Livestock Birth 101

Experience a successful livestock birth on your homestead with this expert advice.

Boy meets girl, boy woos girl, romance ensues, and there’s nothing else to worry about until birthing time, right? Yes and no.

The majority of livestock pregnancies and deliveries are problem-free. It’s a common event to go to sleep one night and wake up to a new lamb, foal, or calf already up nursing and trailing after mama. Or after patiently watching for hours, to go to the house for a cup of coffee and 40 winks, only to find the delivery over with and your mare or cow with an innocent expression of “what?” on her face.

Even so, there are several things you can do at certain times throughout the gestation to give your animal the best possible chance at a trouble-free pregnancy and uneventful birth. You may be surprised to find out that several of these things can occur early on in gestation.

Perfect conditions

One of the most valuable things livestock owners can do for their animals is make sure their females are in the ideal body condition at breeding and birthing. Being in good body condition gives the female an advantage in responding to the physiological stresses she will undergo during the next few months, and it gives her offspring a good healthy start.

An animal that is under-conditioned or thin can have problems lactating. Thin animals may not be able to produce enough milk for their baby, and the caloric requirements of lactation can further reduce their condition. This can make the next breeding difficult, and she may not conceive again until her condition is markedly improved.

On the other hand, an animal that is over-conditioned or fat can have problems, too. Overweight animals can be difficult to breed and settle into a pregnancy. If they should become pregnant, excessive fat deposits may restrict the birth canal and cause difficulty during delivery. Overweight animals may not produce as much milk as those in more moderate condition, but restricting the animal’s diet before they give birth in an attempt to reduce their weight can backfire. If a female is unable to take in enough calories to meet the demands of the growing fetus, she can suffer from a condition known as pregnancy toxemia, which can be fatal.

One of the handiest tools is the species-appropriate body condition scale chart. A simple visual assessment of your animal early on in the breeding and pregnancy process can stave off a lot of problems. Maintaining an ideal body condition from start to finish is much easier than making big adjustments at critical times. It can be difficult to be objective about the condition of animals you see regularly, and having the unbiased information from the condition scale chart can ensure she’s in the best possible shape.

Think of that animal as an athlete. You can’t expect an athlete to perform well if he or she is too fat or too thin, and gestation and birth are nothing if not athletic events. Athletes need to be in top condition with a diet that meets their caloric needs, and so does your breeding female.

Another handy tool is the nutritional requirement table for the particular species. Although sometimes the tables can be intimidating, they can provide a baseline for a good, nutritious diet.

As a general rule, nutritional demands in the first few months of pregnancy are not much different than those for maintenance. During the first part of gestation, fetal growth is tied up mostly in differentiation, specialization, and making sure all the parts are there and in the right place. A female in good body condition on a healthy diet will be able to handle the nutrient demands of the growing fetus with little problem.

In the last third of gestation, however, the fetus grows at an amazing rate. Approximately 70 percent of a calf’s growth occurs in the last trimester of gestation. That means a fetus that weighs between 15 and 20 pounds at six months of development can grow to 70 to 80 pounds in just three months. That’s a tremendous growth rate and a tremendous drain on the mother.

Growth rates in the last trimester are similar for all species of livestock. As her nutrient demands go up, start conditioning her to a grain supplement if she’s only had access to pasture or hay. But beware, giving her more than she needs can lead to the fetus growing too large, leading to problems with the baby being too large for the dam to birth easily, called dystocia. It can be a tricky balancing act, but by maintaining good condition through the early stages of gestation, you are well on your way to staving off potential problems.

Checklist for a healthy baby

Good nutrition is vitally important for a healthy gestation and delivery, but there are several other things you can do, especially in the last stages of gestation, to keep things running smoothly.

Four to six weeks before her due date, make sure mother is up-to-date on her vaccinations. A booster before birth will allow her to pass good immunity along to her baby via her colostrum, or first milk. Colostrum is high in energy and an important source of passive immunity, meaning immunity is passed to the baby rather than acquired from exposure, vaccination, or antibodies. Without good passive immunity, the baby can be at a higher risk for certain illnesses and environmental challenges, so be sure to get those vaccinations in during that four- to six-week window. Two weeks out from the due date or less, and there isn’t enough time to get the antibody boost you are looking for.

About four weeks before her due date, you can give the mother-to-be a dose of dewormer. Read the instructions carefully, but most dewormers are safe for pregnant females. Pre-birth deworming will help reduce risk of worms from the exposure baby will see early in life. This is especially helpful if you will move your females to a different pasture, lot, or stall for birthing. Moving in to a clean area will reduce the mother’s rate of infection as well.

Two weeks before the big event, move your animals to the pasture, lot, or stall you will want them to be in during birth. This will allow her to adjust to the new surroundings and settle in. From that point on, minimize moving the mother, and unless she’s by herself, keep the herd structure as consistent as possible. This avoids the stress of readjusting the herd structure and allows her some time to relax. Make sure the pasture is clean and free from debris or junk, and if birthing in a stall, make sure you have a supply of clean bedding. For birthing, straw works best, as shavings or sawdust can irritate the baby’s eyes, nasal passages, and navel stumps. Try to minimize noise and distractions also. A little peace and quiet goes a long way to helping mama relax.

Kit and caboodle

Make sure your birthing kit is stocked and ready in advance. You can use a plastic toolbox for a birthing kit, or something as simple as a clean plastic pail with a tight-fitting lid. Hopefully you won’t have to use any of the items with the exception of the iodine navel spray, but it’s better and less frustrating to have and not need these things than the other way around.

The final countdown

If you have never attended a birth before, familiarize yourself with what normal should look like. The normal presentation for delivery is in the “diving” position, with the front legs extended and the nose between the knees. This allows the shoulders to slip past the mother’s pelvis, and the rest of the baby will follow along easily.

The other common delivery position is rear legs first, with the bottoms of the feet facing up. This is more common in multiple births, such as lambs and kids, as the lambs arrange themselves around each other in utero.

Other presentations, such as feet with no sign of the head, or only one foot visible will likely need assistance as the mother will not be able to pass the baby in this position. Unless you have some experience with birthing, it might be time to use that vet’s phone number. At the very least, they can help you troubleshoot your situation and offer specific advice.

Rest assured, the majority of livestock births are normal presentation, so relax until you are given a reason not to.

Stages of labor

All births follow a specific pattern, divided into three stages:

Stage 1

Stage 1 is often missed. An animal may be restless, paw at the ground trying to make a nest, or she may not be interested in eating — or she may not do any of those things. Internally, the stage is defined by uterine contractions and dilation of the cervix. The baby is shifting around and preparing to move into the birth canal. Some mothers may go on eating right up to the time they move into active labor. Some don’t. At this time, she may move off from the rest of the herd or flock a slight distance. Keep an eye on things, but let her be as much as possible.

Stage 2

Stage two is the stage that is often associated with birth, or what most people think of when they think of labor. This stage should take no more than one to two hours. The female is lying down, actively straining, and there will be lots of fluid. The first thing you will likely see will be part of the bag of amniotic fluid that is surrounding the baby. At this point, the sack around the baby will usually rupture, and amniotic fluid will be expelled. The baby has now entered the birth canal, and mama is working very hard to expel it. Normally once the female is in active labor and the baby’s feet are visible in the birth canal, the delivery should take about 20 minutes, once the fluid-filled bag surrounding the fetus has appeared.

Stage 3

Stage 3 is just after the baby has been born, and the fetal membranes, or afterbirth, is expelled. There is often a gap between Stage 2, after the baby — or multiple babies in the case of ewes and goats that have twins — and Stage 3, but the afterbirth should pass within a couple of hours. In mares especially, a retained placenta is cause for major concern. Cattle and sheep can tolerate retained placenta with less overall ill effect, but in any case, it’s something that should be attended to by a vet.

After the baby has passed, you can use the syringe bulb to remove mucus from the nasal passages, and if the baby seems very slimy, you can use a towel to dry off its face. Don’t dry it off entirely, though. Part of the maternal bonding process is the mama licking the baby. This establishes its scent to her, and the licking helps stimulate the baby to get up and start moving around. Only if it is very cold where she has given birth, or if it has been a long labor and she’s very tired and in no hurry to get up, should you do much more.

Now that the baby is out, breathing and alert, and mama has gotten around to getting it cleaned up, you can take a moment to congratulate yourself on a great home delivery! Once the baby is up and nursing, help yourself to that well-earned cup of coffee, and start making plans for next time.

Birthing kit contents

• Your vet’s phone number. Yes, it may be No. 1 on your speed dial, but in case you aren’t around at the time, make it easy for whoever is keeping tabs on things.

• A checklist of signs of impending birth for whatever species of livestock you are working with.

• OB sleeves. These plastic shoulder length gloves will protect you if you have to go into the animal to correct a malpresentation or provide assistance, and will also help protect the mother from bacteria entering the reproductive tract as well.

• OB lube. Lube is essential for going into the female. Use plenty for her comfort.

• Rubber gloves. Regular disposable rubber gloves come in handy for picking up stuff like afterbirth or other soiled material.

• A squeeze bulb. These come in very handy for clearing noses and mouths of some of the inevitable fluid.

• Gentle Iodine dip or spray. This is essential for cleaning navel stumps. The navel cord acts like a wick, and can easily draw bacteria and dirt up into the baby’s system. You can spray or dip the navel in the solution. This can also help dry up the cord stump.

• A thermometer.

• Towels you don’t necessarily want to take back in your house.

• An old blanket that you don’t mind parting with, as it will get dirty.

• A watch, clock, or timer. It’s easy to get swept away in the excitement, and it can seem like events are taking place very slowly when it’s just our perspective that has us thinking the animal has been in labor for hours, when it’s only been a few minutes. And if you should have to call your vet, giving him an accurate timeline of events can help him give you good advice.

You may also want to have on hand:

• Milk replacer. There are several multispecies types available, but it’s always better if you can find one that is species-specific.

• Colostrum supplement. Should the worst happen, or should the mother be too weak or stressed to properly look after her baby, a colostrum supplement can help junior get off to a good start. It is high in energy and nutrition, but you only have a few hours to get it into the baby for it to help.

• OB chain. These aren’t essential, but handy to have when you need them.

When it’s time to wean the little ones, use low-stress methods for both mom and baby.

By day, Callene Rapp is a senior zookeeper, and by night she manages The Rare Hare Barn with her husband, Eric. She has learned to manage all sorts of livestock at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas.

  • Published on Feb 8, 2017
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