This is one of the most amazing and natural processes that you can witness in nature. Sadly, Highlands have their calves so easily and quickly that, more often than not, we do not get a chance to be a part of it. When we are fortunate enough to see a heifer or cow start the next generation, and then watch those devoted maternal instincts kick in as that calf struggles to its feet while being licked and nuzzled, it makes you wilt. Then, while still wobbly on their feet, the Highland calf gets its first drink - this is the beginning of one of the strongest bonds in the animal kingdom.
This article will discuss some of the normal, and abnormal things that can happen during and shortly after the calving process. It is by no means complete, but is meant to act as a guide, mainly for the less experienced, as to what to expect during this time, and most importantly, when to be concerned and intervene. Generally it is found that more people intervene too often or too soon (sometimes to the detriment of the animals or the cow-calf bond), than need to.
If you have seen a natural mating or an AI (artificial insemination) has been performed, then you can refer to a gestation calendar to calculate the expected calving date. This will be approximately 283 days after service or AI, but can often vary by up to 5 and sometimes even 10 days either side of this expected time. Remember that if the cow missed from the mating that was noticed and actually conceived from their next season, they might well not calve for 3 weeks after this calculated date. If you are unsure, peace of mind can be sort by getting your vet out to do a pregnancy test.
One good indicator is that in the 2-3 weeks prior to calving the udder will enlarge (bag up). In heifers this can start as early as 3-4 months prior, and in some cows, it may not be until a few days prior to calving. Their vulva will start to enlarge and soften in these last few weeks as well, and especially puff up in the last few days. During these last couple of days the abdomen will drop and the flanks will appear hollowed out. The tail head ligaments can soften causing the tail head to become slightly raised. Calving is normally only 24-48 hours away at this stage.
When calving is imminent (the 2-6 hours prior to any straining), the cow or heifer will leave the fold and find a secluded and protected spot to calve. They are often restless and are best left well alone at this stage otherwise they will keep moving locations. They will get up and lay down a lot as the time draws closer and some discharge may be noticed from the vulva.
Once straining starts, or the water bag is noticed, the whole process is normally over within 30 minutes to two hours. Some heifers may take a little longer than this. Cows will normally do all their pushing laying down, although some will stand to deliver. Most will get up and lay down a few times during this period, especially if disturbed.
Initially an opaque water bad will show first bulging out between the vulval lips, but if this breaks the next thing that is seen is hopefully the front hooves. The soles of the hooves will be facing the ground if they are front feet. If they are facing the sky, this normally means that they are back feet - a "breech" delivery, and there will be a significantly higher risk of complications. These front legs may go in and out a few times as the animal strains and may even disappear if they stand up. From the time the hooves are first noticed, definite progress should be noted within 30 minutes.
The next stage will be the progression to the head (or nose) protruding. This is normally the time of maximal straining as the shoulders start coming through the pelvic canal - now is when you are glad you chose a bull that was not too heavy through the shoulders. Once the head and chest comes through, the cow will often take a break for a few breaths to a few minutes, and can even get up & walk around with the calf hanging out. The last stage is a final few pushes to get past the hips. This can often look a little violent, especially if the cow stands up during the expulsion of the calf and the calf sometimes hits the ground with a bit of a thud.
At this moment the umbilical cord breaks and the cow normally immediately rises to her feet, turns around and starts licking the calf. She will often make some very nurturing grunts, and will sometimes even bellow. By now most of the rest of the fold will be gathered around to see what all the fuss is about. More dominant cows will often come and sniff the newborn calf.
The calf will take its first breaths causing the lungs to expand (they were previously full of fluid) not long after it hits the ground. This first breath is aided by the stimulation of the intense licking of the dam. Most Highland calves will be up and have suckled within 30-60 minutes, providing the birth was not difficult. Sometimes an over zealous mother will lick her calf so much that it will have trouble balancing on four legs. They naturally seem to find their way to the udder, although this appears a bit hit and miss and they will end up sucking under a front leg or on a tail sometimes. As long as they get a good suckle in the first 6-12 hours, they will absorb enough colostrum (which has antibodies in it for immunity to disease) to get them by.
This will normally be expelled within 2-8 hours, but may be as long as 24 hours for some. The cow will normally eat the afterbirth - this is quite natural as it makes sense to avoid any trace of the calf from any potential predators. If the placenta is seen hanging down from the vulva and doesn't come away within 24 hours, then the vet should be contacted. Often nothing more is needed other than close monitoring, as some placentas will not detach for 72 hours (amazingly, no harm generally comes of this). If they are still there 3 days after calving, then veterinary attention will definitely be required. At no time should the visible membranes be shortened or cut off as their weight of this helps them to fall out naturally.
For the first 12-24 hours the calf will be quite trusting of you and less coordinated so is relatively easy to catch. It is a great opportunity to weigh your calf and perhaps even put the relevant ear tags in. This can usually be done in front of the dam if they are trusting enough (we do this with all of our cows) and we also check the sex, check ears for crop ear (What is crop ear?) and check for any other abnormalities.
In the first few days you will notice that the calf is either sleeping, suckling or running around kicking it's legs out. When they are awake they can be quite active, especially if there are other calves around. When they sleep they can often become very difficult to find, being able to camouflage themselves very easily up against a tuft of grass. During this time you can check that the calf is suckling from all 4 teats. If there are one or two larger ('bottle') teats then it may have trouble getting its mouth around them. Also check that they have passed their first faeces (meconium). This often sticks to their tail.
The cow can sometimes reject the calf if you have interfered too much, or you needed to pull the calf or do a caesarean. Some dams will abandon the calf (more so first calf heifers) for no obvious reason - this is not good maternal instinct and is a strong reason to cull that cow. In this situation you need to get the cow into the crush and let the calf suckle without being butted or kicked away (sometimes you might need to tie a back leg down so she can not kick). The first suckle of colostrum is the most important and occasionally it is necessary to milk the cow out by hand (1-2 litres is adequate) and give it to the calf via a stomach tube or teat and bottle.
This should be done a minimum of
three times a day but between times they need to be kept separate
because the cow may still injure the calf. Once the
placenta is passed, you may want to smear some of this on the calf
to help with recognition. Usually by the 3rd or 4th day the cow is
starting to make progress and may be starting to accept the calf -
listen for those maternal grunting noises that they start to make
when the calf is suckling. At this stage you can leave them together
under supervision and once the bonding is complete, they can go back
into the paddock.
Although calving problems are not common with Highlands, they still occur. The fact that we rarely need to intervene is probably why we have less experience with calving difficulties than owners of most other breeds. But remember, the best outcomes for mother and calf come with early recognition of problems and appropriate action being taken. If there are any doubts at all, call the vet, or at least an appropriately experienced neighbour for the following circumstances:
any straining when they are not within 10 days of
♠ more than 7-10 days overdue (without any signs of imminent calving),
♠ feet protruding and the soles of the hooves are facing the sky (back legs),
♠ when feet are protruding from the vulva and no progression is seen for more than 45 minutes,
♠ any labour lasting more than 2-3 hours,
♠ if you have tried to pull with 2 people for 20 mins & had no luck,
♠ if the placenta is retained (still hanging) for more than 24 hours after calving,
♠ if the calf is slow - not up in 2-3 hours or not suckled in 6-8 hours.