What to expect when your cow is expecting

Welcoming a newborn calf into your herd is a wonderful experience, but may be a little intimidating for new cattle owners. Thankfully, nature and the cow will do most of the work. But with some advance planning and calf knowledge, you can feel confident that you’re prepared for your new calf’s birth.

Your cow's pregnancy

The gestation period for both dairy and beef cows averages about 270-280 days, or about 9 months. Most cows carry only one fetus at a time, but twins are not uncommon. One interesting fact about twins: if one twin is male and one female, the female will likely be sterile and unable to reproduce, because she has shared blood and hormones with the male twin in utero, affecting her reproductive development. Newborn calves can weigh anywhere from 80-90 pounds at birth, and will take 2-3 years to reach their full mature size.

Preparing for a smooth delivery

Newborn calves are born with an immature immune system against pathogens and illness, so as your cow’s due date approaches, make sure she has a clean, dry spot to give birth. In warm, dry weather, a grassy pasture will be a great spot. But if the weather is not ideal, a dedicated indoor stall with clean straw bedding should be ready. And of course, build a relationship with a good veterinarian before the calf’s birth and keep their phone number on hand. Birth complications are more likely with first-time heifers, but issues can come up with even with experienced cows, so it pays to be prepared.

Having a birthing kit at the ready is also of critical importance. A well-stocked kit should include the following items:

  • Flashlight: To have a good view of your laboring cow and newborn calves from any angle.
  • Several clean, old towels: To cover the bedding during birth, dry off the new calves and clean up birthing fluids.
  • Sharp Scissors & Dental Floss: For cutting and tying off the umbilical cords, only if necessary.
  • 7% Iodine Tincture and an Empty Prescription Bottle: For dipping the calf’s umbilical cord. A pill bottle is a good size & shape for holding the iodine during dipping.
  • Betadine Surgical Scrub: To sanitize supplies or your hands, should your veterinarian advise birthing assistance.
  • Sterile Lubrication: In case you need to assist with the birth.
  • Garbage Bags: For collecting afterbirth and soiled towels.
  • Bottle and Nipple: In case the calf is not able to nurse immediately after birth.
  • Calf Colostrum Replacer or Supplement: For the first, most critical feedings if the calf is unable to nurse immediately.
  • Calf Milk Replacer: For continued nutrition if the calf is not nursing from its mother or another cow in the herd.
  • Electrolytes: To help reverse the effects of loss of body fluids due to diarrhea in newborn calves and help rehydrate the cow after laboring.

A week or two before the cow’s due date, start monitoring the cow every to check for signs that labor is approaching and she should move to the birthing stall or pasture. Signs may be subtle and vary from cow to cow, but some common things to look for are:

  • Enlarged Vulva: The cow’s vulva will swell and look flabby a few days before labor begins, and a string of mucous or discharge can be a sign that the cervical plug has been expelled in preparation for labor.
  • Filling Udder: The cow’s milk will begin to fill the udder a few days, sometimes even a few weeks from giving birth.
  • Filling Teats: Although the udder may fill earlier, the milk will usually not make its way into the teats until 24 hours before birth.
  • Loosening Tail Ligaments: The surest sign of impending labor, they may be difficult to see, but easier to feel if the cow will let you get close and touch her.   The ligaments that run from the tail head to the pin bone in the cow’s buttock are normally hard and tight, but begin loosening as labor approaches. When the ligaments feel very loose and spongy, labor is likely only 12-24 hours away.

Your role in the birthing process

Most cows need little assistance with delivery. The preparatory stage of calving involves the dilating of the cervix and some mild contractions every 15 minutes, increasing in frequency as the calf moves into the birth canal. This stage typically lasts 2-6 hours, but any movement or excitement for the cow may delay calving. The cow’s water will typically break at the end of this phase. The cow will usually lie down for delivery, which begins when the calf has fully entered the birth canal. The cow’s contractions increase to every 2 minutes until the calf is delivered.

Normal birth position for a calf is nose and front toes first. If these are not the first body parts you see protruding, it is probably time to call your veterinarian or experienced cattle owner for some expert advice. Likewise, if the calf is not born within 2 hours after you see the water bag (or it breaks) because the cow is no longer trying to push, or she is pushing without progress, call for professional assistance.

After birth, if the calf will not be nursing from his mother, dry the calf with towels and move him to a calf hutch or clean stall away from adult cows for a first feeding. Otherwise, monitor the cow closely to ensure that she is able to clean and care for her calf and begin nursing. The mother’s licking not only cleans her new calf, but also helps clear the newborn’s nose and stimulate respiration. For the first few hours, stand back and let the calf bond with its mother and nurse. The cow will pass her placenta or afterbirth anywhere from 2-8 hours after birth.

Feeding in the first hours and days

The first eighteen hours is critical for the long-term health of your new calf. A calf will naturally begin nursing within a few hours, but if it’s not able to nurse naturally due to maternal death or distress, it is imperative to have bottles, nipples, and replacement nutrition on hand.

Colostrum, the thick, yellowish first milk provided by the cow, jump starts the immune system by providing important antibodies that could not be passed to the calf in utero. The intestines of a newborn calf are uniquely able to absorb these antibodies into the bloodstream, but only within the first couple of hours after birth. Absorption of these critical antibodies helps set the stage for a long, healthy life.

The mother’s natural colostrum provides the best nutritional start for her newborn calf because it contains antibodies that are specific to her herd and environment. But if the calf does not nurse within 2 hours or you are worried it’s not nursing often enough or receiving adequate colostrum from the cow, a colostrum replacer or supplement will help provide this critical immune support. Feed colostrum by bottle for the first 24 hours of life, according to package directions, if the calf does not begin nursing properly.

Milk Replacer: Beginning day 2, a calf that is not nursing naturally should switch to milk replacer to provide the balanced nutrition needed for growth and development. Always choose a milk replacer that is specifically formulated for calves, and follow the packaging mixing and feeding instructions carefully to provide proper nutrition.

Electrolytes: The birth experience exposes calves to a number of pathogens, microorganisms that can cause digestive distress and cause diarrhea (scours). Because scours can easily lead to dehydration, it is important to supplement milk or milk replacer with electrolytes to reverse the effects of body fluids. Be sure to feed electrolytes separately from milk or milk replacer products, and always follow package directions for best results.

With proper birth preparation, early monitoring and newborn nutrition, you will give your calf the best chance of a long, healthy life and be able to enjoy their presence for many years to come.