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Preparing for Calves on the Homestead

This is my fourth calving season and so far I am 3/4 for being present at the births. Before those babies arrive, I get busy preparing for calves on the homestead.

Disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian and this information should not be used in replacement of a consultation with your veterinarian. Full disclosure here. This post contains affiliate links, which means I make a small commission at no extra cost to you. See my full disclosure here.

Calving Terms

When you read about calving there are a few basic terms you will see.

Calving: AKA Freshening- When a bovine has a baby. Different animals have different terms for having their babies. With goats it is kidding, sheep it is lambing, pigs it is farrowing. With cows it is “freshening”. I don’t know why.

Cow- Technically the term cow is a specific one and isn’t just any bovine. A cow is a female who has had a baby before.

Heifer- A female cow that has never had a baby.

First Year Heifer- This is a heifer who is having or has just had her first calf.

Colostrum- The first milk calves get. Cows only make colostrum for about 12-24 hours and it is vital the calf get some. Their stomachs can absorb the nutrients and antibodies from this precious milk for the first 24 hours, although they utilize it better within the first few hours. Without it, calves will be far more susceptible to illness and bacteria.

How long is a cow pregnant?

On average a cow is pregnant around 283 days. This can vary on breed and if they are a first time mom or not. You can google, “Cow Gestation Chart” to see exactly when your calf will be due.

Just like with people or other animals they can go a little shorter or a little longer.

If you are anywhere past two weeks the due date there is a chance your cow isn’t even pregnant. Totally had THAT one happen before. Here we thought our cranky cow was big pregnant and just tired of it. Turns out she was just fat and mean.

jersey cow birth rough and tumble farmhouse
Bea, Butterscotch, and her mama Junebery.

Supplies to Prepare for Cow Birth

I find that cows are easier to prepare for than goats. With goats things always seem a little more touchy. I’ve had issues with goats kidding before but cows tend to be pretty smooth. There are still a few things I have on hand.

  • Shoulder Length Veterinary Disposable Gloves – In case you have to reach in and feel for positioning
  • Antiseptic Lubricant – If you do reach in your arm and glove need to be lubricated and this helps prevent bacteria from getting in when you reach in.
  • Molasses – This is to give them a warm sweet drink after baby is born. Mix with water.
  • Penicillin and Needles- Always good to have on hand with animals, it is a simple antibiotic in case you need it.
  • CMPK Gel – This is in case of milk fever. More on that below.
  • Applicator Gun for the Gel if needed.
  • Halter – In case you need to assist and tie up the cow.

If you are calving during cold temperatures it’s a good idea to have towels, a blow dryer, and possibly even a calf coat if it is cold enough.

This year our calf got so chilled I zipped her into one of my work vests.

Do cows need to calve inside?

If you choose you can allow your cow to calve right in the pasture. I’ve done this in the past when the weather is plenty warm for mom and baby.

If it’s cooler, bed down a nice stall or pen that is sheltered from the elements. Nice thick bedding, plenty of hay for mom, and water secured where the baby can’t stumble into it and drown.

For June’s calf this year it was a white out blizzard at the end of April, so June was brought into the barn when I thought it was time. She and the baby stayed in there for two days, then went out once the weather warmed up.

If you have a lot of animals roaming around it can be nice to have mom and baby in their own pen for a day or two so they can bond and mom can chill out.

What should cow birth look like?

Having an idea of what birth should look like can be a great asset when preparing for calves on the homestead.

If you check out the YouTube video below you can watch Juneberry deliver her third calf in the spring of 2021.

If you catch this process from the beginning, the first thing you will see is some kind of mucus. Typically more than just a little. It might be white, yellow, or a little red.

Next you will see the water bag start to come out. Once the water has come out and broken, you should have a calf out within the hour.

cow water bag rough and tumble farmhouse

After the water bag you should see two little hooves. My cow’s always have little white hoof bottoms. Shortly thereafter a nose should be following behind the hooves.

cow being born rough and tumble farmhouse

It’s perfectly normal for the mom to get up and walk around, have a bite to eat or drink, lay back down, reposition, etc.

proper birth position for cows rough and tumble farmhouse

Once the cow is pushing, after the head clears the rest of the baby should come sliding out quickly. Some moms give birth lying down, some standing up. Both are safe for the calf.

The mom should attend to the baby right away. You can expect to see the baby up and walking within an hour or two. The calf should drink good colostrum as soon as possible.

Is it safe for me to watch a cow give birth?

Most likely yes, but I don’t know your cow. Our cow Juneberry has known me her entire life. I was there when she was born. I trained her to lead, stand tied, and have been the only person to milk her. I’m as good as another cow to her.

When she was in labor, my husband tried to be in the barn with our almost two year old. While I think June might have continued labor with my husband there if he stayed quiet, she was not having a fussing toddler.

June’s labor actually slowed down. She got up and quit pushing while they were there. About thirty seconds after they left she laid down and got to business.

If this is a cow that knows and trusts you, I’d say it is fine. On the flip side if this is your neighbor’s cow or some random wild beef animal, use your discretion. If the mom seems chill and isn’t paying attention to you then watch from a respectful distance. If she seems bothered or stressed by your being there, just let her be alone.

I know it can be depressing when you have been so busy and excited preparing for calves on the homestead to miss the birth, but sometimes privacy is what the cows need.

Problems with Calving

If you are like my husband and have watched a million episodes of Dr. Pol, you probably think every time a calf is born you need to whip your top of and dive into a cow’s vagina. Most of the time, calves come out just fine.

Something I do every year when preparing for calves on the homestead is to review various types of positioning.

There can be a calf that is malpositioned inside the cow, meaning it isn’t in the right position to come out easily. Proper textbook positioning is both front feet forward with the nose outstretched along them, like a diver. Another position that works is backwards with both hind feet coming out. This position is still a little riskier, because if labor is prolonged the umbilical can get pinched or severed and suffocate the calf.

Texas A&M has a good pamphlet that shows what a mispositioned calf looks like and how you can fix it. This is where the long gloves and lubricant would come in.

It’s a good idea to have your vet’s number handy just in case.

Milk Fever

Milk Fever used to scare the hell out of me until this spring when I had a conversation with my vet about it.

Basically when a cow calves and is suddenly producing tons of milk, their body demands huge amounts of calcium, especially to go towards colostrum. If cows are unable to absorb enough calcium to replace that which their body is suddenly pulling from everywhere it can, this can cause the animal to go into milk fever which can be fatal.

Symptoms

According to Penn State there are three phases. The first phase might exhibit “loss of appetite, excitability, nervousness, hypersensitivity, weakness, weight shifting, and shuffling of the hind feet.”

Phase two: “The clinical signs of stage II milk fever can last from 1 to 12 hours. The affected animal may turn its head into its flank or may extend its head. The animal appears dull and listless; she has cold ears and a dry nose; she exhibits incoordination when walking; and muscles trembling and quivering are evident. Other signs observed during stage II are an inactive digestive tract and constipation. A decrease in body temperature is common, usually ranging from 96°F to 100°F. The heart rate will be rapid exceeding 100 beats per minute.”

Phase three: ” inability to stand and a progressive loss of consciousness leading to a coma. Heart sounds become nearly inaudible and the heart rate increases to 120 beats per minute or more. Cows in stage III will not survive for more than a few hours without treatment.”

This all sounds really scary, but thankfully these days we have ready treatments available.

Treatment

This year I chatted with my vet about milk fever and how we should be prepared to handle it. He, to my relief, said that he rarely deals with mlk fever anymore thanks to the various gels on the market. His recommendation is CMPK gel, which is given orally with an applicator type gun (linked above). He advised giving a follow up dose about twelve hours later.

My vet said so long as you catch it before the cow is down in phase three, most recover just fine within a day or two.

Preparing for Calves on the Homestead

There are few things more glorious or heartwarming than seeing a young calf out on pasture, zipping around or having a drink from their mama. I hope your calving goes well and you have beautiful little babies racing around soon.

Watch and Learn

If you are preparing for calves on the homestead check out our textbook delivery with Juneberry.

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what to expect when expecting calves rough and tumble farmhouse

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