This post on calving season was written by Hubby (aka: Farmer John). John occasionally contributes farm posts in hopes of providing an understanding of farm life, farm practices, and sharing agricultural information with readers.
Spring is an exciting time of the year on the farm, mainly because we get to experience calving season. It’s something we look forward to, and sometimes dread.
When everything goes right, calving season can be fun and enjoyable. Every once in a while, calving season doesn’t go easily.
Some people feel very superstitious about calving season. Some people feel if you have a good start, then you’ll have a bad end, or vice versa. It’s one of the hardest times when things don’t go your way.
Sometimes you can do everything right, but it still won’t work, and you lose a calf or a cow, or both. Nothing’s harder on a farmer than to work a full day trying to save a cow and a calf and to still lose both.
In our cow herd, we don’t have to help/assist with a birth very often. Every once in a while we’ll have to assist in the birth of a calf, but that is rare on our farm. More often, sometimes we just need to help the calf to get started sucking/nursing or sometimes to help the cow accept the new calf.
At times new moms shun their calves – either not wanting to accept them or sometimes try to steal somebody else’s. Why would a cow not take to her calf? The biggest reason is that they associate the calf with pain, especially if it was a difficult birth. Often first time cows are not familiar with the process of how to push or when not to push. Some come by the instinct much more naturally.
The first 24 hours are crucial. That’s when the most important bonding between calf and mom happen. That’s also when the calf receives colostrum from his mother’s milk (ideally within the first six hours of its life). The longer this doesn’t happen, the higher risk the calf will have for infection (such as scours) and the lack of ability to fight it. Colostrum from mom gives the calf antibodies and it’s a very rich milk from the first milkings.
If a mom rejects her calf, we try our best to isolate them from the herd so the cow is forced to focused on the calf and we try to get the calf to suck. Sometimes the moms don’t cooperate, so we have to use methods to try to facilitate.
Today, we had this very situation. This was this cow’s first calf. On a more mature cow, we would likely not keep her in the herd. It requires too much work, but we will do the work if it’s a first or second calf.
We had to put the cow in a squeeze (a place to safely hold the cow and safe for us to work with, and to protect the calf so that the cow cannot kick it). We took the calf and helped him find the teats and try to suck. We also tried to get the mom to lick him and pay attention to him. This is important for bonding.
This calf had very strong instincts and the will to live, so we just had to try to get the mom to cooperate. Sometimes we get calves that are weak or lethargic, and all they want to do is sleep or lay down. Sometimes then we have to get milk from the mother and bottle feed or tube the calf to get milk into them. The tube is a stomach tube that we have to put into the stomach through the mouth and down the throat to get milk into their milk stomach, which only lasts for the first month. The calf at this point hasn’t developed all four stomachs yet. In this case, prefer to bottle-feed if the calf will take the bottle. The calves are very stubborn and like to do everything opposite of what you’d like them to do.
Sometimes you can do everything right and still lose a calf.
Our first calf this season was a healthy bull calf born in the bush. On a beautiful sunny day, while he was basking in the sun, a raven plucked his eye out and he died shortly after. When they can’t see, calves give up the will to live very easily.
I wish I could say that this is a rare event. We do not lose calves every year this way, but it does happen and more than we would like. Some of the older cows are very good at chasing off the ravens, but the ravens are very good at sneaking up if there’s an opportunity. Day-old calves are very vulnerable because they sleep so deeply. Ravens will try to peck a cow’s eyes, but a cow will shake the ravens off.
Some people find this very hard to believe, it is a reality on the farm. I have seen it happen in person, and not be able to get to the calf fast enough to do anything about it. It’s only once I’ve actually witnessed it, and I’ve seen ravens try multiple times to peck a calf’s eyes out. Either the calf wakes up or a cow comes by to chase it away.
These are some of the realities that happen on a farm that many people are not aware of. And, we haven’t even talked about other predators like coyotes, bear, dogs, wolves, etc.
There is satisfaction in a job well done.
There is still no better feeling that to work with a cow and calf and to have everything work out fine – the way it’s supposed to. When it works out, calving season is well worth it. There’s a satisfaction from a job well done. It makes all the time spent in the barn or in the field, away from family and other commitments seem like it is not in vain.