by Suzanne Lupien of Thetford Center, VT
Caring For The Pregnant Cow – Calving – Motherhood – Rearing Calves Naturally – How To Make A Cheese Trier – Washing Cheesecloth
Good cheese comes from happy milk and happy milk comes from contented cows. So for goodness sake, for the sake of goodness in our farming ways we need to keep contentment, happiness and harmony as primary principles of animal husbandry. All the practical requirements of cow care – good housing, plenty of good hay, ample pasturage in season, quiet and respectful handling, rhythmic and conscientious chore time are essentials which contribute to your cow’s well being and the well being of your farm. The practical manifestations of our love and appreciation are what make a small farm. Above and beyond the significant requirements of housing, feed and water is the care of your cow’s emotional life, provide for her own fulfillment. Let her raise her calf!
The best examples of husbandry are partnerships. As you learn the Tao of cow you learn a lot about partnership, about mutual giving and support. This beautiful milk is the abundant gift of a deeply maternal being, and let us under- stand what this means and learn to uphold natural law in our approach, to create an environment where the cow/calf pair can live a natural life to the best of our ability. Give them to each other and give them their lives. Watch your farm’s production of happiness and harmony soar. Love and fertility are deeply connected.
This is such an important and fundamental issue and one so little is written about, and sadly but truly we cannot look to the modern dairymen and the veterinarians who work for them to advise us.
The trouble I have with modern agriculture is simply its exploitative premise and the oceans of misery that attend its “success.” I’ll tell you right now that this insidious industrial mindset of production has no place on my farm. Which isn’t to say that it’s not productive, but rather its unwavering focus is doing the work well, respectfully, keeping the channel clear to my own guiding principle:, the love of the land, and of Mother Earth.
So let’s take our time with the picture of our pregnant cow, how we care for her and how we prepare her for calving and the subsequent needs of the cow and calf pair.
For the purposes of the scope of this article I will start with the heavily pregnant cow, in her 8th month of gestation, through calving, rearing the calf through its 12th week. I will cover care and feeding, handling, first milking, the needs of the calf, basic calf training, and the cow/calf pair on summer pasture. To conclude I will cover weaning.
Witnessing a cow in her eighth month gives an understanding of the heavy burden your cow bears for you. Carrying and nurturing her unborn while producing milk, and needing a rest period before calving, then starting up the cycle of mothering all over again. So by the end of her 7th month of gestating, she is due for a dry period to devote her energies to growing the fetus, resting and relaxing, to get ready to do it again. Let’s say you have milked her for 10 months, it’s July and she’s out on grass, and she’s giving 2-3 gallons per day. She needs to stop producing milk so access to lush grass must stop. If you feed your cow concentrates this must also now stop. The last thing she will want is poor quality dry hay and this is what she ought to have. Take her off lush pasture, give her a woods-edge paddock with very little grass if you can, or bring her back to the barnyard for the duration. The main points are: keep her off milk-making feed, and keep her comfortable and accessible to you. After taking her off grass I would continue to milk her for a week or so until you notice a drop in her milk production. Then stop milking, cold turkey. No clanging of milk pails, handling of teats or any other stimulation associations with letting down her milk. Remember that much of her milk is actually produced at let-down so the less said about MILK the better. A discreet hand against the udder occasionally checking for abnormal heat and possible infection is good, but if your cow’s udder was healthy at the time of drying off, there should not be any trouble.
The heavy producers have a tougher time all around and once in a while a cow will not dry off readily and may need more time and possibly a day or two of restricted access to drinking water giving her half her usual daily intake. I’ve never wanted to do this and I’ve never needed to. My cows, comparatively low producing small old fashioned Jerseys, have all dried off readily and completely. Often by their 10th month of lactation their production is down to 1 1?2 gallons anyway and by two weeks of not milking their udders have shrunk back and they’re happy as clams. They know exactly how good a vacation can feel.
We will talk about choosing the right cow for the family cow in a subsequent article but I will tell you that Juliette de Bairadi-Levy says that a cow with a full udder should be able to run, so a brief description of a good cow suggests she produces no more than 3-4 gallons of milk at the height of her lactation, is flexible and athletic in her movements, has been reared on her mother and has had, therefore, her needs met, has good teats for hand milking (I’ll get into that a little later). In short, she is more like a deer than an elephant. She is likely to be the antithesis of the modern conventional dairy cow who due to her breeding is built to produce all the milk she can, and due to her treatment may well be lacking certain parts of her body which interfere with the “industry’s” idea of efficiency, and who has been forced into a static life on a concrete floor. Enough said. I decided long ago to use my time and intellect on this earth to work to the good, not waste it on complaining about the bad.
So! What I have striven for in my cow type (Jersey) is intelligence (keep the horns, read Rudolph Steiner) perky, petite and active (reared on their dams and a lifetime of physical freedom in hilly natural surroundings with access to woods as well as fields).
For your sake as well as hers I’m hoping the heavily pregnant cow on your farm has a twinkle in her eye, a shiny coat, is lying down in shade or sun, chewing her cud, in full confidence that this baby she’s building will be hers to raise, and that she can get up easily, and when she does get up she would sooner come over to you for a scratch behind the ears than lunge bug-eyed out of your way. It’s up to you. Nothing stands you in better stead in your farming life than love, understanding and appreciation. It is a marriage and the seriousness with which you uphold your vows has everything to do with the outcome.
Sunlight, fresh air, fresh water, dry bedding, physical freedom (with somewhere to go). Always these things. Especially now, but yes, always! Access to minerals in the form of mineral salt licks and preferably in access to woods, clean soil, rock, leaves, and bark. Feed from highly mineralized fields and varied natural species. Generating all this milk is an exceptional and continuous drain on inner resources and we must be alert and vigilant in renewing these vital elements in our cow’s diet. Providing generously for her mineral needs at this late pregnancy time is most important. Well made hay of wild and over-mature grasses are just the ticket for her dry period as this hay will be low in milk-making protein. Coming off grass she will undoubtedly protest the change in diet, maybe do a lot of plaintive mooing for a few days but she’ll get over it. Amuse her with the odd apple, zucchini or carrot and she will forgive you.
If she can be kept in her own place from sometime in her 8th month thru calving, and for the first week or two of the calf ’s life things will be simpler really for everyone. And if there is any doubt in her mind as to whether the calf will be hers to keep you can communicate the good news to her. By this time in her gestation you will notice her need for privacy, rest and time with her unborn is very strong and getting stronger by the day. She is lying down a lot more and her attention to her unborn but very developed baby puts a different look in her eye. A sort of calmness combined with a very private alertness. They are communicating. Clearly she is preparing herself to bring her next calf into the world. And you, too, are preparing, making sure that the maternity stall is clean, that there are no dangers for her or the calf such as protruding nails or other hardware, broken glass, or gaps in walls or gates where an awkward newborn could be caught in or fall through. Please take this assessment very seriously. Dangling ropes, unprotected window glass, rotting floorboards, so many things a new calf can be hurt by. If a paddock of some sort is adjacent to the maternity stall, see to it that it is gated off until the calf gets his legs under him (a few days to a week) and know for certain that your paddock or pasture is free from dangers to this calf, such as loose wire, junk, old foundation walls, and that the bottom fence wire is low enough to keep the calf contained.
If this is your first calving experience, seek out reliable help in advance. Contact your neighboring farmer and ask if he/she can be called upon if necessary. Ditto the farmer you obtained your cow from. Establish an understanding with the local cow vet. Even a telephone contact with a seasoned farmer can be a godsend. Retired elderly farmers can be extremely good guides and teachers. I’ll never forget Bernice Johnson, just getting accustomed to her new knees, coming over on a June night just before dark to help me get “my” first jersey calf on her mother’s teat for the first time. It was close to pitch dark, no hands free to hold the flash light. She sagely guided me to position my kneeling body snugly behind the calf to steady her while Bernice led the calf ’s attention with the calf sucking on her finger over to the teat and made the transfer gently and smoothly. Then we heard the priceless sound of sucking. I remember being filled with gratitude for the miracle of motherhood, and the miracle of Bernice.
Cows generally go full term in their pregnancies, rarely deviating from their due dates more than a day or two. However, it’s possible for the calf to come a week or two early or late, just as with humans. Pay attention, be observant. Stay home.
Anticipation is integral to farming and on a small diversified farm there are so many things to address and think about in this way. Let’s go over what we have:
- A healthy dry cow ready to calve
- A secure, sunny and shady enclosure safe for mother and calf
- An attentive and practical rapport with the cow
- Well-made but poor quality dry hay for the last 6 weeks of pregnancy through the first week or two of motherhood
- Plenty of fresh water, dry clean bedding and a mineral lick for your cow
- A means to safely hold your cow in one place for milking time when it comes, and preferably a neck strap and/or a rope halter for directing, leading and tying when needed
- A few tubes of calcium and mineral paste to be administered if necessary at the direction of a vet or experienced cow person, and the ability and tools needed to do so (for milk fever prevention, and other mineral deficiency such as magnesium)
- A basic understanding of calving complications such as a difficult presentation and what to do about it, milk fever, how to recognize it and treat it, etc. And the lesser likely problems of magnesium deficiency and ketosis, both serious.
- A milk stool, lard or bag balm to soothe chapped teats, a livestock thermometer, and an old terry bath towel or two to help dry off baby if it comes on a chilly night.
The best insurance for a healthy natural delivery is of course a healthy, natural cow. Exercise is so important; one reason I prefer rugged hill pastures for all my livestock. If you have to keep your very pregnant cow in close quarters as you await the calf ’s arrival, and if you are able, put your rope halter on your cow and take her out once a day for a walk. She will be the better for it, and so will you.
There is some variation in degree of indicators that your cow is ready to calve: she will bag up, her vulva will soften, she’s likely to drip mucous, she may paw the ground and circle, she may circle rapidly just prior to calving, looking for her calf. She may talk to her calf. She will lie down, get up, lie down, etc. When the calf heads down the birth canal she will suddenly look a lot less pregnant. She will get very soft in the back end and she will often drip milk.
If you are new at this, please pay very close attention so you know what you are seeing. And please stay out of her way, preferably outside the stall and do not interfere or feel you need to help. Most of the time the process goes well. Bear in mind that cows are large animals and the larger the animal the greater the effort it is to give birth. From the moment of breaking water to the wobbly calf taking his first meal, (regardless of the time taken for a normal birthing, which can vary between 10 minutes to 2 hours) it’s a lot of physical and emotional work for the cow. In a normal delivery, after the water breaks (which may occur with the cow either standing or lying down) contractions begin and very shortly the calf starts to come, front feet first. Right behind, about when the knees are beginning to be visible, the nose, often with the tongue hanging out, will push through.
Good! During this time sight of the calf may ebb and flow a bit with the contractions. And the cow may be restless, up and then down, then up on her feet again. Mostly she’ll be lying down and giving it all she’s got to push out the shoulders, a major accomplishment. When this part of the calf is out, whoosh! The rest of it comes out with some force. If this is your first calving, and the presentation appears to be normal, and progress is being made please let your cow take care of it. Once in a great while I might, in concert with the cow’s pushing, pull a little to help her pass the shoulders but I hope you will leave it to her in a normal birth and trust her to do it in her own time.
If the calf is not coming, your cow is straining for an hour or more with no hooves emerging, I would get help. It’s better to be safe than sorry. And it’s better to avail yourself of experience rather than plunge in not knowing precisely what’s happening and what to do about it. Sometimes the calf can be very large, making the birthing difficult, for example. But with complications such as a breech, or some rear presentations, clear expert help is needed, and the cow and the calf can’t wait forever while you Google calving. By all means line up your reserve experienced helper and clue them in as to the time frame as best you can. Next week, tonight, whatever. So you know where they’ll be and they know to be available.
Alright! Thank goodness! The calf ’s out! I generally approach quietly here and, with thumb and forefinger pull the mucous from the calf’s nostrils and mouth to open the air passages. Generally now the calf will sneeze or cough at this point. If you think he’s not breathing yet you might take a stalk of hay and tickle up his nose to cause him to sneeze at which point he will begin breathing. If he’s landed in a heap you might sort him out gently, then step right away so your beautiful mother cow can do what she needs to do and lick him all over to clean him and stimulate him and be with him, and celebrate him.
Shortly thereafter he will now begin to get his little legs under him and stand up. Naturally these legs take some getting used to and he will tumble a few times before he’s able to stand. Mother Nature, in her infinite wisdom has created a situation where repeat attempts to stand, followed by tentative and often brief attempts to walk teach and strengthen the calf right away. How perfect it is. The best bedding for the calf you will see is short chopped clean straw. Long strand straw will catch up his little feet and trip him. And sawdust isn’t good because he’ll likely get a mouthful and/or an eyeful. Once he’s up and staggering, reach over and squirt a bit of milk, or rather colostrum out of each quarter. Sometimes a bit of dried colostrum will plug a teat and make the first sucking harder. The front teats are the ones newborns generally find first by the way. Initially the bending down and reaching up with the mouth can be a challenge for the calf, then once he’s on, he knows and he’s got it. The cow is mooing, mooing, licking, licking, turning, turning. I like to keep a very quiet observant presence here but once in a while I’ll gently point the calf in the right direction if he’s slow to catch on, if it’s late or chilly or for some other reason I need to know he’s gotten his first meal, or if the cow isn’t standing for him, or is brushing him off or even kicking him (usually a sign of chapped and painful teats) I will simply put her head in a stanchion right there in the birthing room, or put a halter on her and tie her up short and direct the calf toward the teat, on my knees bracing his rear end with my chest. With one hand you can help him lower his head and with the other gently get the teat in his mouth. A short squirt to his lips will often inspire him. When that glorious sucking sound reaches your ears, maintain your bodily and your spirit support for the little one until he really latches on. Then he’s apt to stumble, lose his grip on the teat and then find it again, sometimes a second lesson right then clinches the deal. Those first tiny sips will thrill him and everybody else, and now you know he knows. He will never forget. I like to witness a few more hearty mouthfuls before I leave them for a 1/2 hour or so. (If you’ve got her hitched, and if she’s very chapped, rub a bit of lard on her teats.) Let her go and leave them to it. She, in her vast excitement may appear quite nervous now, but she will calm down, probably in a few hours. But these first few hours of mothering can include a lot of movement on her part, a lot of attempts on the part of the calf to stand and to suck. Meanwhile the calf ’s appetite increases and his sucking helps the cow to stimulate her uterus to pass the afterbirth.
Have you seen a cow’s afterbirth? It’s massive. Typically it starts flowing out of the cow in the first few hours after calving and it takes time to entirely pass through the birth canal and land like a lake behind the cow. The cow’s instinct is to eat it and I sit there and watch to make sure she’s not choking on it. Most people I know take it away and bury it in the manure pile. Stay and supervise and assist, or take it away. By now the bedding in the stall will be wet and matted from the birthing so bring in more straw. I wouldn’t do any mucking out, just add.
The calf’s had a meal, and things ought to be quieting down in the maternity pen with the calf napping, the cow lying down. See to it that she got water – she will need a big long drink after calving. Provide her with a couple of flakes of hay and drizzle some molasses over it for energy for her. Leave them be and give thanks for this healthy birth.
The next thing to watch for in the calf is the first and second passing of solids. The first poop is brown, and the next bright yellow/orange indicating the calf has taken in colostrum. Another masterful distinction provided by nature. The second should be relatively solid, like toothpaste and have a distinct odor. Most cows will keep their calves clean behind but if your cow doesn’t, make sure you do. Warm water and a washcloth does the trick. This yellow color will persist for weeks until the calf begins to eat a little hay but the texture is likely to vary somewhat and still be normal.
The vigilant observation that a newborn calf and mother require, are centered mainly around health, safety, and feeding and milking. Within a few hours after calving, during an opportune moment while your cow happens to be standing, slip her head in the stanchion and milk out, say a pint out of each quarter. Do not leave her in the stanchion which would certainly unfairly worry her. She needs to see her calf. Do something with the colostrum you’ve just milked out: drink it, bake it, or freeze it for possible future calf emergencies on your farm or your neighbor’s.
I do not milk my cow out completely for 3 or 4 days. Easing her into milk production with still that poor quality hay and not emptying her udder right off slows down the major shift occurring in her being, and minimizes the risks of milk fever, which is not a fever at all, but a dropping in body temperature caused by this major metabolic shift to making milk. It is a calcium deficiency. It is, or can be life-threatening. I have striven for reverse-seasonal dairying on my farm for a few reasons. Having cows calve in fall and winter means they’re not on lush grass at calving time thus guarding against milk fever. Secondly I cannot make hay, fix tractors and milk, and make cheese simultaneously. I prefer to make cheese when the hay’s in the barn. As a major focus I favor the work when the snow is on the ground. I have had only one milk fever case and it was a July calving. My favorite calving time is October/November: it’s cooler, the flies are pretty much gone, life is quieter, and there’s no lush grass.
You do need to milk her. You need to pay close attention to her overall condition after calving, watching for signs of trouble in mother and baby and taking care of her udder. The major swelling of the udder leading up to calving is, not surprisingly, very uncomfortable with chafing of the bag and especially the teats. Washing the udder gently with warm water and a soft cloth will soothe her. Do this at milking time and after drying it with another soft cloth, gently massage the udder with lard or bag balm. I prefer lard because:
- a. I don’t have to buy it
- b. It’s very good for the udder, being especially warming in cold winter weather, and