What to Look For
The most consistent sign that cattle, sheep, goats, camelids and horses are getting close to delivery is when they’ve “bagged up.” This means the udder has filled with milk in preparation for the neonate.
However, “getting close” is just as vague as it sounds. Some animals will bag up with a week or more to go. Others will do so and then deliver in a matter of days.
Waxing of the teats is a slightly more precise sign. This means small amounts of colostrum (thick, yellowish/white milk) can be seen either dried at the tip or a small amount is leaking out. This happens usually within a day or so before birth.
Another sign indicating impending livestock birth is when the muscles around the tail head loosen.
After seeing these indicators, the next step is the first stage of labor, which is when the mother acts agitated and separates herself from the herd. Small uterine contractions begin at this point, although those may be difficult to observe among the restless movements.
Twice daily monitoring for livestock birth is adequate once you see bagging up. But after you notice waxing of the teats, move the expectant mother closer to (or in) the barn. Regular and frequent monitoring is now in play—every few hours, if possible.
Once her water breaks, for ruminants, it’s normal for steady progression of the birth to occur over a few hours.
However, for horses, once the mare’s water breaks, birth occurs very quickly. For this species, if birth does not progress over the next hour, call your veterinarian. This is a huge and very important difference between horses and other grazing livestock species.
When to Intervene?
It can be tempting to jump in and help. So when is the right time to do so?
For horses, since birth occurs so quickly, once the mare’s water breaks, if she does not progress rapidly into full contractions with delivery of the foal, veterinary intervention should occur as soon as possible.
In contrast, for other grazing livestock, give them a few hours to birth. If the mother has not made progress by then, it’s time to check out what’s going on.
How to Intervene?
Safety, cleanliness and lubrication are the three key words when assisting an animal giving birth.
Firstly, make sure the animal is restrained in some manner. For most species, this is as simple as using a halter and having her head tied. It’s very handy to have a cow in a head lock or chute. But if you don’t have access to this level of restraint, typically a halter and head tie is more than adequate.
Next, use warm water to wash her vulvar area. Some dilute chlorhexadine/or iodine in the water is good to use to scrub the outside of the animal and yourself. If you are doing a vaginal inspection, warm water and lubricant is needed. Long, thin plastic gloves called OB gloves are very helpful to keep things clean (your veterinarian will have them) but are not a requirement as long as your hands are clean.
Once born, there’s no doubt you’ll want to hang around and watch. Newborn livestock should be on their feet in less than an hour after birth and looking to nurse.
Make sure the mother has milk and that the newborn makes attempts both to stand and nurse. Dip the umbilical cord in iodine and let the mother groom and bond with her new addition.
Here’s a final note on examining an animal in labor: Many new hobby farmers are very reluctant to “go in” and feel what’s going on for fear of hurting the mother and possibly the baby. While admirable, it’s unlikely someone with that level of self-awareness will hurt anything.
If you’re comfortable and feel safe doing so, go ahead and take a feel, making sure you are clean and well-lubricated. You may be amazed to realize you can actually quite easily identify a hoof or the head. And describing to your veterinarian what you’re feeling is very helpful.
Who knows, sometimes it’s just a simple re-arrangement of a leg that’s all required to straighten things out. You may be just the help your animal needed.