Spring has always been a season on MacCurdy Farm that is synonymous with life and new beginnings. It’s a time of the year when earthy smells emerge from beneath a blanket of ice and snow and, inside the barn, our cows enter the last phase of their gestation period. It takes roughly 9 months for a cow to go full term and in our case, with Hereford cross animals, approximately 285 days depending on the day that the bull serviced them. The ideal goal is for the animal to deliver the calf unassisted without going over the gestation period. The threat of dystocia, difficulty delivering calves, is magnified each day that an animal goes past its due date. Spring time calls for vigilance and continual observation of the animals throughout the day.
We do not use artificial insemination. We use a breeding bull, from our line breeding program, which is changed every 4 to 5 years. At this age range (20 months to 5 years), bull fertility is still strong but bulls can become ornery around the higher age range and a little too big to handle. Farm safety is always our primary concern. The bull services our cows (approximately 15 – 20) each Spring, Summer, and Fall. We bring our animals into the barn to allow us to give proper care to our calves and calving mothers. For example, unlike the Belted Galloway and Scottish Highland breeds, our calves could never withstand our Arctic climate and long drawn out winters outside. Once inside the barn, dad and I can look for the tell-tale signs of parturition. I’ll begin by naming the few that I’ve learned through oral tradition from my father and some from scholarly research.
Tell-tale Signs a Cow is Ready to Deliver
As a cow nears parturition, birth of the calf, we look for several tell-tale signs of impending calving. It is not an exact science. For anyone interested in the reproductive anatomy and physiology of cattle, you can browse the following link: http://www.selectsires.com/resources/fertilitydocs/reproductive_anatomy.pdf.
- Development of an udder that becomes more and more turgid. However, development of the udder itself is not sufficient. The teats must fill as well.
- Small-sized bowel movements due in large part to pressure on the rectum from the calf in the birth canal.
- Elevating the tale or keeping the tale to the side of the vulva and blood enlarged vulva lips.
- Restlessness. A cow, especially a first time calver, will repeatedly get up and down and/or pace when she is very close.
- Release of the cervical plug. (The mucous plug blocks the calf from external infection.) This can be an indication of impending calving although it may happen several days before birth.
- Relaxation of the pelvic ligaments. If one feels the indents on either side of the tail above the hips, you will find two indents that get deeper as calving gets closer. Labor will usually begin about 12 hours after complete relaxation of the pelvic ligaments.
Dystocia – When Problems Arise
Optimally, we want cattle to deliver unassisted and only under the watchful eye of the herdsman or farmer. However, this is not always the case, especially with first time calvers. Dystocia, or difficulty calving, can present a serious threat. Some symptoms of dystocia are malpresentation and prolonged calving time (up to and over 8 hours). The normal presentation of a calf in the birth canal has the feet followed by the head, shoulders, hips, and hind legs. Anything contrary to this positioning is considered malpresented or breached. We cull cows that run into frequent calving problems such as a repeated uterine prolapse or early abortion.
Push and Pull Together
Having delivered more than a handful of calves by myself and assisted in delivering others with my father, we have become very familiar with sterile techniques for manually inspecting malpresentations and pulling calves out. It is important to note that upon assisting a cow with a delivery, pulls should match the cow’s contractions. Otherwise, uterine torsion or potential damage to the uterine lining may result. Calves should be pulled at a downward angle and with enough force to help the cow pass the shoulders and then hips of the calf. The sooner the calf exits the birth canal, the better in terms of health for the cow and calf. Time is of the essence. I have seen a large variety of malpresentations including retained legs, anterior presentations, and posterior presentations. Each presentation requires diligence and care while trying to deliver the calf. One must always exercise caution when straightening a leg or head, being careful not to tear the uterine lining.
Malpresentations – Breeched Births
Anterior presentations require removal of the membrane around the nostrils once the head has emerged and are generally done with ease unless it is an oversized calf, which can happen with an early calving heifer. We pull straight until the shoulders have passed and then down to leverage the animal out of the birth canal. Posterior presentations are always worrisome. They require a great deal of strength, without chains, to get the hip past and must be removed as quickly as possible so that the calf does not inhale fluid. There have been a few instances when the calves have defecated due to the pressure on the abdomen while we pulled the calf out. But, there is no room for laughter. Joy only comes when we have the calf with its mother.
After the calf has been delivered we sometimes tickle the nasal passage with straw to stimulate breathing and in dire circumstances, begin CPR. My father has performed CPR on a calf on more than one occasion, sometimes keeping the other from the brink of death and other times losing them after a long hard-fought battle. Dad’s calling was realized in the form of a herdsman delivering calves. He dedicates his life to these animals, who in turn give their lives for us and our community. He has performed CPR on a calf for up to an hour, held a prolapsed uterus in his arms to keep it clean for a couple of hours until the vet arrived, nursed ill animals back to health, and always to the glory of God. At times, calves can be born stillborn but we never give up on a calf. All life is precious and precarious. Just recently dad and I delivered a posterior presentation (breach) and the calf came out not breathing. Dad immediately started to gently blow in the nostrils while he felt for a heart beat. I then took over giving small exhalations into the calves nostrils until finally the calves lungs filled, his eyes blinked, and his reflexes kicked in. It was beautiful, as it always is when we welcome a new calf into the world.
A Story to Tell
One of my favorite stories about calving came from my father who was following the impending calving of one of our cows. Everything seemed normal, nothing out of the ordinary, until a voice came to my father’s head saying, “Help me, I’m dying.” Dad immediately sprung into action and found that the calf’s hoof was retained keeping it from entering the birth canal. Some of you, while you read this, may say to yourself, “This is preposterous, how can that be? Where’s the science behind this? You may muse to yourself, maybe it was just his inner voice responding to a multitude of environmental indicators that pointed to a troublesome delivery.” At any rate, I accept my father’s story at face value, even with my own doubts, because of the intensely spiritual experience of birth. I have been overcome with tears of joy and sadness after delivering a calf. There is something to be said about having a hand in assisting a calf into the world. The birth may be sterile, but the experience is not. It brings a great deal of warmth to one’s heart to watch a newborn calve blink it’s eyes and suckle for the first time.
Facilitating the Cow-Calf Bond
Maternal instincts vary greatly among cattle in the herd. We never give up on helping to form the bond between cow and calf. Sprinkling oats on the calf, hydrating the cow with several buckets of warm water, and watching the calf lay close to the cow all play an important role in facilitating a bond between cow and calf. The cow will often tongue bathe the calf, helping it to dry off, and further cementing the bond between cow and calf. Just imagine the neuronal synapses firing away while the calf learns the sensation of touch. Within hours, sometimes days in the case of a hard labor, the calf can be found in his pen of straw, standing for the first time. Falling for the first time. Standing a second time. Falling a second time like Bambi on ice. I always imagine a web of neuronal firings taking place inside the calf’s brain while his/her legs feel the weight of gravity and body weight for the first time. It is simply amazing how quickly a calf learns to bring their muscle movements into control. Clearly, a survival instinct that exists, in greater strength, in the wild today. The process repeats itself until finally the calf stands strong and is ready to suckle. We usually kneel beside the calf for the first week of feeding until they are able to stand alone and drink on all four teats. It’s laborious, but it’s a necessary scaffold for the newborn calf.
Calves are a welcome addition to our herd every year. It signals the arrival of Spring and brings a great deal of love and laughter to the farm as we care for the animals while they develop into animals that we will befriend and then give their lives to us so that we may raise a healthy meat product for people of the Restigouche region. It’s a part of the cycle on the farm.
Finally, if you are left with questions after reading this article you are more than welcome to post a question and/or comment below.