She did it! Sandy calved Saturday morning at around 4:00am.
And she had TWINS! What a surprise.
Calving is always a highly anticipated event accompanied by no small degree of excitement, worry, and even anxiousness (on my part that is, Sandy was cool as a cucumber right through).
Part 1: How Can You Tell When Your Cow Will Calve
I was planning to leave Friday afternoon to go to Cincinnati to pick up Jordan (he rode his bike from Cleveland to Cincinnati from Wednesday-Saturday last week), but Sandy was looking mighty close. I’d been checking her every few hours for the last several days as it was, but now she had not only morphed from “orange on a stick” shaped to “torpedo” shaped, her pin ligaments had definitely softened noticeably in the last 12 hours, her bag seemed to be busting at the seams, and her teats were tight and pointed.
I put off leaving so I could be there that night just in case she calved.
Want to know more about what to look for when your cow gets close to calving? Download my 23-page Essential Guide to When Your Milk Cow Calves right here so you’ll know what to watch for and what to do the first few days to set you both up for success.
I checked on her again after dinner – really soft pins and she was getting restless. Pins (or pin ligaments) are the ligaments on either side of her tail. Normally they’re stiff and firm, but as she gets closer to giving birth, they soften and efface so that her hips can expand as the calf emerges during birth.
The boys set up camp on a hay bale a little ways from her pen so they could watch, but once it got too dark to read, they retreated to the house (chuckle).
I checked on her just before I went to bed and was checking on her every couple hours through the night, but sometime between 2-4am I missed my alarm.
My mom is here visiting – she’s spent the last several months (and most of her years) watching over 800 mama cows give birth, getting calves up and sucking, taking care of orphan calves, helping mamas who have trouble. She’s the best cow midwife you could ask for. She spontaneously decided last week to come visit and I’m so so happy to have her here.
Anyhow – she woke up around 4:30am, saw a light on, thought I was out with Sandy, and worried we might be having trouble. So she went to check.
And there they were – one mama cow and TWO little calves. The second had just been born and Sandy was still licking him off. The first had already been up and nursed and had been feeling frisky enough to wander off a little.
Part 2: What To Do Once The Calf Is Born
She helped get the second calf up as Sandy licked him and helped him figure out how to nurse. It’s so important for calves to get a good feeding of colostrum in their first hour.
You can tell if the calf has nursed by feeling inside his mouth. If it’s cold, he hasn’t nursed yet and may need help. If his mouth is warm, he’s been up and nursed already. For more helpful calving tips like this, download the Essential Guide for When Your Milk Cow Gives Birth here.
“Raelene,” Mom whispered over my bed when she came inside a few minutes later. “Sandy had twins.” And she gave me a full report. Gosh my mom is amazing.
No way was I going to go back to sleep after that announcement!
It was a beautiful night. Sandy hadn’t yet passed the placenta but was eating and mooing softly to her babies. After loving on her for a bit, I went back inside to wait for dawn.
When it got light enough, I woke up the kids and they went tearing out to see the calves.
Part 3: Milk Fever Symptoms & Treatments
When cows calve, they experience a temporary drop in their blood calcium levels as their system draws on their calcium reserves in their bones, muscles, and gut to make milk.
If serious enough, that drop (called milk fever or hypocalcemia) can cause tremors, unsteadiness, inability to stand, and even paralysis. For more about milk fever and the steps I’ve taken to prevent it, check out this post here.
The calcium supplement (I use a gel, but you can also do a bolus (large pill) or a drench – there are multiple ways to administer) gives her calcium levels a boost to try and stave off a serious drop in her blood calcium levels.
When I went out with the calcium gel, Reagan said she had struggled as she got up and was a bit wobbly, so he checked her ears and they were cold (all early signs of milk fever).
We gave her the gel right away (someone holds her head up while another puts the tube down her throat and squeezes out the gel) hoping that would kick in soon. She had not yet eaten the placenta (which would give her a good boost of calcium and other nutrients), but started to soon after we gave the gel so I hoped both that and the gel would help.
For more on steps to prevent – or, more accurately, minimize the effects – of milk fever, see this post here. Also – be sure to download the Essential Guide for When Your Milk Cow Gives Birth. It’s chock-full of so much good info!
I really should have given her the calcium gel as soon as I saw that she had calved. It would have been in her system a good couple hours earlier and I’m sure it would have made a big difference.
In fact, you can administer a calcium supplement before calving (generally recommended within 12 hours since that supplement will metabolize and be gone within 12 hours), but because it’s notoriously difficult to nail down exactly when she’s going to calve, I always wait until the deed is officially done. This time, however, I think I just waited too long.
I left soon after giving Sandy the gel to go get Jordan in Cincinnati, but 40 mins down the road Mom called to tell me Sandy was down and couldn’t get up. 😱
Part 4: When Your Cow Is Down With Milk Fever
I called the vet immediately. She was on a call, and could be there in an hour and a half. I turned around and came home. In the meantime, Mom and my friend Amy who had come to see the calves, gave her another calcium gel.
Sandy was bad enough off that she couldn’t stand, but every 10-15 minutes she would try to stand, wobble, lose her balance, and fall back down again. However, that effort would put her on her other side so she was rotating from side to side. This was really good – if cows lay too long on one side, all kinds of serious complications can ensue.
So she was down with milk fever, but not yet critical. We had given her two calcium gels, but it wasn’t absorbing fast enough to keep up with the drop in her blood calcium levels.
What she needed was an IV of calcium gluconate so that the calcium would go directly into her bloodstream and be almost immediately available for absorption.
I have all the supplies on hand to do this. I asked the vet months ago when she was here on another visit to teach me how to find her vein and what to do in case I needed to give her an IV. If it came down to it and Sandy was in critical condition, I would not have hesitated to do the IV myself.
But since Sandy’s condition was not critical – she could sit up, she’d already had two calcium gels, and the vet was able to come in a good time frame – I was happy to have the vet come administer the IV and be as sure as we could that all was well.
When the vet arrived, she checked Sandy’s temperature (no fever), listened to her heart (ok – a little faint but not alarmingly so which is apparently a symptom of advanced milk fever which affects ALL a cow’s muscles including her internal ones), and her rumen (good activity) – all positive signs.
She haltered Sandy and tied her head to her back leg, exposing the side of her neck (and making sure she couldn’t struggle and hurt herself). Sandy was calm and didn’t struggle at all (this was, in truth, partly due to the effects of milk fever).
The vet found her vein, inserted the IV needle, attached a tube from the bottle of calcium glutonate to the needle, held it at Sandy’s shoulder, and let it drip directly into her vein.
Sandy rested calmly for the 5-6 minutes it took for the bottle to drain and, once the vet had removed the needle, untied the rope, and removed the halter, she immediately stood up.
“I love when it all comes together as expected,” the vet said. Me too! Sandy did great, was back on her feet, mooed at her calves, and started to eat, like nothing had gone wrong in the interim.
The vet assured me that Sandy should be good – giving two different forms of calcium (IV and oral) would help prolong the absorption of the calcium so it would be available over a longer period of time and meet the demands of her system.
She considered administering a second bottle of calcium gluconate subcutaneously (under her skin) as a third form of calcium supplement – it would absorb a little more quickly than the oral gel, but not as quickly as the IV – but decided that the two gels and IV, combined with her quick recovery would likely be all that she needed.
She recommended that we give her another calcium gel that night and again the next morning just to be sure she had all she needed to keep up with the twins. We did that and Sandy has been doing great.
Whew! It was quite the morning!
And now here we are, five days post-calving and everything is going swimmingly. Sandy is healthy and strong and producing plenty of milk. The twins have learned to suck on their own and spend most of the day hiding and napping in the tall grass, showing up when they’re hungry and want a bite to eat. And we’re adjusting to our new schedule – twice a day milkings at 6am and 6pm.
Just this morning I made 8 quarts of yogourt, a pound of fresh farmer’s cheese, and a quart of strawberry ice cream. We had cream on our pancakes yesterday and a tall glass of cold milk with toast this morning.
It’s so good to be back in milk!