Why we don’t want huge calves like this whopper

Huge calf

Big calves are a big risk

This calf was born yesterday and, sadly, survived only a few minutes, leaving his poor mother exhausted. Having sat her up, Wayne and Zoe are giving her a dose of sugars, calcium and mineral salts to give her a boost after her ordeal. Big calves tend to cause a lot of calving trouble and are also often stillborn. We’ve had a few this year, which I think is partly due to the wonderful condition of the cows.

We do actively try to keep the size of calves manageable in other ways. When we are selecting bulls for our herd, we look for those who have a record of easy calvings (though not too easy in case we end up breeding cows with hopelessly tiny pelvises) and those of medium stature. We don’t want to breed giants and internationally, Holsteins have been getting bigger and bigger.

As well as the calving ease, our desire for medium-sized cows is about fitness. Most of the semen originates from lines bred in America and Europe, where cows live in barns most of the time and walk very little while, here in Australia, our cows live out in the paddocks all year round.

I think they have better lives as a result but the downside (if you can call it that) is that they must be fit enough to walk from the paddock to the dairy and back twice a day. Massive bodies are hard on feet and legs.

Beautiful birth

Cow 506 beginning to calve

Cow 506 beginning to calve at 11.50am

By the time I took this photo at 11.50 yesterday, I’d been watching over cow 506 for an hour or so. She’d been showing all the classic signs of a cow about to calve: restlessness, getting up and down. It was a relief to see her labour had progressed. I came back again an hour later to make sure everything was okay and look what I found! Licking her little one with gusto, she looked very comfortable.

Cow 506 licks her newborn at 1pm

Cow 506 licks her newborn at 1pm

Of course, it’s not always this simple. Sometimes the calf is too big, sometimes breech, sometimes the cow herself has a problem. With 340 cows set to calve over the next few months, it’s an anxious time for us.

To make it easier to keep an eye on our ladies, we do a weekly sort-out, drafting cows that are about three weeks from calving out from the rest so they can get extra special TLC in our calving paddock. This paddock is small and close to the house and dairy. We check it three times a day and, if any of the cows look like they’re about to calve, we hop up during the night to check them as well. Some of the signs are a swollen vulva, mucus, tight udder and unusual behaviour. The reality is though that, despite breeding programs meddling with the cow’s biology for thousands of years, almost all of them calve quite easily.

I hate comparing women with cows but, at almost 36 weeks myself, I can’t help wondering why it seems so much more complicated for us!

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.