It’s fairly easy to see when a cow is coming up to calving. Her udder will swell and get very tight for a week or so before calving. She may even start to drip milk which you should keep an eye on in case she gets mastitis. The bacteria (Strep uberis) live in the soil and enter the udder via the teat.
Let the cow find a quiet place and have some peace to calve. She may spend up to an hour doing this and once the contractions start she will lie down and get up a lot, pawing and smelling the ground where her birth fluids have burst.
Don’t let her go more than half an hour after this initial stage before finding if there are problems. You may be able to creep up on her in the paddock and if not, you’ll have to get her into a yard. Again in a normal presentation, you should see a nose and two front feet coming like a diver. If not then seek some help.
Here’s a suggested list for calving:
- A yard with good solid fences, a race, and a headbail.
- Rubber gloves
- Plastic buckets
- Ropes or chains with handles for pulling a calf
- Plastic calf feeder for stomach feeding
- Iodine for navels
- Resuscitation device (more hygienic than your mouth!)
- A cover for a cow on the ground to keep her warm
- Treatment for metabolic diseases - milk fever (calcium), staggers (magnesium) or ketosis (glucose), or for all three together
- Electrolyte for diarrhoea
If you see that the calf is stuck and all it may need is a slight pull of the front feet to extend the front legs, then that’s fine. If you find that it is going to take more strength to pull it, then seek experienced help straight away. Beware of enthusiastic and willing amateurs who may offer so-called ‘help which turns out to be brute force and ignorance. They only add to the delay in getting the vet. If you feel the problem is out of your league, don’t delay and call the vet.
Don’t leave the afterbirths on the paddock for dogs or cats to eat - use the offal hole. And get some iodine on all fresh navels immediately after birth.
If the cow is stressed and has been down for a while, give here a combined dose of all three metabolic treatments (see above). Buy the sachets rather than the bottles as you can warm them up inside your jacket. Learn how and where to give a cow an injection - subcutaneous under the skin or intravenous into a vein. Get someone to show you where to find the jugular vein on the left side of the neck, or the mammary vein entering the udder.
If the cow is down and can't get up, seek vet advice as she may be paralysed and need lifting and special care. Put a cover on her to keep her warm and provide water and a bale of hay. Don’t hang her in hip clamps - they should only be used for short spells of no more than 5-10 minutes. A sling is much better, but ask your vet for advice about this intensive care.
Make sure a calf gets a minimum of 2 litres of colostrum before 6 hours of life. Give it to the calf in a stomach feeder if it’s not suckling well. Milk the cow out after the calf has had it’s first feed to make sure there is no mastitis and keep checking for signs - swollen quarters, redness, and the cow kicking in pain when the calf sucks. You must treat the cow and check with your vet for the correct antibiotic to use.
If you are going to remove the calf - do it straight away at birth as this is the least stressful option. If you are going to add calves, it’s usually easier to add them soon after birth when all the calves are small, and the cow’s maternal instincts are strong. But some cows will never take extra calves so don’t bother trying. You’ll soon find good accommodating mothers in the herd.