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Caring for Cows and Newborn Calves (Pt 1)

Sometimes being a dairy farmer feels like working in the birth center of your local hospital.  Every year we welcome new calves to the farm.  The calves are always adorable and fun to care for, but we also like to spend some extra time with the new mom to ensure her health, before, during, and after birth.  And those calves are extremely important to the future of the farm.  We help those babies grow into healthy, happy members of our milking herd. 

new calf in pen

So how do we help make that happen?  Let’s start with the basics.  A cow’s gestation period is similar to humans, if we are comparing both around 280 days or 9 months, give or take.    

A cow, similar to a woman, goes through a heat cycle once a month or every 21 days.  There are many factors and signs that tell us a cow is in heat.  The easiest way for farmers to tell if a cow is in heat is using heat stickers.  These stickers are placed on the tailhead (top of the tail) of the cow to detect if she is being mounted.  If a cow is mounted the top of the sticker rubs off and a bright pink or orange is displayed- almost like a lottery ticket!  Once a farmer sees that bright color it is important to breed as soon as they can.  Again, like humans, the fertile window is around 12 hours.  On our farm, we use semen straws to breed our cows with the help of a local breeder.  Once bred, a blood test can be pulled as early as two weeks to test for pregnancy or wait to see if she goes into another heat cycle.  

After a confirmed pregnancy, time takes over, we basically have to sit and wait.  I enjoy watching the baby bellies grow as the pregnancy progresses. Just like humans, a happy mom equals a happy baby. Because the cow’s normal body temperature is around 101.5, winter pregnancies seem to be the least to worry about. Oftentimes, a cozy place to lay and plenty of clean water and hay are all they need.  If the cow is pregnant in the summertime it takes a little more work to keep her feeling comfortable.  We are sure to provide shade, good airflow, and lots of water.   

As the due date gets closer, if the cow is still milking, we make sure to dry her off which means we stop her production of milk two months before her due date. We dry her off and she is officially on maternity leave!  During the summer, they may be let out into the pasture to graze.  During the winter months, they get the “executive suite” in the warm barn.  Two weeks before the due date, they begin to receive additional grain every day for the extra energy as we prepare her for delivery.  We also give them extra calcium and essentially Pepto Bismol for cows.  Once again like humans – I’m sure you are catching the theme – a good cow doesn’t always make a good patient.  Because cows are creatures of habit, they sometimes don’t enjoy the health-focused changes.  The main reason these are given is to make sure the cow has enough calcium to prevent milk fever.  Milk fever can happen right after calving and needs to be treated right away.  If left untreated it could be a matter of life and death.   

Fast-forward on our timeline and now we are days away from calving!  We prep towels, a nice clean stall with fresh shavings, and make sure we have a calcium paste to give the new mom right after birth.  Some signs that the cow is getting close to calving: milk bags filling, pelvic ligaments relax and “sink” in, and there’s discharge.  And sometimes no signs at all, that is why it is so important to have everything ready to go at the flip of a switch.  

Brittany Conover 
Shaggy Coos Farm
Easton, CT 

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