ll just up and stop what she’s doing and look like she’s straining to urinate or defecate, but it’s most likely she’s feeling the uterine contractions coming on more stronger than ever. You will see a thick mucus discharge from her vulva, soon followed by the water sac. The uterine muscular contractions are responsible for the birthing process, as well as gravity itself. Muscular contractions come and go once every 5 to 10 seconds, especially when she’s in her second stage of labour–which involves pushing out the calf.
Soon after the water sac appears you should be able to see feet sticking out. The feet will have yellowish tips to them, which is totally normal for a birthing calf. They should have the bottoms pointing downwards, indicating that the calf is coming front first–which is the correct way for a calf to be born. You should also see that both feet are coming out; if there’s just one you might want to consider assisting the cow as soon as possible. Soon after the fore feet and the first part of the legs show, the nose, muzzle and head soon follow, followed by the shoulders. After the shoulders the rest pop out easily. However trouble can still arise at this point if the calf’s hips get locked in the cow’s pelvis. If the hips don’t get locked, before you know it you’ll have a new baby calf on the ground. Congratulations!!
What do I need to do to prepare for calving?
Now that you have some idea of how a cow gives birth, it’s time for you to know what should–and shouldn’t–be done in preparation before, during and after a cow calves.
It really all depends on what breed your cows are and what time of year they are calving. If you have cows calving during the winter months where snow and cold are a regular item, you will need to have some form of shelter in the form of a calving barn and a shed or two–more if you’ve got over 10 head of cows to calve out–to provide a place for the newborn calves to go to to keep warm. A thick bed of straw will also help immensely here as well. With that you will need to purchase enough straw bales to last you the calving season, if not the whole winter period. A calving barn is ideal because it not only takes the cows and to-be-born or just-born calves out of the cold, but you as well, especially if you have to assist a birthing cow.
If you are not calving in the middle of winter, but in more warmer months, you won’t need the straw, but you will need some shelter, natural or otherwise, for cows to hide in to give birth in privacy and peace, and to get out of the hot sun. Ideally a clean pasture for them to calve on should be considered as well, and subsequent pastures to rotate and separate the pregnant cows from the new mothers their babies, or to place the new pairs in a fresh pasture.
Keep your large-animal veterinarian’s phone number on speed-dial if you run into any problems that you cannot fix yourself. Keep a calving kit available for emergencies. Your veterinarian can give you a list of supplies to buy for your calving kit, but they should include the following:
- Calving chains with handles
- Obstetrical shoulder-length gloves
- Disposable latex gloves that fits your hands
- A bottle of oxytocin
- A calf-puller, winch is best (use with caution though)
- Birthing/Artificial insemination lubricant
- Syringes of varying volume
- Needles ranging from 14 to 18 gauge and length from 1 to 2 inches long.
- Halter and lead-rope
- 20-ft length of rope, be it a lariat or softer nylon/cotton rope
You will find that either a head-gate, a medina gate or a calving facility may help immensely if you have a cow that is having trouble giving birth. Note that this list is only for those cases where a cow is definitely having problems calving, not to be used on every cow all the time.
What should I do if my cow is giving birth?
The simple answer to this question is nothing. Let the cow do her thing and only interfere if she hasn’t progressed in her labouring efforts after a couple of hours. This is very important and a crucial thing if you have beef cows that are naturally inclined to calve out on their own without any human assistance. Not so much for many dairy cows, however if you have put the proper bull on her you shouldn’t have any problems either.
When you jump in to assist should be when she is trying to get the calf out of her and is not making any progress. If you have no idea what to do, phone your veterinarian as soon as possible. Don’t be ashamed of getting your vet out of bed, because the life and health of your animal is more important than your or your vet’s sleep!! Then the life-or-death decision can be made on how to get the calf out as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to preferably save both mom and baby.
Problems that arise from calving range from the head turned back, a leg turned back to a breach (tail-first) birth. The calf may be much too big to fit through the birth canal as well. If that happens, a surgical method called Cesarean section is performed to get the calf out quickly and save the cow (or heifer) as well.
If everything comes along normally, then there’s nothing to worry about. A lot of the time it’s just best to not interfere and let the cow do what she was made to do, from the onset of labour to the time she’s raising the calf.