Let those mama cows do their motherly thing

Watch your cows during calving season. The birthing process begins well before the feet and nose appear in the birth canal.

January 21, 2020

4 Min Read
Black Angus cow on pasture

It’s possible that cow-calf producers can have a tunnel-vision focus on only the pregnant cow when calving time approaches. They hang their calf puller and chains near the calving pen and concentrate on getting that newborn calf on the ground. Questions dominate their minds. Will they be able to pull that smaller heifer’s calf? Which one will have a foot or two down in the birth canal? Will that black baldy have another backwards calf this year? 

The cows are in the nearby pen ready to be moved to the calving area no matter the hour, but they are largely ignored.

Although these worrisome questions and actions can at times be a large part of the process, progressive thinking is forcing producers to take a step back. Experts urge that to help deliver a healthy calf that will end up either at the packing plant or in the cow herd, it is important to first help the cow.

Allow the critical actions

There are critical actions that should take center stage when the pregnancy period is coming to an end. Isolation, potential assistance, birthing and establishing a bond are all precursors to that healthy weaned calf. If possible, they must be allowed and supported to offer the best opportunity for success.

Aaron Berger, University of Nebraska-Lincoln beef systems Extension educator, sees it as a complex process. “Weather conditions, the environment the cattle are in and the disposition of the cow can all contribute or take away from the success of the event.” 

Related:How soon should you help a calving cow?

He notes that many things are happening in a short period of time that can influence the situation. “Can that calf be born in a way that it gets up, nurses and receives colostrum in a timely way? And then will that cow protect the calf and get it safely to weaning?”

When the female becomes aware of the approaching delivery, isolation and nesting are a part of the natural process. Looking at the big picture, it’s important to let the mother do what mothers naturally want to do in order to kickstart things in the right direction. 

Experts see isolation as a preliminary step in forming the mother-offspring bond, as it establishes the protection of the pair from predators and facilitates early social interactions without unwanted interference. Cows become receptive to the idea of calving up to a week before the physical act. Hormones are triggered and the figurative meter is running.

“A cow that has open space on pasture can go off by herself and complete the birthing process without interruption. This should mean less stress for the cow and result in a better opportunity for bonding,” said Berger. “If she has limited space and ability to get up and move around, these are things that can contribute to the bonding process being more challenging for that cow.”

Related:Body condition at calving is still a key to reproductive success

Endure the delivery process

For the micro-managing producer, it can be extremely hard to let nature take its course without reaching for that calf puller and chains. Like reading a book, it’s difficult for some to sit down and read all the pages without flipping to the ending to learn how it turns out. 

If females are given time and opportunity, the birthing process will eventually proceed. Changes in progesterone and estrogen levels initiate birthing, but rising oxytocin levels released during the physical event trigger maternal behavior.

Studies show that cervical stimulation is crucial for proper hormonal response. The fetus moving and stretching the birth canal while pushing against the cervix causes the release of oxytocin. This hormonal release combined with contractions is considered vital to the bonding process.

Berger encourages producers to give the process a real chance at succeeding as nature intended. “We have to think of the whole thing as a system that is not necessarily linear. A lot of hormones are changing in the cow with the birthing process about to take place. Minimize things that might be distractions.”

When the delivery is close, especially if the cow is lying down, maternal instinct and sensory clues provided by the calf and the birth fluids will seize the cow’s attention. “A vocal calf that is vigorous and struggling to get up encourages the cow and symbiotically the cow encourages the calf,” said Berger. “An aggressive cow and calf seem to be the scenario with the best opportunity for that calf to get colostrum in a timely way and further bonding to occur.”

Of course, location, land base, infrastructure, the environment and multiple other factors play a large role in what producers can and can’t do. Large, open ranches and confined scenarios could employ different breeding strategies on different types of cows because of the variations in human interactions.

“There is a lot of diversity in how cow-calf production occurs in North America. I think you need to have cattle that fit the environment and the resources.”

To keep the producer’s calf puller hanging on the wall where it belongs, it’s important to understand how vital the natural process of isolation, hormonal release, contractions and sensory stimuli are in producing a live and healthy newborn. If possible, let the mothers go through the process as nature intended, by experiencing all those motherly things.

Derksen is a freelance writer and feedyard pen rider in Lacombe, Alberta, Canada.

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