January 25, 2009

Cattle farm husbandry – preparing for calving

Cattle, farming, husbandry, calving, preparation checklist, cow’s view, offering assistance, calf’s view

By Dr Clive Dalton

Calving well on the way (photo Karen Managh)

Your first experience of calving
The first calving you experience can be both exciting and scary, as the wonder of birth never ceases to be amazing.

The best way to avoid problems is to be well prepared so study the list below of things you may need, and then discuss their use with your veterinarian in plenty of time before calving.
  • A yard with good solid fences, a race and a headbail.
  • Rubber gloves and lubricant.
  • Disinfectant.
  • Good strong plastic buckets – plenty of them.
  • Ropes or chains with handles for pulling a calf.
  • Plastic stomach calf feeder for a calf that won’t drink. Learn to use it correctly to avoid putting milk into the lungs.
  • Iodine for navels.
  • A calf resuscitation device.
  • A heat retention cover for a cow that goes down.
  • Treatment for metabolic diseases - milk fever (calcium), staggers (magnesium) or ketosis (glucose). These are either in bottles or sachets. The sachets are a lot more comfortable to carry inside your jacket where you can warm them up.
  • Electrolyte for calf diarrhoea.
  • A good updated first aid cabinet at the yards with some high-energy chocolate bars in it for you and the vet who has probably missed lunch too!
  • Get some decent wet weather gear.
  • Get fit – you’re going to do a lot of exercise over calving. Time yourself running 50m with your full wet weather gear on!
  • Birth – the cow’s view
Cow behaviour before calving
Here are some features of a cow’s behaviour coming up to calving. Don’t panic at the length of the list – you should only see a few of these.
  • A few weeks before calving the cow will 'bag up”. Her udder will get hard and tight and it will be tender to the touch. In heifers, you may see a swelling (oedema) along the belly in front of the udder. This disappears a week or so after calving when she starts to milk.
  • Cows may even start to drip milk and then you should be on the lookout for mastitis.
  • Near calving her vulva will swell and you may see some clear mucous discharge.
  • The ligaments of the pin bones either side of her tail will relax.
  • The cow will separate from the herd if there is space to find a quiet area.
  • She will prepare a birth site by smelling and pawing the ground with her front feet, and go round and round.
  • She’ll get up and down a lot as birth pains start to build up.
  • A small “water bag” will appear protruding from the vulva. This is the membrane the calf is in.
  • If you see a prolapse which is the vagina and uterus turned inside out then seek urgent veterinary attention. This can look horrendous. Don’t be tempted to do anything yourself – get the vet quickly.
  • Normally the water bag will burst and the cow will smell the ground a lot where the liquid landed.
  • Soon after this you should see the calf’s front feet (pads facing downwards) and a nose.
  • If you don’t - things are not normal so seek veterinary help as some manipulation may be needed.
  • Don’t let the cow go longer than half an hour at this stage before getting help.
  • Don’t let a calving cow that has been showing vigorous and regular abdominal straining go longer than one hour, and a heifer for two hours before providing help.
  • Normally she’ll then lie down and push the calf out.
  • She may get up and down between these pushes and look round smelling the ground - almost looking for a calf.
  • With the final push the calf will be delivered and the membranes over the calf should rupture.
  • The calf may drop out when the cow stands up which breaks the membranes around the calf and the shock of hitting the ground will cause it to take a breath.
  • The cow should stand up and turn round to lick the calf - and hopefully lick the membranes from the calf’s nose so it does not suffocate.
  • The cord will break when the cow turns round - stretching it helps to stop any bleeding.
  • Don’t hurry to break the cord until the calf starts to breathe.
  • The afterbirth will be pushed out soon after the calf. If it does not, don’t worry about it unless it hasn’t appeared in about 3 days or starts to smell foul, then seek veterinary advice.
  • It’s quite normal for the cow to start chewing the afterbirth.
  • Don’t leave the afterbirths on the paddock for dogs or cats to eat – bury them.
  • Check the cow after the calf has had it’s first feed to make sure there is no mastitis and keep checking for signs such as swollen quarters, redness and the cow kicking in pain when the calf sucks. If the cow is quite you can take some milk off her but with beef cows this will not be possible without a race and headbail – and the risk of being kicked.

Calving assistance
  • There is always a tendency at calving to seek veterinary help when all else has failed, so vets are regularly faced with difficult situations that end up with a dead calf and an injured cow, or both. The other option is an expensive caesarian section.
  • Calving aids should only be used if the calf is correctly positioned in the birth canal – head and both front feet pointing outwards.
  • Then if no progress can be made after 5 minutes of controlled mechanical traction, then veterinary help should be sought.
  • The maximum traction on the calf should be no more than that of two average adults pulling at the same time. Vehicles should NOT be used to pull calves.

Birth – the calf’s view
  • The physical effort of birth and the calf hitting the ground should have burst its covering membranes and got its lungs working. If you are present, then make sure it’s nostrils are clear.
  • If the calf is not breathing then you’ll have need some urgent action. First make sure it’s airways are clear and to do this you should lift the calf up by the hind legs, give it a few good shakes and let it drain.
  • You’ll have problems doing this if the calf is big. Get a strong helper to swing the calf round once or twice or hang it over a gate with the back legs on your side and its body hanging down on the other till its airways drain.
  • Use a proprietary resuscitator or blow down its throat. Rub it furiously with a sack and pound its chest as in human CPR.
  • A normal healthy calf should be on its feet in 15-30 minutes after birth and start “teat seeking”.
  • The calf nuzzles the side of cow feeling for warm bare skin with teats. It can be very frustrating for the calf, especially if the mother is an anxious heifer and keeps turning to face and lick the calf every time it gets near the udder.
  • An experienced cow stands very still as the calf moves towards the udder. She nuzzles its tail head and almost seems to give it a gently nudge towards the udder.
  • The calf needs a minimum of 2 litres of colostrum within 6 hours of life. Give it to the calf in a stomach tube if it’s not suckling well.
  • If you are going to separate the calf from its dam - do it straight away soon after birth as this is the least stressful option.
  • Bonding is very quick in cattle and takes only a few minutes. It is based on smell and vision.
  • The calf will follow the cow or any moving object a few hours after birth and can fall into drains during this early mothering period as they stagger about.
  • New-born calves can fall on to the electric fence and the constant shock on their wet body can kill them.
  • Don’t panic if the calf is not always with the cow, but when you go into the paddock, the cow should make a very positive attempt to look for her calf to defend it if they are well bonded.
  • f you take a dog into the paddock with you, this will certainly check the cow’s mothering instinct as a good cow will chase the dog out of the paddock. You’ll have fun if the dog panics and hides behind you for protection when the cow charges it! You don’t want a wimp of a dog with hill country beef cows.

Disclaimer This material is provided in good faith for information purposes only, and the author does not accept any liability to any person for actions taken as a result of the information or advice (or the use of such information or advice) provided in these pages.

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