I’m not really sure whether Autumn has arrived or not because the weather is all over the place. One minute we have blustery winds and torrential downpours. Next sticky, summer heat. Whatever the weather there is still work to be done and the start of September marks the beginning of our calving season.
At the farm upon the hill we run what is called a ‘block calving’ herd. This means all our pregnant cows will deliver close together in a short period of time. Most of our calves are born in the Autumn months , although some may arrive slightly later or earlier than planned.One tricky part of calving cows is that there is no strict timetable! Calves can be born at any time of the day or night, which can lead to some very late nights and early starts waiting anxiously to make sure everything is going ok. Other dairy farms work on a year round calving system, where calves are born through most months of the year.
For a cow ‘Maternity leave’ starts 2 months before she is due to calve. At this point she stops producing milk . This is an important step to get right as it allows the cow to get ready to deliver her calf, and helps to protect her against some illnesses that can occur after calving ( e.g ‘Milk fever’, ‘ketosis’)
Calving time tends to start with a slow trickle of births with perhaps one or two calves being born every day, or every other day. However things soon speed up, until there are lots of baby calves running about!
Calving is an exciting and nerve wracking part of our farming calendar. We look forward to meeting the new calves and enjoy taking care of them from their very first breath. Most of the time the births are straightforward and we are able to leave the mother cow alone to do as nature intended. Unfortunately things can and do go wrong with labour (If you watch One Born Every Minute you’ll have an idea of the things that can happen !) and sometimes we do have to lend a helping hand. This can be really rewarding, and although it is quite often a long, hard and messy process (just like human labour!) we feel privileged to be part of the process.
Straight after the birth we like to leave mum and baby in peace. We offer her food and plenty of water and let her get on with cleaning her calf and feeding it. The first feed, Colostrum, is ‘liquid gold’. It is full of nutrients and antibodies. It is very important that the calf gets this within the first few hours of life, as they are born with a naïve immune system.The colostrum provides them with protection against infection .If the calf is weak or her mum is unable to care for her we will step in to help.
Another important thing that we do soon after birth is dip the umbilical stump in iodine. This keeps it nice and clean and helps prevent against infection.
The calves come off their mums after a day. This enables the cow to go back into the herd again. The calves are kept together in small groups , with special shelters and an outdoor ‘exercise’ area. It is fun to watch them playing together, and sometimes they can get up to alot of mischief! They are quite inquisitive, and tend to use their tongues to explore new things .
All the calves are fed with milk from the herd initially, then powdered milk. We also give them fresh water and solid food from day 1, but they won’t take much of this until they are 3 weeks old.
We are not an organic herd so this means that we can give our calves medicine to keep them healthy. Antibiotics are only ever used when appropriate and as a treatment for poorly calves. We use vaccinations to protect the calves against viruses and bacteria that could make them very ill.
As Autumn turns into Winter the weather can get quite cold. Although we don’t usually have snow it can be very windy and wet. When the temperature outside drops we give our calves an extra layer of protection in the form of jackets! A cold calf is much more likely to become sick. The jackets also help to keep them dry too.
We keep all of the calves on our farm. The girls (heifers) will eventually go back into the milking herd at around 2 years of age.The boys (bulls) are raised for beef and will stay with us until they are around 12 to 16 months of age.
Calving is a really, really busy point in the year. It goes by so quickly, and can be quite tiring and restrictive. We tend not to stray too far from the farm in case we need to help a cow give birth. No doubt any plans we make in this period will get turned on their head as things can change within minutes. One minute nothing is calving then everything kicks off at the same time!! However it is more than worth it in the end. All our efforts go into making sure our animals get the best possible start in life . A happy, well cared for calf will become a productive cow that will have a long and healthy life.