What to Expect When Your Deer or Elk is Expecting
It is important to note that in most states, you must secure a permit to raise wildlife such as deer and elk on your property. If you do not have a permit, and you discover a fawn or elk calf that appears to be orphaned, do not touch the newborn. Immediately contact your local Department of Natural Resources or a permitted wildlife rehabilitation organization in your area. They will be able to determine whether the newborn is truly orphaned, and provide the critical care he needs.
For those who have gone through the permitting process and are committed to raising healthy, productive wildlife, preparing for a newborn fawn or elk calf is an exciting time. The doe or cow and nature will do most of the work, but being prepared with the right supplies on hand will give you peace of mind as the due date approaches. Proper care and nutrition for newborn fawns and calves give them the best start at a healthy life.
The gestation period for deer averages about 190-210 days, or 240-260 days for elk. Most deer will have just one fawn with their first pregnancy, but often give birth to twins in subsequent pregnancies, sometimes even triplets. Multiple births are much rarer for elk, who tend to give birth to only one calf at a time. Newborn deer fawns typically weigh between 4-8 pounds at birth, compared to 30-35 pounds for elk.
Preparing for a smooth delivery
As the due date approaches, make sure your doe or cow has an appropriate spot to give birth. In good weather, clean, grassy pasture with long grass or low scrub for cover will work best. In less favorable weather, you will need a well-ventilated stall with clean, dry bedding. Perhaps most importantly, identify a good veterinarian or experienced deer or elk owner who can help with any complications that you don’t feel prepared to handle alone, and program their phone number in your mobile phone.
Another critical preparation step is the collection of the birthing kit. A well-stocked kit should include the following items:
- Flashlight: To better see all angles of your laboring doe or cow and her newborn.
- Several clean, old towels: To dry off the new fawn or calf and clean up birthing fluids, but only if the dam is unable to do so.
- Betadine Surgical Scrub: To sanitize supplies or your hands.
- Sterile Lubrication: In case your veterinarian advises you to assist with the birth.
- Garbage Bags: For collecting afterbirth and soiled towels.
- Bottle and Nipple: In case the fawn or calf is not able to nurse immediately after birth.
- Multi-Species Colostrum Replacer or Supplement: For the first, most critical feedings if the newborn is unable to nurse.
- Fawn, Kid or Multi-Species Milk Replacer: For continued nutrition if the newborn is not able to nurse effectively. Look for a formula with a minimum of 24% protein.
- Electrolytes: To help reverse the effects of loss of body fluids due to diarrhea in the newborn fawn or calf and help rehydrate the doe or cow after laboring.
A couple weeks before her due date, start checking in on your doe or calf every few hours to check for signs that labor may be approaching. You may notice the udders beginning to fill with milk a few days before going into labor, and she may start raising her tail more. But one of the surest signs of impending labor is separation from the herd. Natural instinct tells the doe or cow to move away from the herd and seek cover to protect her newborn from predators. The same instinct usually causes her to go into labor around dusk, as a protective cover of darkness arrives.
Your role in the birthing process
Most does and cows will deliver their newborns with little to no assistance, and it is best to avoid participating in the birth unless there are clear complications. When labor is progressing into the second stage, the doe or cow will often lie down to deliver her newborn, although some do give birth standing up. Once she lays down, the fawn or calf is usually delivered within 30 minutes. Normal birth position is feet first, with the newborn’s head tucked between his legs.
If you do not see both hooves or if the fawn or calf is in breech position (rump first), or if birth does not progress within 45 minutes of active, consult the veterinarian or experienced animal owner you have identified for some professional advice.
After birth, the doe or cow will lick the newborn clean to remove any scent that could attract predators, which also helps start respiration and warm his young body. He will likely be able to stand for the first time within 10-20 minutes. For the first few hours, stand back and let the fawn or calf bond with his mother and nurse.
Feeding in the first hours and days
The first eighteen hours is critical for the long-term health of your new fawn of calf, and he will naturally start nursing within two hours to meet his nutritional needs. But if the mother dies, is in distress, or otherwise cannot effectively nurse her newborn, it is imperative to have bottles, nipples, and emergency nutrition on hand.
Colostrum, the thick, yellowish first milk provided by the mother, jump starts the immune system by providing important antibodies that could not be passed to the foal in utero. The newborn fawn or calf’s body uniquely designed to absorb these antibodies into the bloodstream via the intestines, but only for the first 12-18 hours of life. Absorption of these critical antibodies on the first day helps set the stage for a long, healthy life.
The mother’s natural colostrum provides the best nutritional start for her newborn because it contains antibodies that are specific to her herd and surroundings. But if the fawn or calf does not nurse within 1-2 hours or you are worried that he is not nursing often enough or receiving adequate colostrum from his mother, a colostrum replacer or supplement will help provide this critical immune support. Feed a colostrum replacer or supplement by bottle every 2-3 hours for the first 24-48 hours of life, according to package directions, if the fawn or calf does not begin nursing properly.
Milk Replacer: After the first two days, if the fawn or calf is still not nursing effectively, switch to milk replacer to provide the balanced nutrition he will need for growth and development. Always choose a milk replacer with at least 24% protein that is formulated to meet the nutritional needs of fawns and calves, and follow the packaging mixing and feeding instructions carefully to provide proper nutrition. Avoid handling the fawn or calf any more than necessary.
Electrolytes: After birth, fawns and calves are exposed to a host of new pathogens or microorganisms that can cause digestive distress and cause diarrhea. Because diarrhea often leads to dehydration, it is important to supplement the mother’s milk or milk replacer with electrolytes to reverse the effects of body fluids. Be sure to feed electrolytes separately from milk replacer products, and always follow package directions for best results.
With proper preparation, monitoring and newborn nutrition, you will give your new fawn or calf the best chance for a long, health, productive life.