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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care                                                 February 2003

  Hi Folks,

            This month I’d like to talk about calving as it seems many farmers freshen lots of cows in the next couple months.

            One of the most sensitive times in a cow’s life is in the last couple weeks leading up to calving. This is when the body’s natural hormones are rapidly changing as it prepares to deliver the newborn. Colostrum is being formed as well and can be positively affected by appropriate use of vaccination of the cow if needed. Inoculation with coliform vaccine (Endovac-Bovi or J-5) has a double benefit: it provides colostral antibodies to the calf to protect against coliform scours as well as greatly decreases the sickness associated with coliform mastitis. It is also a good time to give vitamin E – Selenium (MuSe), since it has been scientifically shown to increase immune function, lower SCC when fresh, increase fertility in the coming lactation, and reduce incidence of retained placenta. This is especially true in our selenium deficient soils of Lancaster County . A dose of Endovac Bovi runs about $1.50 and a MuSe dose runs $2.80. It is cheap insurance compared to the lost production and vet bills associated with coliform mastitis treatment or retained placenta/metritis with a possible twisted stomach to boot. You go figure all the costs.

            OK, that’s the pre-game plan. But what about ‘the day of’ plan for actual calving? First of all, try to gauge when a cow will likely freshen. Normal signs are gradual bagging up over a couple weeks time, gradual loosening of the vulva and the ligaments between the tail and pin bones become soft. Some older cows bag up real quickly right before calving. Beware: these are likely milk fever animals (or at the least have low calcium but remain standing). I’ve seen it often. This is because the bones all of a sudden need to release lots of calcium into the blood stream and simply cannot do so at the rate needed. Then the bloodstream calcium levels are low and either the older cow gets a slow start or goes down with real milk fever. Remember to give 2 oz. of apple cider vinegar twice a day for at least two weeks to older cows before freshening to reduce milk fever (remember “2-2-2”). The opposite symptom is when springing heifers have a severe amount of fluid accumulation in front of the udder and in the udder. This is usually due to free choice salt. In these cases the suspensory ligament may rupture and the udder will forever be damaged. It may be good to use an udder bra/support on these animals (any lactation or age).

            By all means have a clean calving area ready for a cow to freshen in. I realize some folks will have more than one cow a day freshening soon, but that is no excuse not to provide a clean area to calve in. Make it straw or fodder. Chopped paper sticks to everything that is wet and sawdust can harbor coliform bugs which may enter a leaking teat when the cow is laying down Calving in filth is not smart. Wet, mucky filth that is in contact with a dripping udder spells trouble as well as likely disease for the newborn calf (navel infection and/or intestinal diseases like coliform, salmonella and Johnes). Lay down lime and bed well between freshenings. Of course fresh green pasture is great – but we don’t have any right now! It is either frozen or if not frozen, then mud. Harsh winter winds or raw chilly air will diminish a brand new calf’s chance to thrive. Some may disagree with me, but unless you are 100% certain that the calf got up and sucked 1 gallon of colostrum in a couple hours, I would say that it is best to keep an eye on cows about to freshen. And really - why not?


OK, so you have the cow and the area prepared. Watch for the cow to eat less about 12-24 hours before calving, she may lay down more but also get quickly back up, her udder may drip milk (it may for a few days sometimes), and things will greatly loosen up around the tail head. Actual pushing out the calf after the water bag breaks normally takes about 1-3 hours, but can last up to 8 hours (probably in a 1st calf heifer or a low calcium older cow). The mucus should be straw color, clear and thick. If you are not certain with how things are progressing, by all means reach in! Get a halter on her, tie her, wash up the vulva well, lube your arm, and carefully reach in. What do you feel? Is she fully open/dilated or is there a constriction? If fully open, how about the calf? Two hooves and the head – great, allow to proceed. Two hooves only? If the bottom of the hooves are facing down, it is usually the front ones; the bottoms of back hooves usually face the sky. If front legs and no head – do NOT pull without first knowing where the head is. You must have the head coming along at the same time – get a snare around behind the ears and under the chin to make sure it is not going to turn back (which is a very common problem). If you feel the tail with the two hooves, it is backwards and go ahead and pull. If you only feel the tail, it is a breech birth and needs veterinary attention. A cow will never be able to calve in a breech birth on her own, never. If you feel one leg back, carefully cup your hand over the hoof and bend the leg the way it naturally wants to and bring the hoof close in to the calf’s belly and then extend it towards you – always cup the hoof in your palm to avoid unnecessary rips to the uterus (usually fatal). Also, have the cow standing (if you can) to rearrange limbs – it is MUCH easier. And do not rush a normal, frontward calving – especially in a 1st calf heifer!! Allow the birth canal/vagina to expand to accommodate the calf which must pass thru it. And once the head and front legs are out to the armpits, cross the legs to turn the calf so that the calf’s backbone is NOT 12 o’clock ” to the cow’s backbone. The pelvic outlet is shaped like an upside down egg and the calf’s hook bones will pass out much easier if the calf is slightly turned. It will save many a cow, especially 1st calf heifers, from a pinched nerve and being down. Finally, once delivered, take the calf by the back legs and swing it around in a 360 degree a few times (until you get dizzy). Or, lay the calf on the cow’s back, with the calf’s nose low to the ground to allow it to drain out any fluids it might have sucked in. And - always check for a twin, especially if the calf is somewhat small or the cow is early by a week or two. Then get the cow to stand up as this can help prevent a prolapsed uterus.

            If the discharge is red at any time during pregnancy, the cow should be checked out. If you see a red discharge near the time of calving, wash her up and reach in. A red discharge is a red flag that something is wrong. If it is the weekend, do not wait until Monday morning to get her checked. If a calf is dead, it needs to come out right away since they enlarge and get spongy as they decompose inside. Removal is obviously more difficult and the outcome for the cow goes down as time ticks away.

            Another common problem is a twisted uterus. Typical signs are the cow has its tail out (not resting upon itself like normal), shows some pushing but no progress, and when reaching inside, the calf feels “far in” while the birth canal feels not fully open. By carefully feeling with your finger tips along the floor and walls of the birth canal, a twisting corkscrew effect can be felt. Call to have it corrected – the cow will never calve in on her own – guaranteed. And don’t just try to keep on jacking it out with your come-along in order to avoid a vet bill - you’ll end up severely damaging the cow. Then you’ll call and expect me to fix an impossible problem. Won’t be much of a bill, but you also won’t have a cow.

            Bovine obstetrics is an art. There is no exact science to it. A little care, patience and compassion will go a long way. If you feel uncomfortable about a certain situation, don’t hesitate to call as I find obstetrics cases some of the most interesting in my daily activities. I like to help calve in problem cows that I called pregnant. It seems only right to follow through for all phases of a cow’s life. Delivering a live calf while protecting the cow is obviously the goal. But while it is not always possible to get a live calf, compassionate care for the cow is paramount and my highest concern.


Lancaster County Graziers Conference – Mon. Feb. 10 and Tues. Feb. 11 at the Hoffman Center at the Quarryville Fairgrounds. Call Arden Landis for information 717-529-6644.   

For Bovinity Health, information on functional alternatives to antibiotics see:

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