6 Ways to Prepare Yourself and Your Cows for Calving

Baby cows bring joy to any farm. Ensure they get a good start to life with shelter, feed and other protections in place.

by Victoria Van Harlingen
6 Ways to Prepare Yourself and Your Cows for Calving - Photo by Rachael Brugger (HobbyFarms.com)
Photo by Rachael Brugger

Nothing is cuter than a newborn calf cavorting in a pasture with mama cow keeping close watch. Most mama cows will do their best to keep their offspring safe and well, but ultimately, the task of ensuring a successful calving season falls to their human caregivers. Here are six things you can do to prepare your farm for calving season.

1. Be On Baby Watch

Given all the variables of weather and calf gestation, it’s best to prepare for the worst possible birthing scenarios. In an ideal situation, your cows are bred to a good-tempered, compatible bull; you’ve provided them plenty of good hay, a minimum of grain and treats, and plenty of water; and they are living on clean pasture. Calculate when you expect your cows’ calving season to begin, and check the cows at least twice a day for signs of labor: udders filling with milk, vulva very loose and sometimes stringing mucus.

2. Have Shelter Ready

Ideally, you want your cows to calve on clean, dry pasture with at least three sunny days after the birth. Dry weather, either cold or warm, is best because there’s less chance of disease and calves can survive on dry pasture even when temperatures fall well below freezing; however, cold and wet can be a fatal combination.

Make sure you have a barn or other shelter where you can provide a clean, straw-lined birthing pen in case you need to bring a laboring cow in out of the weather. This could be a large stall or covered pen at least 12-by-12 feet, with protection from the wind. It should have a thick layer of clean, fresh straw on the floor and strong, secure walls.

In addition—and just as important—is a calf loafing pen. This is a shed or stall in a barn or building with direct access to the cow’s pasture. The entrance to the pen should be about 3 feet wide, 3 feet tall and sturdy enough that a cow cannot break through. The entrance should be as close to the pasture as possible so the calves can access it easily without interference from the cows. Allow at least 4 square feet of space per calf. Line the pen with a thick bed of straw, and keep it very clean. Once your calves are a few days old, they will naturally come into the pen to sleep and loaf with other calves. The pen provides a safe, dry environment where calves can relax. Mama cow can graze on pasture or munch on hay feeling fairly certain that her calf is safe.

3. Protect Shy Mothers

Some cows are shy or nervous about calving around other cows. Despite your best efforts, you might have a cow that leaves the herd to deliver her calf. Even in good weather, you should bring the cow and her calf back to the barn shortly after the birth. A lone cow with a newborn calf is at risk from coyotes, wild dogs and other predators.

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If the cow will let you, carry the calf to the barn. Of course, some cows are very protective and will not allow you to come near the calf. This can be a dangerous situation and you should not attempt to deal with a mama cow determined to protect her calf. Always get help to distract the cow until you can safely secure the calf. Some cows can be distracted with a pan of sweet feed, which can give you time enough to get the calf and yourself to safety.

Others will never let you near their calves. In that situation, deliver food and shelter to the cow and be prepared to keep watch for predators. A bunker made of straw bales will protect the calf from the wind and a good bed of loose straw will shelter the calf temporarily and keep it off cold or wet ground. Hay, grain and a bucket of water will keep the cow functioning.

4. Warm Chilled Calves

Despite your best efforts, a calf might be born in a cold, wet situation and become chilled. A calf that is too cold to get up and nurse will die. Move the calf to a clean dry shelter. Place a very warm hot-water bottle on its chest over its heart, and cover the calf with a warm blanket. Rub the calf’s back and shoulders through the blanket to help stimulate its blood flow. You can even lie in the stall with the calf pulled close to your body, your coat open and wrapped around the calf, the blanket covering you both. In 15 to 20 minutes, you should start to notice the calf’s body is warming and it might even try to get up. If the calf is not responding, call the vet.

5. Help with Delivery Issues

Delivery issues are many and varied. It’s best to call the vet immediately if your cow is trying to deliver and is making no progress. After a difficult birth, a cow might not be able to nurse her calf; that’s when you need to provide colostrum as its first feeding and a milk-replacement product after that. If you’re lucky, the cow will be able to nurse her calf within six to 12 hours. Otherwise, you will quickly learn the joys of bottle-feeding your calf.

If the cow is friendly toward the calf, keep them together in the barn while you begin a bottle-feeding schedule. As long as the cow tolerates the calf, keep them together. After a week or so, if the cow appears to be drying up, let her go to pasture. The calf should come to the barn for its feeding. If the calf doesn’t come to you to be fed, be prepared to confine it for at least a month or more.

6. Stock Your Barn Ahead of Time

It’s always a good idea to hope for the best and prepare for the worst during calving season. Here’s a list of items you should have on hand:

  • barn, shed or other shelter at least 12-by-12 feet
  • clean straw for bedding—not shavings
  • small square bale of good-quality hay
  • water bucket for watering mama cow
  • sweet feed or other grain to feed mama cow if necessary
  • vet’s phone number programmed into your cell phone
  • hot-water bottle(s) to warm a chilled calf
  • old blankets to cover a chilled calf
  • small, sturdy tarp (make this from a polyweave feed sack) for moisture barrier
  • nursing bottle(s)—in case mama cow can’t nurse
  • powdered colostrum—in case mama cow can’t nurse within the first three hours
  • powdered milk replacer—in case mama cow can’t feed the calf

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