Calving will be starting on many Irish farms over the next few days and weeks. Farming papers are full of instructions for directions for improving calf health and reducing mortality. If you’re married to a new entrant dairy farmer or you’re wondering what being married to a dairy farmer might be like during the calving time, here’s the low down on what you need!
Not for the calves or even the cows but the farmer here needs a a steady supply of chocolate to get him through the busiest six weeks of calving. I’m not talking small bars either – I buy about 4 of the big slabs of Cadbury’s chocolate every week when I’m grocery shopping. When he’s up most of the night, the chocolate keeps him going. Rather infuriatingly though, he doesn’t put on any weight and even loses it. Whereas I, the calf rearer, only take occasional squares from the big slabs but it’s still hard work to shed a few pounds. Add chocolate to the shopping list!
No, not your smartphone for selfies with the cute calves but a calving monitor will film the cows in their maternity ward and you can keep an eye on them from the television screen inside. If you have a wireless system, you can even watch them on your smartphone or tablet. We have numerous dinners when the television is centre stage for a few weeks in the year – as we watch to see if anything is happening.
#3. Cute Calves
There’s nothing as cute as newborn calves. When we were kids, my dad used to let each of us choose a calf for our own. My sister used to keep changing her mind everytime a particularly cute calf (usually small) was born even though my dad kept telling her that larger ones were more profitable. We tend to give names to a few of the especially cute ones. Last year we had Guinevere, Maggie Moo, Florence, Sebastian and Charlie! Mind you, Charlie wasn’t particularly cute but was one of the largest bull calves every born – and the hungriest! The bellows out of him made me glad that we were castrating the bull calves last year – wouldn’t have liked to be herding him when full of testosterone!
Colostrum – the liquid gold and otherwise known as biestings! Calves are born without immunities hence the important of getting all the goodness and protection provided by their mothers’ colostrum particularly in the first milking. Calves need 3 litres of this, preferably within two hours of being born. Some experts recommend milking the cow and feeding the calf via stomach tube to ensure they get the full three litres. However, some acknowledge that if a cow calves at 3am and the farmer hasn’t got to bed yet, that they are likely to check the calf is suckling and leave them to it.
Dairy calves are taken from their mums shortly after birth and housed in a comfortable straw-bedded shed with other calves. Dairy cows supply so much milk, it would be too much for one calf. Some farmers feed them milk with teat feeders, others with buckets. The thing is that calves don’t automatically know how to drink milk. Sometimes they have to be taught and there are times when it can take quite a long time, they just haven’t grasped how to suck. If teaching it how to drink milk from a bucket, you start off by scooping handfuls of milk into its mouth, hoping it will follow your hand and the taste into the bucket. You may have to let it suck your finger and lead its mouth into the bucket of milk. It’s then a good idea to remove your finger, otherwise it will expect it to be there at every feeding! However, sometimes you have to do it again and again and again.
To get a calf started on teat feeding, we use a very large bottle with a large teat. It’s usually just a case of putting it into the calf’s mouth, sometimes you have to hold the head and off it goes. However, there’s always a few that just don’t grasp it. Trying to hold a teat in a calf’s mouth isn’t as easy as it looks, it slides around, it can be hard to hold the head under your arm. Feeding a tiny lamb is much easier, it doesn’t have the strength to fight against you.
It’s crucial that the calf gets the colostrum, therefore you just can’t say “You’ll bloody drink it later when you’re hungry” and leave it for a few hours. We only feed by tube if it’s really necessary so tend to persevere for a while! Do you remember the scene from Sex and the City when Miranda is trying to breast feed Brady and she just can’t concentrate on what Carrie is saying until he has latched on and is drinking. Yes, I’ve been there with both children. It’s not quite as bad when you’re feeding a calf but I can promise that the same sense of relief does wash over you when it finally starts to suck.
Oh, and by the way, you’ll be keeping lots of plastic milk containers while the cows are dry and they will be filled with colostrum and frozen. It can sometimes happen that a cow or heifer just doesn’t produce enough colostrum and it will need to be defrosted for another calf. Apparently, some people use colostrum for making yummy pancakes!! However, it’s not really suitable for human consumption as there can be antibiotics in the milk (from the dry cow tubes inserted when they were put dry) for up to 4 days after the birth. I guess you could try it with the colostrum from heifers though as they are providing milk for the first time, hence no antibiotic residue. I could never stomach it as the milk is incredibly yellow and thick and sometimes is streaked red but let me know if you try it!
#5. Keep Calm
There’s no point getting into a fluster if things start to go wrong – it won’t help farmer, cow or calf. It’s much easier to stay calm if sheds are cleaned out and disinfected in good time, you have everything you need to hand and can then deal with any difficult calving as they happen. It can get a little fraught if a calf is coming backwards as the head is coming last and if it is born too slow, it could stop breathing. Once it is out, it’s all hands to the deck to rub the chest to free the lungs of any liquid, tickle the nose with straw, blow into its mouth and lift it by the legs to hand over a gate with its head hanging down, trying to stimulate breathing. Yes, for a couple of minutes, staying calm is very important and it’s a lovely feeling when they do come back to life in front of your eyes. If they don’t, it’s always a little bit soul destroying I must admit. Yes, farmers do get emotional sometimes when they lose an animal.
#6. Cross Cows
While most cows will appreciate a helping hand (if required) to help them deliver their offspring, some aren’t as appreciative of your efforts, particularly if they suspect you might harm their precious newborn. It’s more of a problem with suckler cows which aren’t handled as much but can happen occasionally with dairy cows and heifers too. Stay near the exit, don’t let yourself be cornered and keep an eye on the new mum’s reaction to you as well as the calf. A head butt from a large animal like a cow can kill and you don’t realise how big they are until they are filled with menace.
#7. Compact Calving
I was quite shocked last year when I was having a chat about calving on twitter when I was asked if compact calving meant that we induced our cows to make them give birth early and get them back into the milking parlour! I’ve never heard of anyone doing it and it is illegal. Compact calving means trying to get as many of your cows calving within a six week period as you possibly can. It’s all down to good fertility within the herd and spotting when they are on heat nine months previously. The reasons for this are higher profitability and easier management. We have about 95 to calve this February within a 3 week period so it’s going to be a busy few weeks.
#8. Keeping Calves Cosy
Calves need to be cosy. Their sheds need to have plenty of fresh air but yet be draught-free. They need plenty of clean straw – apparently when you think they have enough, you should add 20% more. The reason for this is they take in a lot of milk, they wee a lot so the straw gets damp quite quickly. Apart from the need to have dry material to lie on, baby calves sleep a lot too and when they are lying down, their noses are very close to the smells and fumes of the urine which isn’t good for their lungs. They should look so cosy that you wouldn’t mind getting into the pen and lying down with them – apart from the fact that they’d suck you to death of course! Calf coats help – I reviewed some of the brands right here but I’d recommend getting a variety of sizes as one size may fit all but is a pain if it is too big. Don’t get them too small as you’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll have to adjust those straps.
Cleanliness is important too of course – the calving shed and calf shed are disinfected, as are the teat feeders and buckets on a regular basis. It’s strange but I actually get more satisfaction from scrubbing calf buckets clean than washing my kitchen floor!
Just open the calf shed door at feeding time and your ears will be deafened by a cacophony of moos. Once healthy calves recognise you as their proxy mum and the calves in the first pen get their milk, the others will bellow until the milk reaches them. It’s when a calf is silent and morose that you get concerned! Once fed, they will mill around, and gradually go and lie down until the shed is full of slumbering and content calves.
Other requirements beginning with ‘C’ are a calving jack or pulley (for easing the calf out if assistance is required), a calving gate in the calving pen or failing that, a crush or chute (these secure the cow so the farmer isn’t at risk when helping her). Hopefully caesarean sections won’t be required!
In Ireland, most dairy herds calve their cows in the spring, from February to April and while it is a busy time, it is always interesting to see what the calves are like, how the cows calve, which are the easiest calving AI bulls, if any of the potential ‘bull mothers’ have bull calves and if they might be considered for purchase by AI stations although we’ll be hoping for heifers from them really!
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