Note: This post was written by a real person–me. All photos by me unless otherwise noted.
March Fifth, Calving Season Begins
To promote good health and improve herd management, we catch each newborn calf before it is 24 hours old and put a tag that matches the mother’s tag in the calf’s ear. Calves learn to run early on, so if we wait any longer, it is difficult to catch them.
We also give the calf two shots of vitamins, put iodine on the umbilical cord, and place a band around the scrotum of any bull calves. This makes them steers, which garner a higher price when we sell them.
Journal Entry, March 10
We drove into the calving field just after sunrise. Cow 68 was at the far end of the field, standing next to her newborn baby. She was staring at us. As we drove the jeep toward her, the mother dipped her head down, then up. Not a good sign. It means she will be aggressively protective of the baby.
Sure enough, when I grabbed the calf by the leg, the cow charged Jeanne and butted her. Then she hit me with her head, and I was pinned against the jeep. I released the calf. Jeanne instructed me to grab the calf and put it in the back of the jeep.
Oh, sure, I thought. In a split second, the cow went toward Jeanne; I grabbed the calf and put it in the back of the jeep. Jeanne escaped into the driver’s seat, and we took off. Once out of sight of the cow, we stopped, got the calf out, and gave her a shot of vitamins.
I looked up and saw the cow racing toward us. I could see her breath spewing out of both nostrils as she ran.
“Get back in the jeep!” Jeanne exclaimed.
I put the calf back in the jeep, and off we went. Once again out of sight, we completed the tagging tasks and left the calf for the mother just moments away.
Calving Season Is the Busiest and Most Anxious Time on the Farm
This year we had 30 cows and 18 heifers (young female cows that have never had a baby) about to give birth on the first of March. Our goal is to never have a calf die because of farmer inattention, so we must be “on” around the clock.
Calving Season Defined
We have a cow-calf operation, which means we have cows (female bovines) that have calves. The goal is for each cow to have one calf every year. The calves nurse their mothers and graze the pastures for nine months. By then, the calves weigh about 600 pounds. We wean them from their mothers and sell them to an all-natural program through which they go to another farm to continue grazing on pasture until they reach a mature weight of around a thousand pounds. Then they are humanely harvested and processed for beef.
To get cows impregnated, we lease two bulls for three months (June through August). The gestation period for a cow is nine months, so our calving “season” begins on or around the first of March and ends, theoretically, on June first.
Most cows have their babies with no problems at all. Newborns can stand up in as little as 10 minutes, and they can nurse within an hour of birth.
Things That Go Wrong
It’s been our experience that 10 to 20 percent of the cows or newborns will need some sort of assistance. It could be as simple as helping confused calves determine who their mothers are, or it could be a breech birth requiring a veterinarian.
This year we had to help three cows deliver their babies. This is called pulling a calf. Farmers never like doing this, but it comes with the territory. Maybe the baby’s leg is backward preventing delivery; maybe the calf is too big; maybe the mother just isn’t pushing enough during a contraction.
Sometimes a newborn doesn’t know how to nurse; sometimes the mother won’t let the newborn nurse; and sometimes it’s both. In any of those cases, intervention is necessary to get nursing underway. For example, if the baby won’t nurse, we’ll have to get the mother into the head-catch and then put the mother’s teat into the baby’s mouth until it learns how to nurse on its own.
We calve in the spring, so sometimes the weather is severely cold or wet or both. If the mother doesn’t lick the baby dry or the calf is weak, the baby can get too cold to nurse. We have a calf warmer to use in these instances. The warmer is basically a chamber big enough for a newborn calf with a heater in it to warm the baby up.
Journal Entry, March 15
I’m writing this at 3:19 a.m. It’s been a long day … and a cold one. The temperature was 23 degrees yesterday morning, but horrendous winds made it feel like 7 degrees! Disastrous for calving. Three heifers calved today. We pulled two and used the calf warmer to get them warm.
Heifer 18 was in labor at 6 a.m. At 6 p.m. she still had only the calf’s front feet out. We pulled that one by hand. The baby was alive but weak. We put mother and calf in a stall in the lower barn. The calf got cold and didn’t nurse, so into the calf warmer she went. Jeanne mixed up some powdered colostrum with warm water and fed that to the baby from a bottle.
Something was wrong with Heifer 14. She just wasn’t getting it done, so we put her into the head-catch. The calf’s feet and head were positioned correctly, but the heifer’s cervix had not dilated, making it too small to give birth. Jeanne massaged the cervix for about 10 minutes to no avail. We had to use the calf jack to get the baby out. By that point, the mother was so exhausted she could have cared less about the baby. She just wanted the ordeal to be over. baby got too cold to nurse, so we put him in the calf warmer for an hour and a half. He sucked down colostrum from a bottle, and we put the mother and baby in a stall for the night.
Heifer 16 gave birth to her baby on her own, and we moved the two of them into a makeshift stall in the solar barn.
Journal Entry, May 9
Two heifers and a cow calved today, and that finishes our calving season! This is only the second time in my history with Jeanne that we had ZERO mortality. And it was the shortest season, lasting only 65 days.
A Bald Eagle and a Lucky Farmer
It is well known that most mammals eat their placenta after giving birth. There are many reasons; it’s nutritious for one thing. Experts claim it also relieves pain and improves milk production. Placenta left on the ground attracts predators like coyotes and vultures that can kill a newborn calf. Sometimes Bald Eagles swoop in to steal placenta for their babies. We got lucky to have a camera to capture the moment.