Family cow owners have a special relationship with their cows. Unlike farmers with large beef or dairy herds, family cow owners usually only keep one or two bovines and use them for the production of the family's milk and beef supply. Because most of these animals must be handled, fed or milked one or more times per day, they quickly become very docile and trusting of their human caretakers. During the yearly calving process, however, they may react differently to human interaction, making it difficult for the owner to tell when the calving process is proceeding normally and when the cow is in distress and in need of assistance to safely deliver the calf. If you are new to family cow ownership, this guide can help you prepare for the calving process and be ready to assist the cow, if needed.
Timing the Birth
A typical bovine gestation period is 283 days, but like human births, this number can vary by several days. Heifers that are calving for the first time, as well as certain breeds and other factors can affect the actual calving date, but usually not more than a week or two. If the cow was artificially inseminated or bred by and bull and the actual breeding date is known, the owner can use a bovine gestation table to estimate an approximate date for the calving. If the breeding date is unknown, the owner can have their local vet clinic perform an examination on the cow in mid-pregnancy to accurately discover the developmental status of the unborn calf and establish a probable due date for the birth. In addition, some veterinary clinics offer ultrasound services and other non-invasive tests that can help determine when the calf should be expected.
Preparing for Delivery Day
While most bovine births are uneventful and require no human intervention, problems can develop that require assistance. The family cow owner can eliminate confusion and be better prepared to help their cow through a difficult birth by preparing a birthing kit in advance. This kit should include the following:
- bovine obstetrical gloves that cover your arm to the shoulder
- a skin-safe disinfectant
- a sterile lubricant
- clean rags
- a pair of clean fabric gloves
- a set of obstetrical chains
In addition to preparing the obstetrical kit, the family cow owner should discuss the impending birth with their animal care professional. Also, it can be beneficial to spend some time during the gestation period by studying both the normal calving process and abnormal presentations and how to handle them.
Recognizing the Signs of Labor
Cows are creatures who thrive on predictable schedules and new cow owners can use this to their advantage when the calving time draws near. Watch for changes in the cow's behavior, such as withdrawing from other animals, attempting to hide in wooded areas or refusing to eat. These changes may indicate that the calf will be born soon.
In addition, as the labor progresses, the cow may breathe heavily, or seem uncomfortable and change positions frequently. Some cows can become excitable and nervous during this time and humans, dogs and other distractions in the area can make this issue even worse. If your cow seems nervous during the early labor process, consider watching from afar with binoculars instead of approaching her.
Making Sure the Birth is Progressing Normally
Once the cow has progressed through the early stages of labor, she will begin to have regular contractions. The family cow owner can help the cow during this time by keeping the area calm and being watchful. When the calf is positioned correctly for a normal birth, the front hooves will appear first from the birth canal, usually preceded by a sac of fluids. The hooves should be close together, relatively even and have the soles of the hooves pointing downward. Configured in a position similar to a diver, the head of the calf should appear soon after the hooves and be located between the front legs. Do not be alarmed if the hooves appear and disappear a few times until they are pushed far enough out of the birth canal to remain visible.
If the hooves are positioned correctly and the birth is progressing well, the cow will rarely require any assistance. However, if the presentation of the calf is not normal, labor stops or the cow appears to be in distress, contact your veterinary professional immediately for assistance.