Clearly I spoke to soon when I wrote yesterday about the lack of problems in the cows. I tempted fate. After all this time in farming I should know better!
We were checking the livestock and tagging the latest lambs out in the fields when we noticed one of the heifers calving. She appeared to be in no hurry, which is normal for a heifer, and as we meandered about the four fields nearest to her catching lambs and tagging and tailing them we realised she really was not progressing in the usual fashion.
It is hard to explain how, after a lifetime of stockmanship, exactly how we know there is a problem, but we did. Maybe she just looked wrong, and she certainly was not getting on with the job – walking around and standing rather than lying down and pushing. Further checking at closer quarters showed we could only find one foot, a front foot. The normal presentation for a calf’s birth is two feet and a head, although almost every year we get a breech [backwards with back feet first].
Jethro and I were a mile and a half from home in a very large field with no means of either catching or restraining the heifer in a small enclosure. There was only one thing to do. Walk her gently and slowly back to the farm. We did this and she was very good and very quiet, six fields we crossed, as gate by gate was shut behind her and then we had a good half mile of open countryside and wheat fields to cross. Every so often along the way she would stop at a trough for a drink and perhaps manage a a few contractions before setting off again but her progress was good. Eventually Jethro ambled her across the last wheat field on the diagonal as I buzzed round in the vehicle to get all the right gates either open or shut back at the farm to get her straight into the yard and in to our cattle handling pens.
The heifer was very amenable to our handling of her which was fantastic and quite remarkable when you think that we bought her as a yearling and she has lived out in our fields for two years since then and she is not really used to close handling excpet for the occasional treatment for parasites and vaccinations such as bluetongue. And receiving extra rations to supplement the grass in the winter.
The heifer did not want to go in the cattle crush so we kept her in a pen and put a rope halter on her and tied her to the gate. Jethro rolled his sleeves up and put a long veterinary glove on and we poured the lubrication gel all over his hand and arm. It was not hard to discover why she couldn’t calve herself. The calf’s right leg was pinned back on the the far side of the cervix, and with some careful manoeuvring between contractions Jethro tweaked it forward. We now had a normal presentation for birth, however the heifer was getting tired and the calf appeared to be quite big.
The next step was to attach calving ropes to the two front legs just above the fetlock [ankle] joints. After doing that and holding them firmly every time the cow pushed we attached the calving aid. This is a very clever machine that fits the rear end of a cow very neatly. The ropes are attached one each side of the central pole on a rachet. As the cow pushes and the calf emerges millimetre by millimetre the rachet is gently tightened. This allows the heifer to give birth naturally without the calf slipping back in every time the contractions ease. As soon as the calf’s head is out in the outside world the ropes are taken off the rachet and the calf’s weight is supported as the heifer naturally pushes the calf out. This way the calf has the best chance to breathe on delivery and the heifer has the best chance of not being damaged internally during her first birth.
In our long farming careers Jethro and I have both seen these calving aids used on other farms in a very cavalier manner whereby the calf is forced out a very fast rate and the potential damage done to the cow is almost unimaginable, and we think that this is a most terrible practice and one that needs stopping. We firmly believe it is a balance of helping the cow and keeping the calf alive but we also reckon that using nature and the contractions to our advantage is the best way.
If we can’t ever calve a cow, which happens occasionally, then we ask the vet to come. I think we have only had 2 or 3 Caesarians in all the years we’ve farmed, and all these cows have eventually gone on to give birth normally the next year.
The calf arrived and was laid gently on the clean concrete while we untied the cow. Although it was her first calf, the young cow immediately knew to lick the calf and loved her instantly. We fetched a thick pad of straw, peeled off the outside of a large round bale, to lay under the calf to give grip and padding for when the calf tried to stand, which would only be a matter of minutes. Then we had a much needed cup of tea. We’d first arrived in the field at at 2pm and now it was 5.30pm
When we came back out, full of tea and biscuits, both mother and daughter were curled up, resting together on the improvised straw island. Later, after checking the other groups of cows and sheep on we found the calf had suckled and received the vital colostrum so we tucked them up together for their first night in a clean, newly strawed byre with a feed of crushed home grown barley for Mum.
Some tasks in farming are hard work and difficult but very, very satisfying.
Tomorrow they will go back out to grass and eventually be taken back to the herd by trailer. However, as this cow is such a sweetheart and so very placid we have decided to have her on display in a pen on Open Farm Sunday so that all the visitors can see a cow and calf, really close at hand.