A Mothers Guide to Calving

Pairs at home
Every year a group of mother cows and their new calves reside in the pasture right outside our front door. It’s pretty neat to wake up and see the mothers eating and babies running and playing with one another.

We are about a month into our 2018 calving season and I am loving all the new faces on the farm. Our first baby calves starting arriving in early January and will continue through March. Everyone understands the basics of pregnancy and birth, but here are a few details on the who calving process I know my fellow mother friends will appreciate.

  1. Cows have the same gestational period as humans. Cows and people carry their unborn for 40 weeks or 9 months. Calves can be born early and easily survive, but if they come too early they will often suffer from undeveloped systems and fragile health. But with a little extra care and a watchful eye, these preemies usually end up just fine. A full-term calf will weigh somewhere around 70 pounds at birth, and that number jumps to about 85 pounds for a calf from a mother who has previously given birth. (Why the increase? Cows usually have their first calf at age two and will continue to grow so that they have a larger frame and more room to carry a larger calf once they hit 3 years of age.)
  2. Calves receive all nutrients from their mother. Be it in the womb or during the first months of their lives, calves subsist exclusively on the nutrients delivered through their mother’s milk. That means we, as the farmers, must provide the mother with a nutrient-dense, well-rounded diet. Because these mothers’ third trimester occurs in the late fall and winter months, when grass is more scarce, we provide supplemental hay, distillers (made from corn during the ethanol production process) and grain pellets to ensure they are receiving enough protein and carbs. We will continue them on this diet through the spring since they will need the extra calories for nursing. Just like humans, a mother cow’s milk is the only food a baby calf needs for the first six months of their life. They can and often do try to eat grass or hay during that time but their digestive systems simply are not mature enough to process those items. By the fall they will have transitioned to a diet of grass supplemented by mother’s milk. P.S. Calves are born with teeth – ouch!
  3. Birthing is a natural process, but a little help is sometimes needed. For centuries humans gave birth with little to no medical assistance. Babies were born at home with a doctor no where to be found. The same is true for cows. However, just like in humans, things don’t always go as planned. Our first time mother cows are called heifers and those ladies require the most oversight. My husband and his father will take turns checking on our heifers every four hours or so around the clock to ensure everyone is doing well. But it’s not uncommon to have to pull a calf from a mother who is struggling or is just worn out, and on the rare occasion a veterinarian will be called out to perform a c-section. A mother cow will then need to begin licking her calf clean and encouraging the calf to stand and drink. This should all happen in the first few hours after birth. If it doesn’t we will intervene.
  4. Daycare is a thing. If you drive by a pasture or field with mother cows and baby calves, you’ll often find one mother with a group of calves. No she didn’t have quadruplets, she’s just the designated babysitter for that day. Mother cows work together to watch over baby calves because the calves will initially spend most of their time sleeping or lounging in the sun. However, just like humans, a baby calf and mother will recognize one another by scent and sound. A baby knows when it’s his or her mother calling for lunch.
  5. Mothers Rock. Most of us humans would earn passing grades on mothering but I’m gonna guess that our mother cows would exceed us in parenting abilities. Remember, mother cows do not have hubbies to lean on when caring for these babies, they are on their own. But they do an amazing job of feeding cleaning and watching over their calves. They will tuck the babies away under shelter or in a hedge row when the weather gets crummy and will stand guard when prey like coyotes or wolves attempt to attack the younger members of the herd. As I noted before, the mother cows work together – that’s where we get the phrase herd mentality – to protect one another and their young. That strong maternal instinct makes our jobs so much easier and allows us to keep watch but not have to be present every moment of the day. In fact, a vast majority of our mother cows will give birth and raise their calf with little to no intervention from us. And that’s the way we prefer it. When selecting bulls and cows for our cow herd, we look for maternal instincts – yes some breeds of cattle are considered more maternal than others – strong udders and well built mother cows.

There is so much more cool stuff I could share about our mother cows but I’ll leave it at this for now. Have a question, shoot me an email or leave your questions in the comments section. I’ll be sure to follow up and address it ASAP.

Morning Sights

Now that I work in Wichita, I don’t have the time or ability to enjoy morning runs on our dusty dirt roads. So I take advantage of the opportunities I do have to get out and about and enjoy the sights of our farm.

During my Saturday morning walk with the dogs, I got to see a few of our bulls, a portion of our first-calf heifers and their calves, which grow larger and stronger each day.

The boys of the Sawyer Farm enjoy lazy days of grazing and napping on the pasture north of our house. In April, they will be moved to pasture with the cows to begin breeding season.
The boys of the Sawyer Farm enjoy lazy days of grazing and napping on the pasture north of our house. In April, they will be moved to pasture with the cows to begin breeding season.

This morning, as usual, the heifers and their calves were waiting patiently for breakfast as I embarked on my walk. By the time I returned they were enjoy a ration of corn silage, dry distillers grain and other feed stuffs from our farm. The calves are just becoming old enough to digest the solid food but rely on their mother’s milk for most of their daily nutritional needs.

Breakfast is a highly anticipated event for our cows and their calves. Each morning, the ladies wait patiently by the bunk for their morning meal.
Breakfast is a highly anticipated event for our cows and their calves. Each morning, the ladies wait patiently by the bunk for their morning meal.

While we humans like to enjoy a late breakfast – or brunch – on the weekends, our cows believe in a regular eating time – 7 days a week. So we must get up and around to make sure they are feed and happy, regardless of what day it is.

Most of our animals will be leaving our farm for pasture ground in April. They will spend their summer grazing on green grass and lounging in the Kansas sun. And just like every year, they will return to the farm in the fall to prepare for calving season next winter.

The Calf Nursery

First-time mother cows and their calves spend the winter at the pasture outside our home. Mothers and calves identify one another through smell.
First-time mother cows and their calves spend the winter at the pasture outside our home. Mothers and calves identify one another through smell.

We’ve all seen the iconic image of a swooning adults watching newborns resting in their basinets behind the glass wall of the hospital nursery. The babies, only recently welcomed into the world, are oohed and awed over as they sleep, play and explore their new surroundings.

Baby calves rest in the straw outside our home. Calves, like small children, split their time between playing and resting.
Baby calves rest in the straw outside our home. Calves, like small children, split their time between playing and resting.

With calving season in full swing at our farm, I am lucky enough to have a calving nursery of sorts right outside my front window. Our heifers – female cows that deliver their first calf this year – calve at our cattle facilities about five miles from our home. But after the calves are about a day old, mother and calf are moved to the pasture outside our house.

Mother cows are naturally very protective of their young. When I entered the pasture to capture a few pictures of the little ones, mothers quickly found their calves, making sure to keep me at a safe distance.
Mother cows are naturally very protective of their young. When I entered the pasture to capture a few pictures of the little ones, mothers quickly found their calves, making sure to keep me at a safe distance.

Before being allowed to roam freely, we hold the new mothers and their babies in a smaller pen for about 24 hours. Keeping the new mothers and calves confined allows us to keep a closer eye on them, ensuring everyone is doing well and the calves are up, playing and sucking mother’s milk.

Unlike humans that take a year or so to walk, calves are up on all fours within hours of being born. While they have the ability to walk, it usually takes a couple of days to master the art of running and playing. Watching the little ones learn how to navigate through their new world is one of the highlights of calving season. After only a few days, the calves are running, playing, climbing and exploring. It’s a rewarding site for my husband and I as it means we have successfully welcomed another new life into the world and another calf into our herd.

Calving will continue through February and March, which means we have a couple hundred more baby calves to welcome and enjoy and a couple of hundred new members of our family farm.

Calving Season Begins

As the dust settles on the holiday hustle and bustle, the chaos of calving begins on the Sawyer farm. As expected, the first calves of the 2013 calving season arrived this morning. The problem is it was from an unexpected mother.

A mother cow and her calf walk through a corn field. This was the first calf born on our farm this year.
A mother cow and her calf walk through a corn field. This was the first calf born on our farm this year.

We breed our heifer calves – those female cows that will deliver their first calf this year – to begin delivering sometime during the first week of January. We do this to, hopefully, get the calves on the ground before the snow and blistering cold of February hits Kansas. Our mother cows – those that have had at least one calf – are due to begin calving during the first week of February. Mother cows are experienced in child birth and often have larger, healthier cows.

So Derek was greeted with quite a surprise this morning when he found a baby calf among his mother cows. The calf was a happy, healthy boy, up and running alongside his mother. While we were happy to meet him, this little guy wasn’t due to arrive until next month.

Across the farm, right on schedule, two heifer calves also gave birth to calves this afternoon. All three delivered without our assistance and without incident.

The arrival of the first calf signals the official start of calving season. For Derek and his father, that means regular trips to our cattle facilities. For me, it means hundreds of new faces and photo opportunities. The winter just got busy and our farm a little more crowded.