We’ve had many questions about calving lately, so we reprint this from our ebook Milking for Beginners. Come to the June dairy intensive if you want some hands-on experience — there are a few spots left, and a few more beds at the farmhouse available!

Calving
As the time approaches
Fat cows have a harder time during parturition than lean cows do. Tradional wisdom says to keep a cow
on a low-calorie diet for the last month or so before she calves. Result: smaller calf, and a cow whose
birthing passage isn’t narrowed down by stored fat.
A second result of low feeding before (and for a week or two after) calving is to slow down the speed
with which your cow goes into heavy lactation. A cow that suddenly begins producing very large
volumes of milk is more at risk of milk fever (calcium deficiency) and mastitis (an impacted or infected
udder). Milk fever is a life threatening condition – easy to solve if you act quickly, but fatal otherwise.
Mastitis decreases milk quality and can make your cow sick, even kill her. A cow with mastitis may lose
the productivity of one or more quarters of her udder. These are conditions we want to avoid, not treat.
As it happens, modern dairy science is finally starting to catch up with the wisdom of our grandfathers;
recently the commercial diet protocol for pre-parturition dairy cows has begun to favor a ‘negative energy balance’, another way of saying to feed her lower-nutrient feeds. Resist, then, the impulse to pamper your pre-parturition cow with high-calorie treats.
When the time comes
As calving time approaches you’ll see your cow begin to ‘bag up’, that is, her udder will begin to swell to
surprising proportions. In the final stages of bagging up, most cows will have to swing their back legs
wide around their udder when they walk. This can happen anywhere from one to three weeks before the
calf is born. If you have a breeding date for your cow, you have a pretty good idea of when she’s due
anyway, but cows can go early or late, just like people.
A cow in good condition seldom needs any help calving; still, it’s nice to keep an eye on her so if there’s
any trouble you can lend a hand. In the last few days before we expect a calf to be born, we make a point
of checking the cow several times a day, and last thing before bed. Interestingly, there’s never anything
going on; our own cows seem always to calve in the daytime.
In twenty years of keeping dairy cows, we’ve only assisted with the birth of one calf. Cows are good at
their own business; if they are not, they’re hamburger. The real reason we want to be around at birthing is
to make sure the calf gets a good start on nursing. Again, we’ve seldom ‘helped’ with this operation, but
it’s important to make sure Baby gets a belly fulll of colostrrum (first milk) in the first few hours. We also
want to be there in case Mama drops the calf in a silly place like next to the creek, and the calf gets into
trouble.
Mostly, though, she manages the business when we’re not looking, and the first thing we know of it is a
new calf in the pasture.
If a cow spends several hours in the pushing stage and no business results, it’s time to call the vet. A
farmer can learn to reposition a calf that’s presenting wrongly, but maybe you don’t want to go solo the
first time.
Newborns
There’s little or nothing to be done for a newborn calf if it’s with its mother and on pasture. Mama knows
what to do. If birthing happens in a dirty barn, painting the calf’s navel with iodine is a good idea. Much
better to let things happen out-of-doors, if you can. Barns are for blizzards.
Milking – the first few days
You’ll see different recommendations about when and how much to milk a cow that has just calved. Just
remember that most of the dairy advice you’re going to see, on any subject, was developed by, and for,
folks who use commercial methods and who want commercial results.
It can be intimidating, but you’re going to have to ignore almost everything you read.
This is how we handle it, and it works in our all-grass setting:
A first-calf heifer, or a cow that was not lactating before she calves – that is, she was ‘dried off’ some
weeks before calving – will be milked for the first time after calving, at the next normal milking time: if
she calves in the morning, or during the day, she’ll be milked for the first time in the evening; if she calves
at night, we’ll milk her in the morning. Her udder will be distended, but this is largely due to edema (swelling), not a lot of milk. At this time, we’ll only take a couple of quarts out of her – just enough to
reduce the pressure.
At the next milking time, we’ll take about a gallon, again with the goal of getting some of the pressure off
Mama’s udder. At the third milking, we’ll take all she’ll give. There’s no fear the calf will go hungry;
Mama’s got plenty, and she’s making more all the time. From then on, we milk her out every time.
If, however, the cow in question was not ‘dried off’ before she calved, things are handled differently. A
cow that is already lactating at the time of parturition is going to produce more milk, faster, and if you
don’t help her get some of it out, she’ll end up with mastitis.
If you are milking a cow right up to calving time – either because you didn’t have a good date for her
breeding and the calf comes unexpectedly, or simply because you chose to continue milking – you’ve
already been doing your best to keep the pressure off her udder. Hopefully she’s been on brown feed –
your least beautiful pasture or hay, with no treats – for the last few weeks, but if this calving has taken you
by surprise and she’s been on lovely green pasture, switch her to hay as soon as you realize what’s up. For
the first week, keep her on hay for half the day, pasture the other half.
In this case, you’ll probably have to take more than a couple of quarts in that first milking to relieve the
pressure.
Actually, after you’ve been doing this a while you’ll find that the milk itself will tell you if you’ve got a
lactating animal that’s approaching her calving date, because it will begin to turn to colostrum some time
before parturition. Colostrum is usually more yellow than plain milk, has a slightly bitter taste, and does
not skim or churn as well.
Drying off
Along with all the other things about home dairying that are not like commercial dairying, there’s the
question of when, or whether, to ‘dry off’ a cow before she calves.
‘Drying off’ happens when you stop milking a cow and, over some days or weeks – usually weeks – her
lactation ceases. It takes time – after all, a dairy cow is the result of centuries of genetic selection for
persistent, high milk production.
The dairy wisdom of the past century, derived from the commercial sector, says you must dry your cow
off two months before calving. The reasons are mixed: In the commercial world, the lower milk
production of a late-lactation cow isn’t adequate for generating profit. In any case, big dairies have no use for colostrum, the ‘first milk’ which a cow will begin producing in the last few weeks before calving, and they don’t want it mixed with all the milk from their other cows.
There is, in any case, probably some truth to the idea that a cow that has been producing ten or fifteen
gallons of milk a day for ten months might want a rest. So you can see why commercial dairies dry their
cows off for two months.
What, if anything, does this tell us about the cow on grass?
Not much, actually.
First, grass cows aren’t making so much milk that they require a two-month rest before they begin
lactating again. Secondly, the profit in their milk is in its use to the farm, so even a small amount is
significant. And if it isn’t desirable for drinking during the late-lactation shift to colostrum, it may still be
useful as protein for pigs and chickens. Milking an all-grass cow right through into her next lactation is
certainly an option. Or, dry her off and take a vacation, if you like.
If you do dry her off, however, we extend this caution:
A full udder that doesn’t get emptied regularly is an invitation to problems. While she’s in the process of
drying off she’ll probably develop low-grade mastitis – impaction, possibly infection, of the udder. It’s
unfortunate, but often unavoidable. And if she’s still dealing with problems when her milk comes in
again, she’s going to have mastitis and a very swollen udder, which is a bad combination – it can mean
acute mastitis, impaction, even the loss of function in that quarter (teat and reservoir in that fourth of her
udder).
So if you elect to dry off your cow, you want to do it well before her calving date, to give her plenty of
time to recover from the drying-off process. And as she approaches calving, don’t hesitate to take some of the pressure off a very full udder by milking her a little.

For grass cows, drying off is an option, not a necessity.
First milk
As noted above, when a cow first begins lactating, she’s making colostrum, or ‘first-milk’, a special milk
for newborns. It’s thick, rich, and yellow, full of antibodies, probiotics, protein, and sugar, and it also acts
as a laxative to give Baby’s gut a jump start. It’s great stuff – for calves, anyway – and maybe you’ll like
it, but if you don’t the pigs and chickens will. (Save a couple of gallons in the freezer, though in case you
want to buy in a bottle calf. Colostrum can be a great tonic for a sick or compromised animal; we’ve seen
animals pulled back from the brink of death.) Your cow will gradually transition from colostrum to milk
in the first few days, and by day five it will be fit for drinking.
Just in case: milk fever
Commercial dairy cows are prone to developing calcium deficiency, also known as ‘milk fever’. It
happens as a result of the sudden demands of heavy milk production, and it is fatal when not treated.
While all-grass dairy cows are much less likely to develop milk fever, it can happen, and it’s good to
know the signs, and what to do about it.
Calcium is necessary for the operation of muscles, so when there isn’t enough calcium, muscles quit
working. Some signs of milk fever include:
• Cold ears and extremities.
• Staggering or trembling.
• A cow that can’t get up. This is classic. She may be stretched out on her side, or she may just be
recumbent and unable to rise.
Fortunately, milk fever is easy to fix, so long as you catch it in the earlier stages. Intravenous calcium
gluconate will in most cases bring your cow right up on her feet in a matter of minutes, or, at most, a few
hours.
Since this is a problem that mostly bothers high production cows, we hope you’ll never see a case; but
should any cow in your care go down just before or after calving, suspect milk fever and call the vet.
Once you’ve seen someone do a jugular i.v. on a cow, you can probably do it yourself. Calcium gluconate
and an i.v. flex should be at the farm store, but since milk fever is mostly a dairy cow issue, and family
cows are few and far between, maybe not. We keep calcium gluconate in stock just in case. You can
order both Ca and i.v. flex from an online veterinary supply source.
Prevention: A day or so before we expect a cow to calve, we give her one tube of oral calcium gel with
magnesium (farm store), then another right after she calves. Remember, cows should be on the lean side
before calving; fat cows are more prone to calving troubles and milk fever.
All of this said, most of the problems a cow can have are never going to happen to you.