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Birth problems - calving, lambing, kidding, foaling

Spring is a wonderful time on the farm. It means a new crop of youngsters - lambs and kids, calves and foals - beautiful, delicate little creatures that represent your farming future.

Watching a normal birth can be a wonderful and moving experience, especially for children. However, all herd animals have a strong instinct to give birth alone in a quiet safe and sheltered place with no disturbances. It’s nature’s way of giving the mother and young a good chance of bonding, and for giving the youngster time to find its feet and get a good feed of colostrum.

  • It is really important not to disturb them unnecessarily at any stage of the process from the first signs that the birth is imminent to the stage when the youngster has a full tummy and is confidently striding alongside its mother.
  • Keeping disturbance to a minimum is especially important with first-time mums and very highly-strung animals - their mothering instincts are more easily overwhelmed by events!
  • A few weeks before birth, the pregnant mums should be moved to a clean paddock with plenty of shelter from cold, wind and rain.

The normal birth

Fortunately nature has being delivering young animals with no human help for eons, and the great majority of farm animals give birth naturally with no problems.

  • Once the birth process begins, it should be possible for you to keep a watchful eye on events without making the mother aware of your presence.
  • Don’t interfere unless you are sure there’s a problem.
  • The first signs in the mother-to-be are a bulging udder and a swollen vulva.
  • The mother stands apart from the other animals in her group, and womb contractions begin, positioning the baby for delivery.
  • Fluid and the placenta appear at the vulva, and the placenta may bulge or hang from the vagina.
  • Most farm mammals are born in a diving position - with the front legs fully extended so that their knees are alongside their muzzle, making a streamlined shape for ease of delivery.
  • The two front feet of the youngster appear at the vulva, and behind them the youngster’s nose.
  • The mother may lie or stand for a few more pushes, then the youngster is on the ground, shaking its head.
  • As a general rule, once birth contractions begin, there is usually fairly rapid progress within 15 minutes.
  • If the youngster is born in a place that is at all dusty or muddy, spray or paint its navel and cord with tincture of iodine (iodophor spray). Try to disturb the mother as little as possible.
  • It is wise to repeat the iodine treatment at 24-36 hours if conditions are particularly wet.

When things go wrong

  • The birth can be complicated by the baby animal becoming stuck in the birth canal.
  • The chances of the birth process or mothering up going wrong increase greatly if the mother is disturbed unnecessarily, eg by people or other animals.
  • If you don’t think you could recognise the early signs of a problem, phone your vet well before the due date. Ask for his or her advice on when to phone for help.
  • It becomes more urgent and more important to get advice and/or help if the animal has been down straining or if the membranes or part of the youngster have been protruding from the vulva for 10 minutes or more and no progress is being made.
  • If the baby is in the wrong position in the vagina, eg if its head is twisted to one side or a leg is bent back - this will be trouble.
  • Someone, preferably someone skilled and with a small clean hand, should gently but firmly push the baby back towards the womb, and straighten the limbs and body so that it is repositioned correctly.
  • It can be very difficult to do the repositioning if the mother is straining and if the birth canal is tight and dry.
  • It helps to use lots of lubricant.
  • Sometimes the hind feet come first, or there are twins alongside each other, and this can be very confusing.
  • When the tail comes first and the hind legs are extended forward under the body, this is a breech birth.
  • Breech births can be very difficult to deal with, and prompt veterinary attention is usually necessary.
  • When complications arise during foaling, it is usually very difficult for the amateur to correct the problem, and a veterinarian must be called at an early stage.

Helping the newborn get its first feed!

  • After a normal delivery, it can be difficult to resist the temptation to help the struggling youngster to its feet and to help it suck.
  • As a general rule, it’s best to let the mother and her baby work it out for themselves for at least 4 to 6 hours.
  • It the youngster hasn’t been able to find the teat within 6 hours, you could give it a hand.
  • If you do help the youngster get its first feed, don’t hold its head. It will struggle against this.
  • Support the hind end so that its head is free and in about the right position to find the teat.
  • Gently rub the base of its tail as its mother would if she was licking it, and its strong nuzzling and sucking instincts will usually take over.
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