From Our Farm to Your Table

Anticipating Babies is a Waiting Game

Tue, 2018-04-10 22:39 -- Carole Soule
Since writing this article a calf was born to Misty, a Scottish Highlander cow

No newborns yet. Eleven calves and myriad piglets are due, but expectant mothers are …still expecting. I know how many calves are are coming as each cow typically gives birth to a single baby. Occasionally, the birth of twins has occurred at Miles Smith Farm without incident. However, given a choice, I hope our cows don’t deliver twins.

Giving birth to one calf is stressful for the cow. Giving birth to two is dangerous. The calves need to take turns arriving and could get stuck. Even if both make it to the world alive, mother cow can get confused and tend to only one calf while ignoring the other. Another concern is that when a male and a female are a set of twins, the girl will most likely be sterile. This condition is known as “freemartinism.”

Usually, the cows on our farm give birth in the field where I check them twice a day.  Spotting a cow in labor indicates a birth soon, and calls for closer vigilance. If no calf appears soon, we'll put the mother-to-be in the holding pen where I’ll examine her and call the vet, if necessary.

It is best to wait for the calf to show up without help, but even then a farmer’s job isn’t done. Once born, mom and baby need to stay in the holding pen so they can bond and we verify the calf is nursing. A few years ago a mother's teats were too large for her weak bull calf. He couldn’t nurse so we had to tube feed him until he was strong enough to suckle on his own. Even then, the baby needed a helping hand for a few days. We named that one ’Flash’ because he could have left us …in a flash.

Each cow is either a natural or not at giving birth. One cow named ‘Cream’ always needs assistance. For the past two years we’ve helped, but because she is easy to handle and produces superior calves, it's not a problem. During birthing season, I keep all the cows close to home because both the mother and calf can die if they don’t receive assistance when needed.

While each cow usually produces one calf, a pig’s litter-size varies. Last year, a sow named ‘Sarah’ had sixteen piglets and in 2016 Charlotte, our eight-hundred-pound pet pig, gave birth to seven. It’s hard to tell how many will be born but is critical to select sows with twelve to fourteen ‘feeding stations.’ A ‘feeding station’ is a nipple and each baby needs a ‘station’ to survive. The currently pregnant sow, ‘Lucky,’ has fourteen nipples, so she's ready for a large litter. I thought ‘Lucky’ was due two weeks ago, but instead of ‘squiglets,’ she keeps getting bigger and bigger.

Several times a day I check for new arrivals but I’m almost glad they've all waited. The weather is warmer, the holding pen is ready… and so are we. Do you think eleven calves and perhaps sixteen piglets will come in a single day? Oh, my! Anyone out there willing to help? We might need it.

PS...since writing this blog Misty, the cow, gave birth to a bull calf and Lucky, the sow, gave birth to 14 piglets.  Six of those babies are still alive.  Read more about them here.

Alan, a four-day-old Scottish Highlander bull calf

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