Farming 101: Calving

May 03, 2018 1 Comment

Farming 101: Calving

This is the story of Derek and Eric and their mom, Delilah.  They're two twin bull calves we had three weeks ago and they are going to help me teach you about calving.

While quite common in lambs, twins aren't that common in cattle. They happen to us on average about once a year in our herd of ~150 while in our sheep they'll happen almost half the time in our herd of 30.

Although so sweet, they're not ideal because they are usually a lot of extra work for low reward.  They can be more prone to sickness and death, their moms can run out of milk or only want to feed/take one (yes, cows sometimes abandon their babies) and since there's two of them, twins are usually smaller so their yield weight when it comes time to sell is lower. 

If you're wanting heifer calves to grow your herd, twins aren't ideal either because something genetically irregular called freemartinism happens when heifer/bull twins are born.  It's a fascinating sexual abnormality in cattle. 

Because one twin is male and one is female, their antigens and blood are different.  As the two fetuses grow in utero, their fluids and antigens eventually mix. The majority of the time, the male antigens are dominant and are passed on to the female.  The bull twin will develop reproductively as usual but the heifer gets a lot of the male hormones and cells and her reproductive organs do not develop normally.  For this reason, a female twin born with a brother will not ever be able to reproduce and she's known as "freemartin".  These two are both bulls so they're not affected, two heifers wouldn't be either, but if bull/heifer twins are born, the female cannot reproduce.  Interesting, right?!  

The gestation period for a cow can vary between breeds but is normally between 279 and 287 days, on average 283 days is the magic number.  Because of the weather where we live, we always send our bulls out in the summer to breed the cows so we have winter babies, our calves usually start coming March/April.  This years calves will be sold next year in March as yearlings and so they drink milk from their moms to get them to the summer, graze for the summer and are fed for one winter with bales.  If we had them in the summer, the time for them to be grazing is when they would be on milk so although calving in the cold isn't ideal, it does save us on feed.  To learn more about feeding, check out Farming 101: Feed. 

Like I said previously, we have ~150 head of cattle in two different pastures so everyday we're checking them.  You may have seen me with a baby I call Little Red in my Instagram Story, her mom died just after she was born so we have to take her a bottle of milk replacer every morning and night.  We noticed that during the day she's able to rob milk from some of the other nice momma's in the field which will help a lot with her growth and saves us from having to keep her in the barn by herself.  If the Farmer and I weren't checking every day, we could end up losing a calf like that so daily checks are really important. 

On top of checking babies like Little Red, we're also looking for unusual behaviour in the cows.  If they have a large milk bag, they're close to having a baby because their body is preparing for something to feed. If they're by themselves away from the herd, they're usually looking for a quiet place to have a baby. If they're waddling instead of walking, their tails are jacked up in the air and they have fluid dripping from their bits, they're getting really close.

In this picture, you can see this cow looks uncomfortable. Her back is arched, her legs are wide and her tail is high and curved.  She also has her water bag hanging and a hoof poking out which means she should be within minutes of lying down to have her baby.  I was able to snap this picture because I had just walked into the pen to check on Delilah and her babies when I saw this cow ready to give birth too.  She was upset I was hanging around so I went back to the house and watched from the porch to make sure she was okay.  

Within 30 minutes, she had her calf and was cleaning it up.  Once the baby is born, the cow will break the water sack (if it wasn't broken open in labour), clean the baby off by licking it and then they usually eat their afterbirth.  When babies are born this way, the way nature intended, we will stand back and observe to make sure everything is going as planned and we don't need to step in and help.  That can mean anything from helping pull the calf to breaking the water bag so they can breathe to moving the baby so the mom doesn't lay on it to making up their first bottle.  When it's really cold out we check more often too because if the babies are born in really cold temperatures and their mom's don't get them cleaned up fast enough, they can risk freezing their ears and tails and losing them.  I've held calves and lambs wrapped in towels inside the house in front of a fire before! 

This little calf was just fine and stood up within 2 hours of being born.  She walked to her mom and took her first drink which is crucial for survival.  The first drink of milk these babies (and all babies actually) receive is called colostrum. Colostrum is so important because it contains the highest amount of antibodies needed to help build the baby's immune system and when they don't get it within 24 hours of being born, they are very likely to die.  As time goes on, the antibodies diminish so getting this milk within the first 24 hours is critical to survival.

This is a bag of dried colostrum and we mix this up for the babies when we see they haven't had that first drink of their mom's milk yet.  Our farm is not endorsed or sponsored by Brown's Feeds in any way (but if anyone from Hi-Brow/Brown's is reading this, I wouldn't turn it down).  We like this brand of because it's Alberta born like we are and it mixes nicely. 

This is what I had in my bottle the day I went out to check on Delilah.  I was in the pen around 9am because she'd had her calf the evening prior and the Farmer told me it hadn't sucked yet.  When I got out there, I saw two grey babies laying in the straw but it wasn't until I saw them laying together I realized they were both twins!  So much fun.  

A great mom makes all the difference and Delilah is an amazing mom!  She allowed me to come close to both babies, work on getting them standing and walking, feed them and get them close enough to her that they could feel their way to her udder and learn to drink.  She has enough milk for both, she's calm, caring and mothers them like a champ.  She was so chill and helpful to me when they were born, it was amazing.

When babies are just new, sometimes their instincts are strong and they suck a bottle right away, sometimes it takes some coaxing and sometimes they have to be tube fed for up to 2-3 days before they learn to latch on and get themselves food.  If they don't suck the bottle, we use a long tube that goes down their esophagus and empties the milk directly into their stomachs, it's not a permanent solution but it's what has to happen to keep them alive sometimes.  

Derek and Eric did not want to stand up, they were a bit weak from not having any food so I fed them laying down. That's not usually a problem as long as the mom is comfortable with me being there and they hold their heads high enough to drink.  I always straddle their heads so they don't run away from me because I want to get this milk/colostrum in them as quickly as I can and get out of there.  I'm not a fixture in their lives, I'm just a catalyst to make sure they stay alive. 

I alternated feeding between the two and when they were finished, they both walked to Delilah and tried to drink.  By this time, she was losing her cool with me being there because one of our daughters had come out with me to see the babies.  Her being there annoyed Delilah so she gave me a little 
headbutt while I was feeding Eric.  And by little headbutt, I mean she tapped me with her huge melon and sent me flying 6 feet into a pile of shit! I read that mail loud and clear and left her with her babies.  For a day or two after that, we fed them with regular milk replacer like we give Little Red to make sure they were both drinking and we haven't had to help them since, they're both doing great! 

Calving can be hard on our bodies, hearts, minds and schedules but when I see a baby calf we pulled in the middle of a frigid snowstorm cuddling up with his mama or running around playing with his pals, my heart swells with pride for that little life we saved and this big life we've made for ourselves.  

I hope you've enjoyed learning about calving and our twins!  Do you think these posts are helpful and informative?  Curious about a certain topic?  Let me know in the comments below!  

Take care friends and enjoy this great weather today!  


1 Response

Deborah Wilson (Auntie)
Deborah Wilson (Auntie)

November 15, 2018

LOVE love love this story….such a beautiful life filled with blessings. God couldn’t of chosen
a better couple to care for his flock.

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