Spring is coming! With spring comes the excitement and gifts of calving season. We all look forward to a pasture full of newborn calves. With the calving season, unfortunately, also come the hard work, labor, and the stress of ensuring that your cows are having live and healthy calves. To help relieve stress and tension during calving season, it is important to understand what normal is. Knowing what normal looks like, will help you to know when help is needed.
There are two common signs of impending parturition, the birth process in a normal and healthy cow or heifer. The first sign is mammary development or “making bag.” In most beef cows, this typically happens in the last 2 weeks of gestation. The second common indication is changes with the vulva. The vulva becomes very prominent and swollen in the last 2 weeks.
Parturition is split into 3 stages in cattle. The first stage, which typically lasts six hours, is started when there is a decrease in progesterone. Progesterone is the hormone that maintains pregnancy. The decrease in progesterone results in psychological changes as demonstrated by separation from the herd, restlessness and pacing. This decrease is also what makes cows want to mother up and at times try to claim other newborn calves. During this phase, the uterus begins to contract, resulting in abdominal discomfort. During stage one, uterine contractions occur every 15 minutes. While the uterus is beginning to contract, the cervix begins to dilate, opening the birth canal for the calf.
The second stage of parturition is known as expulsion. Expulsion or delivery of the calf occurs within 2 hours from the onset of stage 2. Stage 2 begins when the water bag appears at the vulva or at release of fluid. If fluid is seen, the remains of the water bag will look like a bloody stringy cord. This is followed by the appearance of the second sac, the amnion, which has a tough white glistening membrane and usually the calf’s tongue and feet can be seen though it. The fluid contained in this sac is thick and slippery. Ideally, the calf should present in the “dive position,” meaning his head is tucked between both front feet. In normal parturition, the head is the most challenging part and the rest of the body should follow quite quickly.
Stage 3 of parturition can last from 2 to 24 hours. This stage is from completion of calf delivery until she expels the placenta. During this stage, the cow should stand and lick the calf, encouraging him to stand and nurse as quickly as possible. Some cows will attempt to eat the placenta. It does not have any nutritional value, and can rarely be a choking hazard. Strong uterine contractions continue for 2 to 4 hours after calving. The cow does not generally strain during these contractions.
The first few minutes after birth are critical for the survival of calves. A healthy calf should sit up within 15 minutes after birth in what is called sternal recumbency. Sternal recumbency is when a calf is sitting with his weight on his breast bone with all four legs tucked under him. At this point, he should be holding his head up and seeking the teat. Most healthy calves will be attempting to stand within 30 minutes and should be somewhat successful by 60 minutes after birth. It is imperative that all calves have sucked colostrum within 6 hours.
If you have any questions regarding the above information or any questions/concerns in general, please contact Twin Valley VHS at 745-6642.
Dr. Justin Noble DVM
Twin Valley Veterinary Health Services