It is an exciting time when you welcome your first calf to your homestead or farm. It can also be confusing and stressful. Here are some things you can expect and how we handle them around here.
Please contact your vet if your cow needs medical attention. I am not a vet and not qualified to diagnose or treat any medical issues. This article is intended for informational purposes only. These are some generalizations as to what you may be able to expect the first week after your cow calves. Your particular case may require a professional — please don’t hesitate to call the vet.
By far, the most asked questions on my blog come from folks dealing with a cow who just had a calf … also know as “became fresh” … also know as just gave birth.
The first week is a tricky one filled with shock, surprises and sometimes panic.
I have been through this whole “first week” thing several times with several cows and no longer panic at the sight of an udder about to burst open. Or the fact that my hands, and even the electric milk pump, are powerless against the explosive characteristics of a newly enlightened udder.
If you’re in the throws of your first week, here’s a few things we have come to expect, and how we have managed to muddle through.
First things First
• Congratulations!If you have a healthy heifer or bull-calf on the ground, it’s time to celebrate. We are so blessed to experience this birth of new life on our homesteads. It is an amazing and wonderful thing.
• The first few minutes after our cows give birth, it’s perfectly normal for them to just lay there. Don’t panic if they need some time to catch their breath before attending to the new, slimy puppy on the ground.
• Once she’s up, Mama should begin licking and nudging on her new little bundle of joy. We have had to smear molasses on a calf to get one of our mamas to get with the program and start loving her new baby (he was adopted); however, if the mom gave birth to the calf, it should all happen naturally. Most websites will tell you that you want the new calf up and nursing in the first hour. Our vet is a bit more relaxed and likes to see them nursing in a few hours. We have had calves who only had meals when no one was around. This can be stressful because you never see the calf on the udder. We have a trick we use to see if our calves are eating. We smear a bit of molasses on mama’s teats. Pure molasses is dark, dark brown. When the calf suckles he cleans those teats. I can come out to the field & if mama’s teats are clean – I know the calf is eating. If you need to tie up mama and help the little guy or gal out, do so, just be careful.
• It shouldn’t take long for the calf to stand up, and fall down, and stand up, and fall down, and finally stand up and stay up. Hang on, he’s getting there.
• Once the calf is up, it should wobble it’s way to the udder. Ours usually land around the brisket for a bit in search of food, but eventually make it to the south side of the cow where the goods are.
• Afterbirth buffet. If you want to throw up — watch your cow eat her afterbirth. DH almost lost his dinner at the sight of it. There are all sorts of good things in that glob of squid that just came out the back of the cow. Don’t remove it from her field. Don’t take it from her. Don’t yank it out of her mouth. She needs to eat it. Gag.
FYI, there are situations where you may not want your cow to eat the afterbirth:
1. If your cow had a miscarriage.
2. If she was sick.
3. Or there is a reason to believe there could be some infection or problem in the afterbirth.
Some folks have differing opinions on the afterbirth-buffet, so talk to your vet to see what he/she recommends … ours is all for letting the cows partake in the glob.
If your cow needs to abstain from eating her afterbirth for whatever reason, bag the squid and get it far away from the field. It’s probably best to just throw it in the trash. If you toss it in the woods, it could bring in coyotes (or something else). Coyotes have been known to kill and eat calves. I don’t want to draw any critters near my new baby cow, so in the trash it goes.
Whew! Now the excitement is past. The calf is on the ground. The baby girl (or boy) learned how to stand, walk, and bounce. The calf has found the promised land — the udder — and is slurping like a champ. The mama and baby are doing fine.
Before you start making butter and cheese and yogurt and ice-cream, you must survive a couple more hurdles.
Some things to expect the first week:
• The milk is not milk.
• The udder is not working.
• The cow is going to explode.
• My cow is defective.
HELP! What is going on with my milk cow?
Welcome to THE FIRST WEEK
ONE — Engorgement
If your cow just calved and her udder is huge and hard as a rock and milking her isn’t alleviating the situation — don’t freak out. This has been normal for me every time.
Whether you are milking by hand or by machine, if your cow is in the “engorgement phase” then there’s not much that can be done. It’s like the milk is stuck in there.
This has happened with all of my cows. The first few days after that calf is born, my cow’s udder is so engorged she can hardly walk. Not only is her udder about to pop, there is no way to deflate the monster. Hand-milking is futile. Electric milk pumps do nothing. That milk is happy to be there and doesn’t seem to want to leave.
Here’s what I do:
I don’t milk on the day the calf is born. For the first 24-36 hours, I just let my new pair bond and hang and I let the baby have all the colostrum. Mama has been through a lot and I’m gonna let her have the day off. I can’t say if this is right or wrong, but it’s how we have always done it.
After a day of bonding with her new little one, our cows are fully engorged and ready to meet (or be reunited with) the milker.
This is the milking season. Regardless if you are a share-milker, a once-a-day-milker, or a keep-the-calf-with-the-cow milker, the first few months after your cow calves you are probably going to be milking every day. Why?
1. To keep an eye on the udder, the milk, the cow, and the calf, and to make sure everyone is healthy and doing well.
2. Most calves can’t drink the amount of milk that a milk cow produces until they are older; someone has to get that milk out of the udder, so you don’t have other issues (like mastitis).
3. If your calf does drink all the milk your cow produces, you could have some new problems to deal with, like scours.
4. Most calves around here don’t realize there are 4 teats until they are 3 months old … so my poor cows would spend 3 months walking around with one enormously inflated, completely ignored quarter if I didn’t do something about it. You must empty the neglected quarter at least once a day, or get another calf to put on the udder so none of the teats are forgotten.
Daily milking is your life now. At least for a bit.
So, each morning I bring my milk cow into the barn and milk her. If evenings are better for you, you can milk then. The time isn’t as important as being consistent. If there’s one quarter (or 2) that the calf is neglecting, you want to be faithful to remove all the milk every 24 hours at roughly the same time of day. If your cow seems particularly engorged and uncomfortable, you can milk her more often.
WARNING: Although you may want to milk her like crazy and relieve her from her giant udder problem — don’t do it.
Those first few days that I milk my cow, I am not trying to “milk her out.” I am just trying to relieve some of the pressure. If you were to milk her completely out, you could cause her to go into milk fever. When you milk, only remove about a pint from each quarter and leave the rest.
This way you are not depleting her body of calcium (calcium deficiency is the trigger for milk fever) and you are leaving plenty of colostrum for the calf.
Even if I only get 1/2 a cup of milk, I still go through the process. You will be doing several things:
• Teaching her where the milk barn is and that she needs to come there.
• You will be able to keep a close eye on her udder to look for changes, inflammation, etc.
• You will have an opportunity to see how the milk looks (color, texture, etc).
• She will be getting a nice serving of grain each day while you milk her (which I feel is important especially when they are fresh.)
• You will begin training her udder to respond to you milking her (by hand or pump), so her milk will begin to “let down.”
• You will be able to check her condition closely. Wobbly? Shaky? Fever?
On day 4, you should see some changes. This is the point when our cow’s udders become softer, they respond well to milking, and will be flaccid after milking. You may also notice a decrease in the size of the udder.
TWO – Milk Fever
I had a cow who fought some battles with milk fever. It is dangerous and can lead to death, so please be aware that this is a real threat.
What is milk fever? Milk fever is the (cow’s) body’s response to an extreme lack of calcium. It takes a lot of calcium from your cow’s body to make milk. When a cow first goes into production, this calcium strain on her body can cause her blood calcium levels to plummet. When those levels are depleted, it causes milk fever.
Some things that increase your risk of milk fever:
• Cows who are bred for production & make an extreme amount of milk.
• Jersey Cows older than 5-6 years who have had several calves.
• Cows who are not on a good mineral program.
• Cows who have had milk fever in the past.
Be watchful — milk fever is not picky. It can effect us all.
If it is caught early, milk fever is usually treatable by IV or calcium tube. If you have a cow with a history of milk fever, you may want to talk to your vet about administering a calcium tube (or 2) for prevention.
Milk fever is usually easy to spot. Your cow will be wobbly, shaky, or seem unstable.
If you suspect milk fever or have a history of it, remember not to fully milk out your cow during those first few days. If you were to empty her udder of all that milk, you could be taking too much of the calcium from her body. These first few days, only take a pint from each quarter (a couple times a day if necessary). Leave the rest so you don’t reduce her blood calcium levels too much.
THREE – Colostrum
The first milk may be pink, orange, peach or yellow. This is colostrum.
The colostrum is the first milk and is full of great things, including antibodies and other healthy stuff a baby cow needs to grow into cattle.
I usually save some colostrum and freeze it. It is a miracle food that can be used for other things and other animals on the farm in the future. Having some frozen colostrum is never a bad thing.
The milk will slowly change from deep orange to light orange to beautiful, creamy milk. It generally takes a week before the colostrum is over and you have some normal-colored milk. All cows are different, so just watch your milk.
FOUR – What Barn?
If you are training a heifer, she may have never set foot in the milk barn. She doesn’t know what it is, why it’s there, or why she should go in it.
If you are milking a cow that you have milked for 3 years in that barn, she may not go in the milk barn either.
Even if you have milked the same cow for 3 years in the same place on the same farm tied to the same wall … she may not remember where the dang milk-barn is.
How could she forget?
When a cow has had a calf she is “fresh.” This means that she is making milk. The standard routine is to “breed her back” when the calf is 2-3 months old. This schedules her to have a calf every year at about the same time.
When you are milking a cow who is pregnant, it is important (we feel) that she get a break from milking before she delivers the calf.
This break from making milk is good for her and her unborn calf. It allows her body to rest and focus on growing a baby. It also helps reduce the onslaught of some illnesses due to overproduction. I do know that there are people who milk right through and don’t break, but we have always given our cows a 3-4 month break before they give birth.
Since they haven’t been in the milk barn in 4 months, they sometimes don’t recall that they should go back in.
This is easily corrected with a bucket of grain. If the food isn’t working, there is a never-fail solution: pick up the calf and carry him/her to the milk barn. It works every time. Mama will follow that calf wherever you take it.
As soon as the first milking is in the bag, our cows usually come bounding for the barn every time they hear a human. If you have a heifer who has never been milked it could take her a week or longer to get the routine — but don’t worry. She will get it. Before long you will be frustrated because you can’t get her out of the milk barn.
FIVE — Mastitis
If your milk is weird, not straining, salty or orange, it does not necessarily mean she has mastitis. Especially the first week.
I’m pretty sure all my cows would fail a CMT (California Mastitis Test) the first week after they give birth. The milk is going through so many changes. The udder is just coming back into full production. Things are gearing up and getting flowing. I wouldn’t even waste my time or money with a CMT that first week. By the time you order it, buy it, or administer it, the milking issues will probably have cleared up.
Expect weird milk that first week (or two). Mine goes through 5 stages:
• orange/pink/peach colostrum
• yellow and thick
• normal looking — but takes forever to strain
• normal looking — straining great — but not really normal tasting
• sweet milk — praise the Lord!
If your calf is 2 weeks old and your milk looks like milk, with a beautiful cream line and all things jersey … it still may not be normal milk. It may be Gatorade.
Trinka’s milk was salty. Her cream was salty. Her milk had problems.
Turns out this can be normal.
Two weeks into milking, even though the colostrum was gone, the milk was still not normal.
Once the colostrum yellow, thick phases are over, the milk turns into a salty version of normal. I was told that this is due to all the electrolytes in it. It’s just one more step to make sure that baby cow gets everything it needs for a lifetime of health. It’s like Gatorade for baby cows.
The salty milk/Gatorade phase can last from 2-4 weeks. Around here, it’s over in 2 weeks. There is no “gradual transition” into sweet milk. It happens overnight. You’ll just take a swig one day and say, “Hey, it’s milk! It’s not salty anymore. Go get the ice-cream maker!”
SIX — Where’s the Butter?
About the time your milk isn’t salty anymore, your mama cow will probably have figured out how to “hold up” her milk. This means that she will let down all the milk for you to drink, but may hold up all the cream for the baby out in the pasture. Ugh.
When you milk a cow, the first thing to come out is the milk. It’s sweet. It’s thin. It has little fat. At the end of milking, the last milk to come out is the cream. It’s thick. It’s rich. It has more fat. It’s butter. It’s ice cream. It’s the gold.
Getting the cream out of a cow who knows there is a hungry calf in the field waiting is doing something. We have this one figured out … Go here to see how we do it.
Basically, I only milk three of my cow’s teats. The last teat cup gets a plug shoved in it. This leaves one teat open and available for the baby cow to suckle. When mama feels that baby on her teat, she will give up the goods. When she lets down the cream, it comes down from all four teats (three of which are connected to your milker).
You could also do this by hand. Just let the baby cow suckle off one side of the cow while you milk from the other.
Does this net me less milk? Probably, yes … but I would rather sacrifice the milk in one of the quarters in order to get the cream.
SEVEN — Scours
Watch your baby cow for scours. If you’ve ever bottle fed a calf, then you will know that a calf does not need that much milk. Many dairy calves will eat themselves literally to death. They just don’t know when to stop.
Calf scours is a dangerous sickness that can be caused by simply overeating.
To check for scours, just look at your baby’s cows backside and the state of their manure. A calf with scours may have runny poop, a raw backside, a bald backside, and/or a fever. It can be treated. Please call your vet if you suspect scours.
Your vet will be able to prescribe some meds and/or advice to help get your little one the help they need.
EIGHT — Where’s the Milk?
At about 8 weeks old, your baby calf is going to get quite the appetite. Not only will he or she be able to go longer between feedings, they also may be able to consume an unbelievable amount of milk. Maybe even all the milk your mama cow is making (especially if she is a heifer or a low producer).
The good news is that since the little guy isn’t quite so little anymore, you can begin to separate mama and baby for some periods of time so you can get more milk. Don’t worry about taking the milk from the little one; many calf-raising folks wean their calves completely off milk at this age and provide other food.
I don’t want to completely wean my calf because I want the help with the milking.
As long as I have a nursing calf, I can take days off milking. I can take weekends off milking. I just let the calf do the milking for me.
At the same time, I want some milk too, so a little separation is going to be a win-win.
To read all about how we separate our calves from the mama, go here.
I’m hoping this provides some encouragement and support for anyone surviving through that first week. If you’ve experienced something in the first week that I am forgetting — please share in the comments below.
Happy Milking Everyone!