But until then, a number of challenges have to be mastered. How is the calf doing from the moment it’s born? It hardly has any energy reserves and enters an outside world populated by germs. The mother hasn’t given it any maternal protection yet and so the calf needs to acquire this by taking in colostrum. In this guide you can read more about providing the right care for your calves and cows during and after birth:

4 phases of birth

Preparatory phase:

The first signs of the approaching birth can be seen when the cow’s udder increases in size and udder oedema develops, the vagina becomes flaccid, the pelvic ligaments drop, the mucus plug subsides and milk begins to flow. This phase can last for varying lengths of time, but these signs usually occur 48–12 hours before birth.

Opening phase:

Contractions begin and the still intact amniotic sac begins to dilate the cervix. The cow becomes restless, eats no longer, gets up frequently and lies down again and perhaps stretches its tail backwards.

Under ideal circumstances, the foetal membranes only burst if they become visible through the pubic cleft. Usually, the first water sac (allantochorionic sac; urine-like water) will burst, followed by the amnion (mucous-like water). These signs can be seen 12–6 hours before birth.

Birthing phase:

This phase begins with the onset of the contractions as soon as the calf presses on the pressure receptors in the cervix. With the first expulsion pains, the amnion usually bursts. Once the contractions have started, the cow usually lies on her side with her limbs stretched and hard breathing. Normal progress can be seen by the fact that the calf moves up about 1-2 cm per contraction.

Afterbirth phase:

The complete afterbirth should have been expelled within 8 hours. If this is not the case, the cow needs veterinary care. There are many reasons for a delayed expulsion of the afterbirth, such as the duration of pregnancy (too short as well as too long), infections, stress, obstetrics, induction of delivery, and lack of vitamins A, E, iodine or selenium. The suppressed release of calcium by the parathormone, in particular, can be to blame here. A targeted pre-natal mineral feed, such as JOSERA Prophos, can prevent such problems.

On what should be paid attention during birth?

Unnecessary intervention during calving can lead to serious consequences. It can lead to postpartum behaviour and uterine inflammations, but also to the death of mother and calf. A basic rule is to keep calm and observe.

Before clear birthing signs appear, the cow should be moved into a clean calving box. Settling them too late, when the forelegs are already visible, can lead to a difficult birth.

JOSERA cow during birth

If signs of birth are present, observe the animal as inconspicuously as possible, but frequently. As soon as the normal course of things is interrupted, you should clarify the causes by undertaking a vaginal examination. If signs of birth are present, observe the animal as inconspicuously as possible, but frequently. As soon as the normal course of things is interrupted, you should clarify the causes by undertaking a vaginal examination. Make sure that the cow has enough space on dry and clean bedding and that there is also enough space behind the cow to be able to provide pulling assistance if necessary.

When should the vet be called?

  • if a rotation of the uterus is suspected
  • if anomalous exposure, position and posture cannot be corrected
  • if the duration of the birth is longer than 20 minutes, or if no progress is made over the course of the birth, or if extraction has not been successful after 20 minutes
  • if noticeable lesions or bleeding are observed in the cow

Difficult births and natal care are often the cause of other problems such as infertility and metabolic disorders. These problems can be reduced by proper natal care and optimal preparation feeding including a birth preparation mineral (JOSERA Prophos).

Is the cow all right?

If the cow has successfully survived the birth, the following points should still be checked:

  • Is there another calf in the birthing tract?
  • Is there bleeding or other injury?
  • Does the cow have a fever or low temperature?

If everything is OK, you should make sure that the cow eats and drinks as quickly as possible in order to fill her rumen. Making sure that the animal gains energy and avoiding abomasal displacement is of particular importance. Supplementary products that additionally support the electrolyte balance of the cow, such as JOSERA Vitaltrunk, can be helpful with this.

In order to encourage the cow to eat, many practitioners place the calf in the feeding crib directly after birth, ensure that the crib is filled with fresh food and that the calf is licked by the mother. After removing the calf, the cow will eat most of the food contaminated with amniotic fluid and birth mucus and will fill her rumen with it.

For further tips and suggestions please contact your JOSERA consultant.

Standard operating procedure for calving:

1. Separate the calf from the cow immediately to reduce the risk of a transmission of paratuberculosis, E. coli or Rota/Corona.

2. Disinfection of the calf’s navel

3. Record weight, insert the eartag, document the calving

4. Housing the calf in cleaned and disinfected individual accommodation with plenty of straw

5. Immediately give the calf fresh colostrum. To compensate for any difference in quality, the Colostrin is generally added to the colostrum.

6. Check the quality of the colostrum

First aid for calves

The weight of a newborn calf (friesian) amounts approximately 35-45 kilograms. In practice, there are different procedures for the initial care of the calf. It is important to realise that the calf has no energy reserves after birth and that the immune system is very deficient. Intake of at least two litres of colostrum in the first four hours after birth is essential to ensure that antibodies from the mother’s milk are absorbed in the intestine and lead to passive immunisation of the calf. Without these antibodies, the calf is defenceless against pathogens and infection is predestined. Therefore it is important to ensure that a sufficient amount of colostrum is administered to the calf. On the first day, this should be at least 4 litres. For feeding, the colostrum should have a temperature of 38-40°C. If the calf does not drink independently, drenching may be necessary because the uptake of immunoglobulins via the intestinal barrier is limited by time.

JOSERA calf with woman in igloo
JOSERA graphic shows the permeability of the intestine for the immunoglobulins as a function of time

Permeability of the intestine in respect of immunoglobulins depending on the course of time over the first days of life. It is only in the second week of life that the calf begins to build up their own immune defences. There are also risks between the 2nd and 4th week of life, during the so-called “immune gap”.

Many farms set up their own colostrum bank with high-quality first milk. The application of a colostrum bank is the cheapest and safest procedure to ensure an adequate antibody supply. Colostrum can be kept for 5-7 days in the fridge. Frozen colostrum (-18 C°) has a shelf life of 6 months.

Studies show that the immunoglobulin content in the colostrum of cows who have had multiple calves tends to be higher than that of young cows. However, the quality of the colostrum also depends on the cow’s state of health, feeding, duration of their dry period and amount of first milk. This means that the colostrum of a multi-calf cow is not necessarily better than that of a young cow as a result of influencing factors that have been noted.

Therefore, the use of a colostrometer is highly recommended.

JOSERA colostrum spindle

JOSERA Colostrin works according to the key-lock principle. Pathogens are deactivated with the help of special immunoglobulins, thus strengthening the calf’s immune system.

JOSERA package colostrin

Freeze the colostrum?

What are the effects of freezing?

Positive: Freezing stops the multiplication of germs.

Negative: It destroys the white blood cells. They therefore lose their stimulating effect on the cellular immunity of the calf.

Care must be taken when thawing the colostrum!

Defrosting should take place quickly, as temperatures of between 4 and 40 degrees are favourable conditions for germs to multiply. However, the antibodies must not be heated above 50°C, otherwise they will be denatured and lose their effect. Ideally, the colostrum should be thawed in a water bath at ~50°C. This is where it is a good idea to think about how to gently defrost it, before it is frozen. It is recommended that colostrum is frozen in flat bags (e.g. with zip closures) and not in plastic bottles or old ice containers. The large surface area of the flat-frozen portions enables gentle and rapid defrosting. The supply of antibodies to the calf can be tested by determining the level of immunoglobulins in the blood. In this way, the procedure can be objectively assessed throughout.

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