Which of these cows is the mother?

Which is the mother cow?

Which is the mother cow?

This morning, we found a new heifer calf curled up in a corner of the calving paddock. She’d been licked clean but judging by her tucked up sides, she hadn’t had a drink. Why not? Her mum was nowhere to be seen. This is not uncommon – cows often leave their calves in remote spots while they go off to have a feed or a drink, so we got the calf up and tried to attract the mother cow’s attention with our best imitation of plaintive-sounding calf noises (not “moo” but something like “mmmmbeaaaaargh”).

Two aunties immediately rushed over. We call cows that haven’t calved but would love to steal someone else’s poddy an “aunty” and they can be exceedingly convincing. Not this time. They still had bulging bellies and no sign that anything had been recently stretched (IYKWIM). The mother was clearly not particularly maternal and was still waiting for her milk to come in properly.

The only thing to do was to organise a line-up. Cows due to calve within the next three weeks get a daily ration of grain that is half what they’ll get when they rejoin the herd in the dairy, so we spread their breakfast out and did an inspection. Who do you think it was?

The pregnant farmer, her 4-year-old and the breech delivery

At 5pm, Zoe and I checked the springers (cows soon to calve). Cow 535, a very strong cow in the prime of her life looked agitated. Off by herself in a corner of the paddock, 535 had her tail up and could barely decide whether to pace around or sit down. All of this is normal behaviour for a cow about to calve but I wasn’t sure. Nothing I could really put my finger on, just a sixth sense something was wrong.

Having been poked and prodded at my own 35-week exam today, perhaps I was a little paranoid?

After dinner, Zoe and I ventured out in the ute with the heater roaring. Where was 535? Still off in the far corner of the paddock, still pacing nervously, still no membranes. I’d expected some progress after two hours but I didn’t think it was a smart move to try assisting the labour myself and Wayne was in the city so we called Pete the vet.

Mother guilt kicked in. My cheerful little assistant was very keen to be involved but even as we yarded 535 it was already past Zoe’s bedtime. She’ll be tired tomorrow. On the other hand, I told myself, this type of experience helps to build resilience and she was learning lessons about taking responsibility for animals that you just can’t get in books.

It turned out that 535’s calf was trying to come out backwards but had not made it to the birth canal and her mum’s body was not getting a clear signal to push. If we hadn’t called Pete, both cow and calf might have been dead by the morning. Pete delivered the long and lanky heifer calf alive, then massaged her abdomen to help clear her lungs. We moved the pair to a dry, sheltered spot where 535 could do the all-important job of licking her calf dry and encouraging her to stand and drink. Can’t wait to see them in the morning.

Zoe was delighted and rang her Papa to relay the whole experience before falling asleep almost the moment her head touched the pillow.

The art of caring for new mums

New mums deserve TLC courtesy of our researchers

There’s a real art and a science to looking after cows in the lead-up to, and just after, calving. As you can imagine, cows need an incredible amount of calcium to both grow their calves and to produce milk.

You’d think that adding extra calcium in their diets would be a good idea, wouldn’t you? Well, actually vets tell us that adding calcium is one of the worst things you can do to a cow that’s about to calve. It makes her much more likely to suffer from a life-threatening disorder called “milk fever”, where the body cannot produce enough calcium to power her muscles (including the heart).

Instead, we must choose feeds that encourage the cow’s body to draw calcium from her bones and that will help her adjust to the diet she’ll receive as a member of the milking herd. If we don’t get the feeding regime right during the two to three weeks before calving, cows are more likely to have trouble calving, develop lameness, lose weight, produce less milk and get sick with mastitis.

Ironically, too much grass at this time also spells big trouble. It generally has a high dietary cation anion difference (DCAD), which doesn’t help get precious calcium into the bloodstream. That’s why cows in our calving paddock have access to short but clean grass, anion salts in their drinking water, cereal hay and half the ration of grain they’ll get in the dairy. They’re too precious to treat with any less TLC.