Well, it’s that time of year for sleepless nights and multiple trips to the barn in the middle of the night. It’s the time of year when sleep deprivation doesn’t matter because there is a new baby on the farm.
No matter how many times I’ve watched or seen a live animal born or hatch, it still amazes me. Calves stand within minutes, chicken chicks are running by the time their feathers dry and some livestock like goats and piglet hit the ground running it seems.
A heifer, which is a cow prior to having a calf, is bred when she is a teenager. Cattle research says that breeding can be safely done anytime after 14 months of age so long as the animal is in good condition. Cattle have the same gestation length as us humans, 9 months.
The heifer in the video, affectionately known as Katie, is slightly older (I will explain why in a future post). She is 29 months old and celebrated her 2nd birthday on October 31st. She is a Holstein/Jersey cross. Since this was her first calf, we wanted to ensure that her calf would be a small one so we crossed her with our Irish Dexter bull. The result, as seen in the video, is a stout little guy who weighs about 30-35 pounds.
When calves are born, they come feet first with the head laying along the legs, nose first. If you watch the video closely when the hooves come out, you can actually see them wiggle inside of the placenta sac.
Within seconds after being born, calves start working on their first goal of getting up. The first thing they do is pick their heads up. Their mothers will start licking them clean. This is important because the licking not only stimulates the calf but also familiarizes the mother with her calf.
The cow will also start working on clean up the placenta or afterbirth. This is called placentophagy. It is the act of mammals eating the placenta their young after childbirth. The placenta contains high levels of hormones which stimulates the shrinking of the uterus to its former size. This squeezing helps clean the uterus out. The placenta also contains small amounts of oxytocin which eases birth stress and causes the muscles around the mammary cells in the udder to contract and expel milk for the calf.
Cattle naturally attempt to hide any trace of childbirth by eating their placenta from predators in the wild. The most general benefit of placentophagy, according to recent research, is that placenta and amniotic fluid contain a molecule that produces an enhancement of the natural reduction in pain that occurs shortly after and during delivery.
Now, back to the calf (because that’s my favorite part). Within the first hour, the calf will be cleaned, standing (although a little wobbly at first) and suckling colostrum from its mother. The colostrum is a crucial part of the development for a calf. It’s full of nutrients, vitamins, minerals and probiotics. Calves instinctively know to go for the milk. It has a sweet smell and is very thick in texture. I like to compare it to sugar cookies for us.
Calves are born, again similar to humans, with no immunity system. The colostrum provides the basic start to building that immunity. Research shows that the more colostrum a calf gets within the first 24-48 hours of birth, the healthy the animal is throughout it’s life. It’s also important that the calf gets it’s first feeding within the first 3-4 hours of life.
As a farmer, it’s my job to ensure the safety of the cow during delivery, for postnatal care, that the calf is functioning correctly and that it gets the much needed colostrum. Some cows are great mothers and will spend the time caring for the calf. Others will abandon them for reasons unknown. A great example of oddities is Katie. She didn’t want the calf to nurse. She did great on cleaning the calf off but once the poor little guy decided it was time to try eating, she would shove him away. It took holding and soothing her for long enough to let the calf suckle. Everything was fine after the first minute. Remember, she is a first time mom and instincts don’t always kick in first thing.
We have two calves now, respectively born on 4/7 and 4/8. One is a heifer and the other a bull. They are both doing very well and can be found racing around the pastures with their moms.