Until I married a cowboy, I had no idea what “calving” was. I knew the adorable calves bouncing around the field as I drove by came from somewhere, but the work that went into ensuring their happy survival was unknown.  I quickly learned there are cattle owners who wake up at all hours of the night to traipse in to the blackness with a high-powered flashlight to shine on the backsides of pregnant heifers.

Why? A friend who had never been around cows dubbed my heifers “first moms” when I explained to him they were two-year-old females who had never had a calf before. Generally speaking, Mother Nature takes care of first moms and calving goes smoothly, but sometimes there can be complications. Think of humans. Usually the birthing process moves right along, but when difficulties arise, you want a knowledgeable doctor right there. It’s the same with cattle.

Heading out into the dark, sometimes in snow and often in wind, you wander into the “drop” which can vary from a small pen to a larger pasture. With our set up, we have the luxury of having the pregnant heifers in a large pen close to our house at night. Every couple of hours, my husband or I (or a friend if we can lure them out to ranch life) heads out with the flashlight to check. Is she swishing her tail a lot? Walking the fence? Do I see a bubble (water sack)? Feet? If I see feet, are they the normal presentation or is something wrong?

What does pulling a calf mean?

If the calf is larger than the heifer can handle or there appear to be an abnormal presentation (head back, foot back, breech), often the calf will have to be pulled. Usually once the birthing process begins, we want to see progress within a half hour. Once you see the water bag out, then you need to see a foot. Once you see a foot, then you need to see two, then a nose and so forth.

If we determine there is a problem, the heifer is brought into the barn where we have a pulling area set up that includes a head catch in a maternity pen. Calving chains put into place, a strategic light is turned on and the procedure of “pulling” the calf begins. To the uninitiated, this looks like a really tough deal for the calf and the mom. However, sometimes it’s the only way to get the calf born in a critical, timely manner.

Some pulls are easy, some can be very difficult especially, as mentioned above, there is an abnormal presentation. This complication takes an experienced person; in most cases, everything turns out fine. Most of the time, junior suddenly pops out, hitting the ground with a whoosh and lots of fluids.

Nothing is quite as slimy as a newborn calf!

We usually stick a piece of straw in his nose to get him shaking his head and giving a little sneeze to get life going. I’ll often dry the newborn with a soft towel, and then he’s moved to a pen. If it’s been a hard pull and the cow is taking a while to get over the trauma, the cow is milked into a nursing bottle so the calf can get his first meal quickly, including the important colostrum full of mom’s antibodies. Usually once mom and calf are united shortly thereafter she will start licking him and the two will bond. If all is well, they will go out later in the day.

Many ranchers strive to buy “low birthweight or heifer bulls” for their heifers.  Through what could be called a mathematical equation (it’s called Expected Progeny Differences or EPDs and would take another blog to explain), which includes the bull’s birthweight, it can be determined if that bull will produce calves weighing 70 pounds or less. This is ideal, as it makes the birth easier for both the heifer and calf. Despite a rancher’s attempts to breed a small calf, there are still times the calf just happens to be large and may need to be pulled.

When the weather is inclement, we don’t sleep but take turns waiting in the barn and checking the drop every half hour. If a calf is born in the cold and snow, we bring him in and put him to the hotbox. Think of a sauna! Warm, dry heat that circulates all around the calf. Within a couple of hours, the calf is dry and back with mom. Before we found a really great hotbox—or if it’s a bad winter’s day with three new calves but the hotbox is in use—we’ve had calves warming in a truck or under a blow-dryer in the house. When the weather is warm and if the cow has had an easy time of it, we’ll move her and her calf to a pen by themselves so they can bond. Later, they will join several other new moms.

No matter what the weather our cattle always have plenty of straw to lie in, hay to eat and clean water. Their care is out top priority.

Watching a calf being born is always a miracle.

Most of them arrive ready to go. They are standing within 15 minutes, and nursing shortly thereafter. In an hour or so they are bouncing around totally thrilled with life, or snoozing in the sun. It makes all that lack of sleep while calving heifers very worthwhile.

Gotta go! It’s time for the midnight check.

--Rebecca Mott