We chose to raise Dutch Belted cows on our homestead because heritage breed cows are good at taking care of themselves. They survive well on grass without grain supplements, they instinctively care for their young, and for the most part, they have easy births. Calving difficulties do happen though, and we want to be prepared when that happens.
How to Check for Calving Difficulties
How to recognize when your cow is in labor: Keep track of your cow’s due date and begin watching her about a week before. Labor could be underway if she goes off by herself, gives repeated low-pitch moo’s, and alternately stands and lies down. There’s no need for us humans to do a thing if calving progresses well.
When to call the veterinarian: We once lost a heifer when waiting too long to call the vet. Therefore, I want to share two calving situations where our intervention may be necessary. If you have watched a cow in labor for an hour, and there is no progress, call the vet. If you see the bag of waters break and the calf is not born within 20 minutes, call the vet. In these situations, the cow and calf need assistance.
Learn to feel for calf position: There may indeed be times when we don’t know how long the cow has been in labor. There are other times, especially in the middle of the night, when five minutes seem like an hour. If you’re not sure what’s going on, and if your cow will allow it, go ahead and check for the calf’s position.
To check for the calf’s position before a hoof has even peeked out, halter the cow or put her in a head-gate or stanchion. Next gently put a gloved hand up the cow’s vagina no higher than your wrist. This gentleness is important because we don’t want to break the bag of waters. You should be able to feel a foot—hopefully two—with a nose just above and slightly behind the hoofs. If you feel two hoofs and a nose, stand way back and allow the cow the peace she needs to deliver the calf herself.
How to feel a breech presentation: We were watching our Dutch Belted cow, Rosie, because she was nine days late in delivering her calf. She finally went into labor early one morning but then didn’t seem to progress. I gently felt about six inches up her vagina and found one hoof—with the curved side down.
Look at your cow’s hoofs in the calm of daylight to see the curved side up and the flat side down. Sounds silly, but when the adrenaline is running high and we homesteaders aren’t experienced in feeling up the birth canal, it’s confusing! When the curved side of the hoof is down, the calf is coming out back-legs-first. Call your veterinarian.
Be Prepared for Calving Difficulties Ahead of Time
Have a good relationship with a caring vet: If we’re raising heritage breed animals, we shouldn’t need an armamentarium of birthing equipment—that’s for the vet to bring. But we do need a vet who is caring, relatively close-by and willing to come at inconvenient hours. If you don’t have a vet yet, ask around and establish a relationship before any emergency arrives.
Basic tools for pulling calf: Calving difficulties come in degrees and not all require a vet. For example, some calves are a tight fit through the birth canal and disappear back up the canal between contractions. We keep clean hand towels in the barn which we can wrap around the calf’s ankles when they emerge. Even handier are chains designed to wrap around the calf’s ankles that have handles for you to grip.
Pull on the calf’s ankles when the cow is having a contraction, but keep enough tension between contractions to prevent the calf from being pulled back up into the birth canal. Your force should be steady and downward, at about a 45 degree angle. Once the calf's head and shoulders arrive, the calf may make a rapid entrance onto the ground. Don't worry--it will be okay.
Build and Maintain a Community
It wasn’t only the vet that helped us with that breech birth. We have a neighbor with whom we often exchange favors. Because he says he’s always awake at 5 a.m., he was the one doing the early morning checks. He was the one who found Rosie in labor on the ninth morning and he was the one who waited to see if her labor was progressing (it wasn’t). After an up-side-down hoof was found in the birth canal and the vet was called, he then drove his Kubota back up the country road and came back with his $800 calf-puller and suction equipment for the calf. The vet arrived within 20 minutes and brought his brother along for good measure.
It truly took a team to get this large, breech heifer out and breathing well. Although everyone’s adrenaline was probably as high as mine, each person cared enough to wait and see that both mother and calf were okay. This dedication could not have been purchased. It came from having a community of caring people.
In this time of contention, we often hear that differences of opinions, ethnicity or religion are barriers between us. I repeatedly find that is not true. Basically, we humans are compassionate and go out of our way to help each other.
As essential as knowledge and equipment are in handling cow calving difficulties, we also need a community of neighbors. The time to build a community is now—before calving difficulties arrive.
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