Of course worrying about your entire herd all the time would be so utterly exhausting that you would never get anything done, so it would be wise to prioritise. The question is which members of the herd should be given priority? Which members require greater attention, care and guidance? The answer is undoubtedly the first time mothers.
Heifers by definition are calf-less, and it is of the utmost importance that they are made as ready as possible for the rigors of carrying a calf to term and birthing it. The preparations can start from a early as day one, as the stronger a calf is the more healthy it will grow up to be. But you ought to really be on your toes from their eighth or ninth month of life, as that is generally when a heifer will reach puberty.
Despite reaching puberty around this time it is vital that you do not jump the gun and encourage them to breed. The reason why you should hold off is simple; their bodies will still be ill-equipped to handle the changes and strains that will come with delivering a calf to term. This can have an effect on the health of the calf and the mother’s ability to produce calves in the future; not to mention the quality and quantity of the milk it will produce over the course of the rest of its life.
To avoid committing this act of self-sabotage, even if you believe the heifer to be ready, ensure that both of the following criteria are met:
Still age is highly relevant as a rough indicator and you will want to aim for your heifer to be actually giving birth anywhere between their twenty fourth and twenty seventh month of life; but we are getting ahead of ourselves a little bit. Calves spend 9 months gestating in the womb, which are just if not more important than the month leading up to them; with the last 60 days being the most difficult of all.
Firstly the mother’s body will be going through a number of physical and chemical changes that will exacerbate their already stressful situation. On top of that there are often difficult social interactions between first time mothers-to-be and those cows that have already given birth to calves in the past.
These are not really things you can prevent, but it is important that you keep a watchful eye for any noticeable changes in behaviour or movement as this could be an indication of a problem that is developing or has already occurred.
One thing that you definitely have control over on the other hand is the level of nutrition that the heifer is receiving during the course of its pregnancy. It is a good idea to gradually start increasing their food intake at regular intervals as of the first trimester, and not stop doing so until 3 months after the birth of the calf. This will ensure that the colostrum that the mother is producing and giving to her calf is of the highest calibre and will continue to be so until weaning starts 6 months after its birth.
The final hurdle for the mother will obviously be the birthing process, which is when all the preparations you have made will come into effect. Despite these preparations and even though you have made sure that your heifer’s age and weight were appropriate at the time of conception, dystocia is still a real possibility. Dystocia is difficulty experienced by the mother during labour and is often caused by obstruction of the birthing canal and poor foetal positioning.
Dystocia is far more common in first time mothers than in second, third, forth, etc. because their pelvis’ have not been put through the trials of labour before. This should be kept in mind when the time comes and you should be prepared to offer a helping hand should the need arise.
This is the first of several posts that will have calving as their main focus, but our Ultimate Lambing Guide, comprised of the: Lead Up To Lambing, Caring For Newborns and Tail Docking, is already complete, so if you found this useful why not give them a look?