“Honey, can you hand me my phone so I can take a picture of the cow’s mucous?”
That’s pretty much how the conversations have been sounding around our house lately…
Calving is always an exciting time, but I’m especially excited this year since we bred Oakley (our milk cow) to a super nice Brown Swiss bull. Usually, we just borrow a neighbor’s bull and end up with a half beef/half dairy calf. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I’ve been wanting a full dairy heifer to keep alongside Oakley, so we found some lovely Brown Swiss semen this past summer and had Oakley artificially inseminated.
And I’ve been waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
What’s the secret to knowing exactly when your cow will calve, you ask?
Well, there isn’t one… When it comes right down to it, you just gotta be patient. The gestation period of a cow will be anywhere from 270-290 days, so it’s all about the waiting and watching game once the time approaches.
However, there are some definite signs of calving you can look for that’ll clue you in to when the time is getting pretty close.
5 Signs of Calving
1. Rapidly growing udder
Now, this can be a bit deceiving, since a cow will start “bagging up” sometimes months before their calving date. However, when the time gets really close, you’ll see the udder get much bigger, much faster. There will no longer be any wrinkles in the bag or teats, and the teats will “strut” or stick out at a slight angle. I felt bad for our Oakley– I thought her bag couldn’t get any bigger, but it just kept growing and growing right up until she calved.
If your cow is a heavy producer, sometimes milk will start dripping out a bit, but I don’t suggest squeezing the teats or trying to express any milk until after the cow calves.
Time Frame = Bagging up will begin months prior, with fastest growth happening in the week before calving
2. Springing in the Back End…
Also know as a puffy, relaxed vulva. Yup– you’ll want to get up close and personal with your cow and see how things are looking on the back end… As calving time approaches, her vulva will get very loose and relaxed. On Oakley’s last few days before she calved, I noticed her vulva would even bounce a bit as she walked.
Time Frame= Springing will often begin several weeks before birth, increasing as time passses
3. Disappearing pelvic ligaments
Does your cow’s tailhead seem to be sticking up a little more than usual? That’s a good indication her pelvic ligaments are softening to prepare for birth. However, like the other signs, this can be deceiving because what you *think* are super-loose pelvic ligaments might not actually be near as loose as they will be right before calving.
Also, on beef cows or fat cows, it will be much harder to use the ligaments as a determining sign. Our Hereford cow calved the day before Oakley, and her tail area didn’t seem to change at all. Oakley, on the other hand, showed considerable change as time progressed. Watching the progression ;of her ligaments reminded me of watching our goats for the same sort of thing.
Time Frame = You may notice softening in the pelvic ligaments up to several weeks before calving, but you’ll notice the biggest changes 12 hours before birth.
4. Mucous & discharge
Noticing a little bit of slimy discharge under your cow’s tail? That’s totally normal, and you can expect to see it one to two weeks before calving, or, you may not see it at all.
I noticed some mucous strings on Oakley’s tail the day before she calved. Not a lot, but just enough to let me know we were getting close.
Time Frame = You may see discharge/mucous from your cow up to two weeks before calving
5. Restlessness and weird behavior
The day Oakley calved, she wasn’t quite acting normal. While her friends were out grazing in the pasture, she stood in the pen by the water tank and kinda “zoned out.” Several hours later, my husband caught her in the barn pressing her head against the wall and stretching her back legs out.
Her abnormal behaviors were the signs of early labor, however she continued to graze and act normal on and off throughout the day, so her labor didn’t become “intense” until the last hour or so.
Once the cow is REALLY ready to calve, you’ll see her pacing, pawing, and getting up and down.
Time Frame= I usually notice the most weird behavior 12-24 hours before calving
Oakley’s Special Surprise
Although I do watch our cows carefully during calving season to make sure there aren’t any problems, I try to give them plenty of space, for the most part, to just let them do their thing. However, I was bound and determined to get some good calving pictures this time around, so I pretty much stalked her with my camera during that last week.
My persistence paid off, and Prairie Girl and I were able to witness Oakley calving for the first time ever. We stayed fairly hidden so as not to disturb her, but I was still able to snap some pictures of the process.
You can see the water bag here– it has ruptured and although not visible in this photo, there were two small hooves beginning to peek out.
(Note: We have a barn with stalls, but I prefer to let our cows calve outside, in a small pen where there is fresh air and grass. Oakley happened to choose a spot right by our post pile (argh), but I didn’t want to disturb her by shooing her away from it.)
Front legs and a head. At this point, I even caught the calf blinking as it took its first look at the outside world.
It’s hard to see here, but the back legs are just about done coming out.
Oakley is a fabulous mama and always gets right to licking and cleaning the calf.
At this point, Prairie Girl and I decided to head inside and give Oakley and her calf a little time to bond. I’m not a fan of jumping right in the middle of things if I don’t have to. This is a very important bonding time for calf and mama, and since I know Oakley has a strong maternal instinct and knows how to clean off a calf very thoroughly, I wanted to leave her alone for a bit.
But when we came back out an hour later, we had quite the surprise.
Because there wasn’t just one calf on the ground, there was TWO.
And twin heifers, no less! I was absolutely beside myself. 🙂
At this point, it was starting to rain, so we decided to take everyone into the barn for the night.
Oakley had an instant bond to both calves, which was a relief as sometimes mamas will reject one twin.
Prairie Girl helped dry them off a bit more as hubby and I made sure everyone was figuring out out how to latch on and nurse. Making sure any newborn baby gets their first drinks of colostrum is absolutely crucial in the first few hours after birth. One of the twins was slightly weaker than the other, but both were able to get up and had strong sucking reflexes.
When it comes to cattle, twins are often not a welcome outcome. There can be issues with rejection of one of the calves, or sometimes the cow doesn’t have enough milk. Also, if the twins are mixed-sex (one boy, one girl), it is very common for the heifer (girl) to be sterile (aka a freemartin heifer).
Thankfully, Oakley is used to multiple calves, as we often graft bum calves on to her due to her copious milk supply. And since they are both heifers, we likely have side-stepped any fertility problems. Whew! Therefore, I’m seriously celebrating my two-heifer year. We have decided to keep both for a while and will halter break them and breed them before selling them.
Here are some more baby pics, because, well, I’m a little obsessed…
We kicked them out of the barn the next day so they could enjoy the sunny skies and fresh air.
It looks like Prairie Girl has decided to name them Elsa and Anna. Although I’m still having a hard time telling who is who, since they are pretty darn identical!