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The signs of labor in cows

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Mae getting a bath when she was a few months old.

Two years ago we welcomed our very first calf on the farm when Mama struggled through labor and delivered a healthy heifer (girl) calf we named Mae. Fast forward two years and our baby is all grown up and having babies of her own. Mae is scheduled to calve sometime soon. If we were full time farmers who had the opportunity to spend more time in the barn and less time in our corporate offices we would have been regularly observing and recording Mae’s heat cycles and would know when she was bred. But, alas, we are busy modern day farmers who work day jobs and try to do our best when we are home, so we called on a professional to help us out. Dr. John, our local (and amazing) veterinarian, did a preg check on Mae this summer and estimated that she would calve sometime in January give or take a couple weeks, so as we near January we are keeping a  close eye on her and watching for signs of labor.

You may be wondering what exactly I am looking for when it comes to checking for signs of labor. The first time we were expecting a calf we too were a little confused about how to tell when a calf is on the way, but luckily we had done  it a few times with the goats and cows and goats are very similar except in size. And it turns out that cows and humans are pretty similar as well. I didn’t truly appreciate this fact until I had my own child. As I went through the process I couldn’t help but compare myself to a heifer calf or doeling who is calving/kidding for the first time. In fact I recently went back and reread my what to expect when you are a farmer expecting blog post and chuckled at the memory of anticipating what my own labor and delivery experience would be like.

Having now gone through the labor and delivery process myself I now have a MUCH better understanding and appreciation for the journey Mae is about to embark on. This “shared” experience is one of the reasons I think female farmers kick ass (we get it, better than any man in the barn ever will) and why farmer husbands may question why a hospital is even necessary  since they have likely witnessed and assisted in the birthing process more than many doctors. But, for all you non farmers I copied the signs of labor in cows from an agricultural article and have added my own comments about just how similar  humans and cows really are when it comes to the birthing process.

Pre-Labor 

One of the first signs of approaching calving is development of her udder. It may begin enlarging as early as six weeks before she calves (especially in heifers) or may suddenly fill during the last few days. Some cows and heifers have so much udder development that you think calving is imminent, but they go many more days before the actual event. Others “bag up” overnight and can fool you; they may calve before you realize they are ready. Yup, this happens in women too! One day you have a nice perky rack with pretty “C” boobies and then BAM you are a double “D” and your back aches nonstop and for some (like me) it happens 8 weeks in and others it’s not util the rest of you gets huge. 

Tissues around the birth canal become soft; the vulva is enlarged and flabby. The floppy vulva is a sign the cow or heifer is approaching calving, but she can still keep you guessing because some individuals are loose and floppy for several weeks. Bahahaha!!!! Imagine if the whole world could look at you and comment on your flappy lady parts? We thinks its bad when people tell us we are having a boy or girl based on how high or low our bump is, just imagine “oh, I bet you are going to pop tomorrow because I see your lady parts are flappy!” 

The pelvic ligaments also relax. The area between tail head and point of the buttock (pin bone) on each side of the tail appears somewhat sunken. Labor will usually begin about 12 hours after complete relaxation of those ligaments. Again, we think we have it bad when people think its okay to touch our bump, but just imagine if they were feeling your hips daily. Also, while I know women’s hip ligaments do indeed relax, I can tell you that no part of the labor process is relaxing and that is true for cows and humans alike! 

Other signs of impending labor include mucus discharge from the vulva as the cervical plug/seal softens and is expelled. A long string of mucus may hang from the vulva. This certainly happens. Birthing is a messy process no matter what’s being born. 

First Stage of Labor 

The cow or heifer will distance herself from the herd, show signs of restlessness,  increased vocalization and has the tendency to lie down and get up frequently. These signs are often more apparent in first-calf heifers than they are in mature cows. Yup, everyone has heard a story of a first timer rushing to the clinic only to be told to go back home while the lady with three kids is delivering her fourth in the car racing to the hospital. First time heifers (and ladies) are more likely to be dramatic, noisey, anxious and act like they are the only cow or human to ever have a baby. 

In this stage, coordinated uterine contractions begin. These contractions increase from a rate of one every 15 minutes to on every three minutes by the end of stage one. And this is when any lady who has had a baby can really start to sympathize with their bovine counterparts. It doesn’t matter what species you are, labor and delivery is a painful process. My favorite part of being a farmer is helping my animals deliver their offspring. I have yet to have an animal that I helped during the birthing process not show me in some way her appreciation. 

The first water sac (chorioallantoic membrane) breaks. Yes, this is the water breaking and yes it’s messy. None of the other animals in the barn seem to care when a cow breaks her water, but God forbid a lady breaks her water on her husband’s leather seats! 

Second Stage of Labor

The second stage of labor occurs when the cervix is fully dilated and the second water sac and fetal parts enter the birth canal, eventually becoming visible to the observer.  The cow is visibly contracting the muscles of her abdomen in an effort to push the calf through the birth canal. This is when a lady begins to scream, grunt and moan (if she isn’t already). Cows definitely grunt but they tend to do a lot less screaming, or rather mooing, when push comes to shove. If you are lucky the front two legs come out first so you typically observe the hooves first. Like a women, it takes a lot of pushes for the head and body to come through. If you missed the first stage of labor, this stage is pretty unmistakable because eventually body parts start sticking out!

Confirmation Mae was on her way.
Confirmation Mae was on her way.

The first significant effort occurs in pushing the head through the cow’s vulva, then a secondary effort helps push the chest through.  It is at this point that the cow will often take a short pause, allowing the calf to take its first breath of air, which is important since now the calf’s umbilical cord is compressed within the birth canal.  It’s after this that the hips are expelled and the calf is fully delivered. Just like the cow, this is when the farmer takes a pause and a deep breath because now the hard part is over. Unless the calf has really big hips, the calf generally just slides out the rest of the way and the work of getting the calf cleaned and warm starts. Watching the mama cow deliver her baby and immediately start cleaning it off to protect it from the cold and predators is always mesmerizing and so completely reminds me of the natural instinct I felt to nurse and hold my baby the moment I saw her. 

Mae just a few minutes after being born.
Mae just a few minutes after being born.

Third Stage of Labor

The passing of the placenta, which typically occurs within 8-12 hours. Most veterinarians, however, do not recommend treatment or removal of the retained placenta until 72 hours after calving, or if the cow is showing outward signs of illness.   Early or aggressive attempts at removal or other interventions often result in more harm than help to the cow. This is where the differences between cows and humans comes in. Luckily our placenta is delivered much faster, but just like cows our lady parts leak for weeks! But the key distinction here is that ladies don’t generally (except for some extreme hippy chicks) eat their placenta which is one reason that, although we are very similar in a lot of ways, I am happy I am not a cow! 

A wife, mom, farmer, HR lady, blogger and dreamer who loves simple goodness like the small of fresh cut hay, bread baking in the oven and kisses.

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