What is going on in the calving paddock?

Calving trouble

Trouble with a capital T

A cow lying on her side with her legs stuck straight out like this is not a good sign. “She’ll just be in the throes of calving,” I told myself as Zoe, baby and I bounced across the calving paddock.

It was not to be – the little cow was trying to push out a massive bull calf who had become stuck just after his shoulders. His tongue was pink, his eyes shone but, sadly, he was gone. Our attention turned immediately to the cow for if left too long, she would almost certainly suffer paralysis.

We keep a strong rope in the calving paddock’s medicine chest to help with calvings when necessary. Although we select bulls with smooth shoulders and of medium stature in an attempt to avoid trouble, calves are sometimes just too big, turned the wrong way or the cow is simply too weary to manage it on her own.

Dairy cow calving medicine chest

Emergency supplies are kept in a chest in the calving paddock

I looped the ends of the cord around the calf’s feet, stepped into the circle and eased back with the cow’s contractions. Nothing. I tried again but the calf could not be budged. Heavy reinforcements in the shape of husband Wayne were called in and, thankfully, the calf was out.

By then, I’d discovered there was another cow in trouble. 196, who is 14 years old, had earlier given birth to a beautiful heifer calf and when I went to check on her, this is all she could manage.

Milk fever

My legs aren’t working!

Dear old 196 was suffering from milk fever. This is really a metabolic disorder suffered by cows who just can’t get enough calcium into their blood streams after calving. Calcium is vital in the control of muscles, which is why she didn’t have the energy to stand up. Because the heart is a giant muscle, milk fever can also cause heart failure and immediate treatment is vital.

We minimise the risk of milk fever by feeding the cows very differently in the three weeks before calving. Instead of grass, they get hay that’s low in potassium and grain, while we add anionic salts to their water. This regimen encourages the cows to release calcium into their bloodstream so it’s available in the hours of peak demand after calving. When milk fever does strike, we give the cows a drip that includes calcium and sugar. Most cows are as right as rain again in no time, as was 196!

Both cows taken care of, we turned around to go and goodness gracious, it was all happening, including yet another calving underway!

Calving Paddock

It’s all happening in the calving paddock!

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.