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Managing the Inevitable Downsides of Calving Season

The weather has officially cooled off and we are 90% done with our calving season! I can’t believe we are at this point already. Overall, we have had a great year and we will share more stats when we are officially done. However, just like with any living being and new life, there are some downsides that we have to navigate through during the calving season.

As cow/calf farmers we are basically nurses for our cows during calving (the birthing process) and every so often we come across cows that need assistance or have lost their calves. Below I’m going to explain some examples of inevitable scenarios that can happen.

Firstly, it is always a surprise when we ride through the cows to find one who had twins! Cows typically only have a single baby at a time, but twins can happen. As farmers we don’t generally like having twins because the chance of the cow having issues giving birth drastically increases. We make genetic breeding decisions on our farm that will hopefully lessen the chance for us to have cows with twins. This year (which is above normal for us) we have had 3 sets of twins. Generally, our mommas don’t make enough milk to support two babies and they like one twin more than the other. Because of this, we will take one of the twins and make them a bottle baby. This means we will raise them and feed them milk replacer ourselves.

Sometimes the cow will have her baby just fine, but the calf is early. When cows have calves too early, they don’t always produce enough milk for the calf. Their udder doesn’t go through the normal development process to make milk, so they won’t be able to feed the calf successfully. Also when calves are early, they are small. They might not have enough energy to get up and drink from mom either. This is another scenario where we have to take the baby and feed them milk replacer in order for the calf to survive.

Every year we also have cows with dystocia during calving. Dystocia is the farming term for an animal having trouble during calving. There are many different scenarios of dystocia. In a normal calving, the front feet and head will come out first, but this isn’t always the case. Calves may be presented backwards, their front feet might be in the wrong position, or the head may be bent. All of these scenarios could cause the cow to not be able to have the baby on her own. If we notice the cow having an issue calving we will assist and help orient the calf in the right direction. However, we do not always make it timely to assist and get the calf out alive because the cow calved overnight. Other times, we come and the cow was able to have the calf on her own but it was born dead. This is a really unfortunate occurrence of calving season.

Cows can also have early or late term miscarriages. Generally we figure this out at the end of calving season when a cow never has a baby. This means that at some point between when they were pregnancy tested and calving season they lost their baby. Cows are really good at masking things like this, so we don’t always catch it. Unfortunately this year we found a cow that had a late term miscarriage. It turns out that the calf wasn’t alive for some time in the cow's stomach. She had the baby successfully on her own, but in this case we call that calf a mummy calf. This is also very sad for us because we generally have no control over this scenario.

Colostrum is the first milk that all mammals make. It is full of antibodies and other important substances calves need. It is essential that all calves get colostrum. Sometimes, for reasons we don’t understand, calves don’t get enough colostrum from their moms and the calf passes away a few days after they are born.

In order to combat some of these inevitable events during calving season we have a management strategy we can use. This technique is called grafting. It is a bit unusual to see but can really work! If a cow that just calved had a baby that didn’t survive and a baby who is a twin or mom doesn’t make enough milk, we can pair them together. To make this grafting possible, we will skin out the dead calf and wrap the skin of this calf onto the live calf that needs a new mom. Cows identify their calves mostly by how they smell, so usually we can trick the new mom into taking a different calf if he/she smells like their own. This process can take a few days and we usually put them in a small pen together but it can really work! This year we had a mom who didn’t make enough milk for her calf and another mom who lost her calf. The new mom really wanted to care for her calf so we did this grafting process and it worked in the field! We are very proud of these momma cows who can be very resilient. Now, this baby calf has two moms and they share the baby!

Overall, calving season is a time of joy and new life but we wouldn’t be sharing the full picture if we didn’t share a few of the downsides that come with so much joy. We really love our cows and take care of them to the best of our ability. Sometimes all new life isn’t perfect, and we wanted to share a piece of that with you!


Olivia, Tabby, Gina, & Kendra

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