While our calves are due each year on February 23, a lot of them arrive early or late. Whatever the day a calf is born; the cattle ranchers are prepared and ready for the new arrival. We keep our pregnant mama cows right outside our house in a pasture so we can see them from the kitchen window. We don’t leave them alone often and when we do, it’s not for long. If we leave the house for over two hours, we call up one of our relatives to come babysit (who are thankfully a mile away and also cattle ranchers!). They will come drive through our pasture and make sure we don’t miss a birth. You can even find me sometimes looking out the kitchen window with binoculars to monitor for new babies while cooking dinner!
Sometimes it is easy to tell when a mama cow is ready to give birth. Oftentimes she will go stand off by herself. She may also wiggle her tail in an obnoxious pattern. When we see any of these indicators we keep a mental note or sometimes even write down the number on her ear tag. We may guide her up to the pens so she can have her baby there. If we see any signs of a struggle we call our awesome (and seemingly always available) veterinarian, and he will come do an internal inspection to diagnosis the issue and fix it. On rare occasion, we will actually help the labor process along! This is exciting for me because we get to watch the baby calf take its first breath of air on its own.
Once a calf is successfully out of the womb, the good mama cows will begin to lick off the “after birth” from the calf. They do this to clean the calf and the after birth contains beneficial nutrients for the mama. Once the calf is clean, the mama begins to give it gentle nudges with her head to encourage the calf to get up and walk. It is instinctive for a cow to begin walking almost immediately after they enter this world. It is important for them to be able to walk to protect themselves from the bigger calves and cows. They also need to walk so that they may follow their mama around and drink her milk. Smell is another very important instinctive trait that cows use. We will have a field of 100 cows and calves and the mama will always be able to find her baby even after being separated. This bond comes through their distinctive scents.
Most calves have no problem finding their mama’s teats to suck off. They usually figure out how to suck in their first few hours of life. Their first drink of milk is the most important meal they will ever get. Shortly after giving birth, the cow naturally produces a nurturing colostrum in her milk that is vital for the calf to consume. As you can imagine, some calves need a little help learning how to suck. When we see a baby calf struggling we bring it up to the pens and bring its head close to the mama’s teats and squeeze milk into its mouth. This usually does the trick. The mama allows us to do this because she feels the pressure being released from her udder and this provides a sense of relief to her.
Finally, after the calf is up walking and sucking it is ready for its first shots and an ear tag. All of our cows get orange tags with a number written on it, that is recorded in our calf book. Once the cow gets its first shots and an identifying ear tag, it is put into a separate field with all the other mamas and calves. You can often catch the calves frolicking through the fields.