Here comes the Calf!

I stood there with my husband and daughters in the barn, and as we watched the two front feet emerging from the Mama, all the hard work, time, money and energy I had put into having a dairy cow disappeared!  We witnessed a smooth, beautiful birth without any complications, and it was a baby girl to boot!  I will be writing several posts about my dairy cow journey but this one is dedicated to the signs of labor, delivery and what to do when the calf is born.

I was so anxious for our baby calf to arrive, I was like a nesting mama, checking on our cow several times throughout the day (which all paid off in the end)!  I started really monitoring her bag, teats, vulva and behavior two weeks prior to her due date. She has a covered area in our barn she can come in and out of and a one acre area where she can go explore, but I began locking her in the barn at night as her due date approached, just in case.  I chose straw for her bedding in the barn because we can compost it, it's easy to clean and I think it's better than shavings. 

When is my cow going to calve?  

Well the frustrating answer is nobody knows!  I didn't know until my cow was in early labor, hunched over with her tail sticking out in the air, that it was actually happening.  Yes, signs beforehand were pointing that way, but nothing indicted the exact onset of labor.  Everything seemed pretty gradual in the last two weeks as all the changes to get ready for labor were happening in her body.  But here is what to look for to know that she is on her way:

  • "Springing" this is when the vulva swells to prepare for the calf.  My cows vulva seemed to continually swell starting about a month beforehand.  But definitely by the time she calved it was bouncing as she walked!
  • Discharge is a great sign, and means everything is preparing for the baby to move through. I saw a bit of bloody discharge a week before she calved, which could have been her mucous plug.
  • The pin bones shift and the tail head drops down as the pelvis begins to open from the hormone relaxin.  This also felt gradual and I probably noticed it a little more every day for about a week.
  •  I kept thinking her udder could not get any bigger, but it did, and then it got even bigger!  There will be no wrinkles in the udder and it will be extremely tight!  This also happened gradually.  I noticed udder development for about the last two months but major development in the last two weeks prior to birth.
  • At the time of her birth her teats were completely full and splaying out to the side.  This happened within the last 24 hours. There was no dripping of milk, but definitely a major change in the teat.


Ok, you have found your cow with her back hunched and tail sticking out and she is finally in labor! There are 3 parts

1. Early Labor can be anywhere from 2-6 hours. Your cow has started contractions. She may be getting up and down, on her knees, pawing at the ground kicking her belly, looking at her belly, going in circles. Observe her, make sure she has a clean, dry place, safe place to give birth.  Make sure no dogs are around and labor will go faster if there are only people there she knows. At this point you should have your vet number's handy, dry towels and your supply box ready, click here to read prior post on what you need. But settle in and wait, it won't be too long now!

2. Active Labor takes anywhere from 1/2hour to 2 hours. The water sac should emerge and burst and then two hooves (with bottom of hooves face down) and then nose should appear.  At this point if there is a malpresentation(the calf in the wrong position), you should call your vet immediately, also if active labor is not progressing within in hour you should also call your vet. Most likely all will go smooth and you will not have to assist your cow.  Once the head is out, she will push the shoulders out and the babe will be out in no time.  Do not be alarmed if the cows tongue is hanging out, this is normal. They are receiving oxygen though the umbilical cord until it breaks upon delivery.  Once the babe is on the ground, the mama should start licking immediately.  If you need to, with clean hands, remove any sac or obstruction from the calf's mouth and nose until it starts breathing. 

3. Mama will deliver the placenta. This make take up to 12 hours, but usually happens within the first few.  I let my cow her eat her placenta like they would do naturally, but you can remove it upon delivery if you wish.  Call your vet if your cow has not delivered the placenta within 12 hours as this could be amor complication.

Calf on the ground!

Now that your calf has safely arrived, hopefully mama is licking away and there is not much for you to do.  If mama is down and is not getting up, bring baby over in front of mama. If she is still not licking her calf, get in there with dry tools and massage the calf.  This stimulates blood pumping and helps get the lungs functioning.  

Use a cup of iodine to disinfect the babe's umbilical cord. This is extremely important, as the calf has no antibodies yet, so do several times in the first tow days until the cord drys up.

The calf should stand being trying to stand with the first 30 minutes.  It can take several tries but should happen within the first 2 hours.  The clock is ticking, the sooner the calf gets it's mother's colostrum the better chance of survival the calf has.  Ideally it is drinking colostrum within 2 hours after birth. If calf is up and having trouble finding the teat, please assist it to latch.  Once the calf is wagging it's tail and butting the udder the that means it is latched and truly getting the milk. If the calf seems lethargic and is not getting up you need to milk the colostrum out of the mama and either bottle feed or tube the feed the baby (supplies should be on hand).  I also milked my cow within a few hours of her giving birth and froze the colostrum incase we ever need it for an orphan calf. Your calf getting colostrum is a matter of life and death!

Watch your calf closely the first few days.  Make sure it drinks several times within the first 24 hours and is active, alert, is pooping and peeing and has a full belly as time progresses. If you are taking the calf away from the cow at birth you'll be regulating it's feedings by bottle feeding.  I chose to keep my calf on the mama and just take the milk our family needs. Calves have enough energy reserve when born for a couple days, so you need to make sure your calf is actually latching and nursing. If there seems to be problem with mama or baby, call your vet, you'd rather be safe than sorry, but 90% of the time all goes smooth!

Happy Bovine Birthing!

Love, Lauren