Walking out to the barnyard to discover a fresh, wet newborn calf…
It never gets old.
As I documented our most recent after delivery experience for our YouTube channel (you can watch the video below) I realized we have our developed own sort of post-calving aftercare routine over the years. Would you be interested in hearing about it? (I’m picturing you nodding your head yes right now)
M’kay. Awesome. Here we go.
Now a brief caveat here: I do spoil my milk cows… Our range cows (aka beef cows) don’t receive quite as much special treatment (nor do they really want it). But I don’t mind giving our milk cow mamas a bit of extra lovin’, plus it’s important that I watch them closely for issues with mastitis and milk fever due to the quantity of milk they produce.
Basically? Once a milk cow calf hits the ground, that’s when the work begins…
After Delivery Calf Care
Fortunately, Oakley is an amazing mama and has always had a strong mothering instinct with her calves (and everyone else’s calves for that matter… and baby goats too. She lets everyone nurse.) It also helps that she is experienced at calving (read about her success raising twins in my 5 Signs of Calving post), as most older, experienced cows do not have problems bonding with their calves.
If you have a first-calf heifer, you’ll need to watch her more closely. Due to hormone issues, confusion, or stress at calving time, she might be indifferent to her calf at first. However, within the first 24 hours, her motherly instincts will likely begin to kick in.
2. Keep It Warm & Dry
If possible, it’s nice to move your milk cow to a clean, sheltered place before she has her calf, but it doesn’t always (read: almost never) works out that way. But it’s usually not a big deal to move them after the fact.
Older, experienced cows will often follow their calf, so you can move them by bringing the calf to the chosen spot. However, an inexperienced first-time mama cow might get confused (or may try to murder you if you mess with her calf), so proceed with caution. I like to let them bond for an hour or two before attempting to move locations.
After delivery, the mama cow will lick her calf to clean and dry it, which helps the calf stay warm and provides an important bit of bonding. If you feel it’s necessary, you can use a towel to assist her in cleaning, but I rarely feel the need to do this.
If the weather is warm and you have a spot where you can easily monitor the pair, you may not need to move them at all. I usually only place them in a pen if it’s very cold/wet/muddy outside or I am wanting her to stay close so I can help relieve pressure in the cow’s udder throughout the day. (More on that below.)
3. Iodine Dip
During the calving process, the navel (or umbilical) cord breaks, severing the connection between the calf and the cow. This leaves a direct route into the calf for possible infections.
In order to decrease the chance of infection, make sure calf pen/shelter is clean and dry, then clean and treat the exposed navel by dipping it in an iodine solution.
Watch the calf carefully for the next week or so for any signs of infection, which includes swelling, high temperatures, panting, and lack of appetite. Contact your local vet if you are worried that your calf has an infection.
Calves are born with a weak immune system, so they depend on mama’s first milk for an immune boost. It is crucial that your calf gets this colostrum from the first milking. The calf should get its first meal within 1-2 hours of birth.
Not only does the colostrum boost your calf’s immune system, it also provides the calf with an array of nutrients, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
If I’m dealing with a weak calf or an inexperienced mama cow, I watch the colostrum situation very closely. Sometimes, an inexperienced mama cow won’t stand still to let her calf nurse. You can help by putting a halter on your cow and tying her on place, or use a chute or head-catch to keep her from moving around. (Giving her a few flakes of hay to munch can help her relax.) You might need to halter her at feeding times for the first few days, but once she is mooing or licking her calf while it nurses, you can relax and let them do their thing.
Sometimes, the calf is the one that is confused. You can assist your calf to suckle the cow if it seems to be struggling. Gently hold the calf up to the cow and guide its head to her udder. I like to squeeze some milk out of the teat to get things flowing and also so the calf has a chance to catch the scent of the milk. You may need to guide the teat into the mouth of the calf if it’s not getting the hang of things. Just stay patient and keep trying until there is a successful latch.
While the initial milk has the most colostrum, there will still some colostrum remaining in the cow’s milk for several days after delivery. This milk is not suitable for humans yet, and should be left for the calf for its health. If you think your cow needs to be milked in order to relieve pressure from her udder, you can save the colostrum-filled milk in the freezer for emergency use with future newborn calves.
After Delivery Cow Care
1. Spoil Mama 😉
Food can help a mama cow’s system recover from birth more quickly, so I like to provide our milk cows with extra treats after they give birth, such as alfalfa hay and/or a bucket of warm water with a swirl of molasses in it. Some people will also provide their cow with a warm bran mash with molasses or crude sugar.
Is this entirely necessary? No, and 99.99999% of cows don’t get this after birth. But Oakley is special… what can I say?
Do make sure your milk cow has access to all the fresh water it wants to drink. Lukewarm water is best (avoid hot water). Also, ensure that the shelter you are providing your cow and calf gives protection from cold winds and drafts.
Your cow should discharge the placenta (or afterbirth) within 5-6 hours, and I always watch to make sure this happens, as retained placenta can cause serious complications. If your cow has not discharged the placenta within 8-12 hours of calving, give your local vet a call.
When the placenta is expelled from her body, she will want to eat it. I usually don’t stop Oakley from doing this, as it’s a natural part of the process. However, if you are adverse to it, you can remove the afterbirth from the pen or shelter.
3. Mastitis & Milk Fever
Mastitis (an infection of the mammary glands) can develop any time a cow is in milk, but they are especially susceptible in the first weeks after calving. Symptoms include a hot, painful, red, or hard udder and chunky, clumpy, or salty-tasting milk. Light cases of mastitis can be treated by applying warm, wet towels to the udder and milking frequently to keep things flowing. However, more severe cases may require antibiotics. It’s best to check with your vet if you become concerned.
Milk fever is a metabolic condition that is caused by a low blood-calcium level. It can be deadly, so I am pretty paranoid about keeping a close eye on Oakley post-calving for this reason alone. Milk fever is more common in older cows who’ve had lots of calves, or fat cows. Some cows seem genetically predisposed to it, and Jerseys in particular are more susceptible. (This is one of the reasons I prefer Brown Swiss.) Symptoms of milk fever include staggering, twitching, a glazed over look in the cow’s eye, lowered body temperature, the cow being in a sitting position, or a cow being down with an inability to get up. If you suspect milk fever, call your vet immediately– it can be treated if caught early.
All in all, your job as post-birth cow midwife is merely to keep tabs on things and make sure everything goes as planned. Keep your intervention should be minimal, as the vast majority of cows know exactly what they are doing.
Our Newest Brown Swiss Baby!