We’ve recently welcomed a new calf onto the farm – the birth was tricky and complex.
As the last calf due on the farm this year, its arrival was highly anticipated and it’s birth was expected to be pretty straight forward as the mother is the most experienced on the farm – she’s also the largest, making her the herd’s natural matriarch.
She was due to give birth in mid-September but a cow’s due date is not always an exact science.
About two weeks before the birth the cow started showing signs of impending labour but they quickly disappeared and she continued to teeter on the edge of birth for 14 days until she was visibly pushing through contractions and a hoof started to appear – but as quickly as it arrived it was gone.
It became very apparent that she was struggling to give birth. I’d never seen this before – luckily all the births I’ve witnessed have been fairly straightforward.
We made a call to a friend who told us we needed to assist the birth, but not having done this before we were very lucky to be joined by two neighbours and a calfing jack (late on a Sunday afternoon).
We quickly got the cow into the crush and our neighbour felt for the calf – it was big!
I tried to keep the cow calm at the front of the crush while a cord was attached to the calf’s front hooves at one end and the jack at the other. The cow was very calm – almost to the point of disinterest and, while the calf’s head and front legs began to show fairly swiftly, getting it’s hips out took a lot more effort.
The calf fell out and was breathing well – first hurdle crossed. Looking at it’s size we all realised that the calf would never have come out without assistance.
The relief I felt to see both cow and calf (a bull) well was overwhelming. However, letting the cow out of the crush saw a turn in events – she showed no interest in the calf at all. We placed some hard food on the calf’s back to try and tempt the mother over but she was actively disinterested.
We penned the cow and calf up together against the shelter of a ring feeder in the hope that their proximity to each other would encourage bonding to begin. About 30 minutes later we checked on their progress (by this time it was almost dark) and decided to move the pair in to the cattle shed as the temperature was plummeting and the skies were crystal clear.
Normally the movement of this cow is very easy – you lead her with a bucket of food and she goes where you go. But as soon as she left the paddock and started crossing the yard she ambled into the hedge surrounding the garden and began walking up and down through its branches – it’s seems she was just having a good old scratch.
We eventually got her and her calf into the sheds and mum was hand-milked (this is called stripping) so we could feed the calf from a bottle. Due to the calf’s size and lack of milk it had yet to stand and feed itself. Getting the mum’s milk into the calf is hugely important – the colostrum present in the first flush of milk is high in carbohydrates, protein and antibodies.
We left them overnight (I can tell you it was rather anxious and sleepless for me) and at 6am we were in the sheds again to feed it. The calf was suckling well on the bottle and taking the milk but still hadn’t stood – we were hopeful that, with the help of the colostrum in the milk, he would be standing soon.
An hour or so later we helped him up and got him used to the sensation of standing. And, thanks to our neighbour, we were given a lesson in milking so we could continue feeding him from a bottle if he didn’t feed directly from the cow.
I can tell you that milking a cow isn’t easy, but once I grasped the technique it quickly got easier.
Throughout that first day we continued to help the calf to stand and by the afternoon he was unsteady on his feet but could stand, follow mum around and was starting to search for the teats himself. Because of his height he was struggling to reach down low enough to latch on to the end of the teat but with a bit of help he could suckle well.
By the next day he’d managed to latch on without our help and was positively brighter. Mum was doing a fantastic job in helping him to find her teats and being wonderfully calm. It felt like all the hard work was worth it and it was such a relief to have a positive outcome. It’s very easy to take the wonder of mother nature for granted and all the times that I have seen a stress-free birth on the farm.
The cow and calf spent the next week in the shed, avoiding a good few days of wind and rain before we moved them back outside. We led them across the yard to the paddock, and as soon as the calf stood on grass for the first time he was off, sprinting around and bucking his back legs, it really was wonderful to witness.
He’s now four weeks old and as tall as a calf born six weeks earlier than him. It’s a joy to witness such a change in fortunes.