Birth in livestock is a natural process and normally does not need any human interference. But sometimes there can be birth problems where the dam needs assistance from the farmer/pastoralist.
The normal birth
Pregnancy in cattle lasts on average 280 days. It can be one week less or up to two and a half weeks more. If the cow has twins she will normally give birth before the 280 days are over. In goat and sheep pregnancy lasts 144 - 155 days, in pigs 110 - 118 days, in horses it lasts 336 days, in donkeys 365 days and in camels 330 - 410 days.
Signs of approaching birth:
- One to two weeks before birth the udder swells up, there is an increasing soft swelling of the skin (edema) on the udder and in front of the udder, thick colostrum appears in the teats.
- A few hours before birth the pregnant animal becomes restless, the animal stops to feed or drink, it may lie down and stand up again frequently, there may be the first discharge of mucous from the vagina.
- The preparation stage takes normally 2 to 6 hours but can vary between 1 and 24 hours (occasionally up to 72 hours in heifers!)
- The ligaments at both sides of the base of the tail sink in.
- The vulva swells up to several times its' normal size and becomes flabby
- A lot of thick white mucous is discharged from the vulva
Make sure the animal has a clean and quiet place where she can give birth. Don't put animals into stress because of removing it from familiar surroundings: when possible leave it in the herd when there is space to find a quiet place.
Prepare yourself: have clean water, soap and two clean smooth ropes ready (ropes should be boiled in water before), it is also good to have a bit of iodine ready to dip the calf's navel in after birth.
Monitoring birth progress
- Labour starts, normally while the animal is lying down, the contractions of the uterus occur about every 15 minutes
- Labour in cattle normally takes around 3 to 4 hours, but can take much longer with first-calving heifers; After about 3 to 4 hours of labour the waterbag (= the membrane sack which contains the calf) becomes visible in the vulva
- Labour in sheep/goat is much shorter (about 30 minutes)
- It is important to observe when the waterbag bursts (or 'the water breaks'), from this moment on the delivery of the calf/lamb/kid begins, the uterus contractions now occur every 2 minutes
- Labour comes in repeated intervals until the second membrane bursts and the two feet of the calf/lamb/kid appear
- In most cases calf/lamb/kid are born with the head between the two front feet coming first, but they can also be born with hind-legs and tail coming first
- The normal position of the calf/lamb/kid inside the mother is with the back facing up and the belly facing down (if it is not so see below under difficult birth)
- Now observe until the calf/lamb/kid has been fully delivered, sometimes the mother takes a short break before expelling the calf completely, expulsion of the calf normally takes between 30 minutes (adult cows) and three hours (first-calving heifers)
Taking care after birth and providing colostrum:
- Make sure the calf/lamb/kid starts to breathe immediately after birth.
- If the new born is slow in starting to breathe, you can clear mucous from its nose, tickle the nose of it with a straw and vigorously rub the chest of the new born to stimulate it.
- It is good to show the young animal to the mother by placing it near her head and allow her to lick it
- The navel of the calf/lamb/kid should be disinfected by dipping it in iodine
- When the calf/ lamb/ kid starts to stand up you should assist it to suckle, this helps with expulsion of the afterbirth
- The first milk produced by the dam is very thick and yellow and is called colostrum; this colostrum is like an oral vaccination, it transfers immunity from the mother to the young which protects the calf/lamb/kid during the first 3 to 6months Colostrum is very nutritious, it contains much more protein, vitamins and minerals than normal milk and also activates movement of the intestine and helps with passing of the first faeces. The calf gets a good start in life when fed enough colostrum
- The calf/lamb/kid should suckle for the first time not later than 3 hours after birth. - it is good to feed a lot of colostrum to the calf/ lamb/ kid.
- A calf should drink at least two litres of colostrum during the first 6 hours,
- The newborns need to receive minimum 10% of their birth weight(!),
- Colostrum must be given within the first 3hours after birth,
- If the calf/lamb/kid receives colostrum too late, the antibodies in it cannot pass the intestinal wall anymore and the newborn's immunity is very weak and it may die easily.
- In cattle expulsion of the afterbirth is normally complete 2 hours after birth, but it can sometimes take up to 8 hours
- To avoid onset of milk fever in high milk yielding cattle, it is useful to add a small handful of dry agricultural lime (preferably mixed calcium and magnesium lime) to the first feed of the new mother cow. (Don't add extra calcium in the dry period!)
Things NOT to do when the animal is giving birth
Many people interfere with birth too early or when it is unnecessary causing more harm than good. Allow the cow, sheep or goat sufficient time and quietness to deliver her calf, lamb or kid.
- Do not chase or cause stress to the animal before and during birth, making the dam nervous can disrupt labour and delay birth by many hours
- Do not interfere before the water has broken; as long as the water has not broken the calf/lamb/kid will stay alive inside the mother for a long time (up to 12 hours). If there seems to be no progress at all after the waterbag has become visible (= the waterbag does not move through the vulva and the water does not break) you must wait at least one hour before checking the position of the calf.
- If birth progresses normally do not attempt to pull. Unnecessary pulling can easily cause injury to the newborn and the mother
- When the animal relaxes, do not try to pull out the calf/lamb/kid by force, labour happens at intervals and you are not supposed to pull when the mother rests; hard pulling on the calf/lamb/kid can easily cause prolapse of the uterus which frequently causes death of both, the mother and the young
- If the afterbirth does not come out normally do not try to put your hands in and don't try to pull it out, you will cause damage and bleeding to the uterus and may easily infect yourself with Brucellosis by touching the placenta
- When you see milk drops on the teats, do not start to milk the cow before calving, this will make her colostrums useless for the calf
When to assist with a difficult birth
- After the water has broken, birth must progress. If the mother has been pressing for four hours but there is no visible progress and she becomes tired you must check the position of the calf/lamb/kid.
- If the position of the calf/lamb/kid is normal but the mother is tired, you may assist by pulling gently on the two legs of the calf/lamb/kid, but only pull when the mother is pressing herself; also make sure you have washed the skin around the vulva and your hands thoroughly with soap before assisting.
- Never pull on the calf/lamb/kid unless you can clearly locate three things:
- Two legs with the nose/head pointing upwards towards the mother's tail
- Two legs with tail pointing upwards towards the mother's tail
- If birth takes long the vulva surface becomes too dry and it is good to apply some foam from bar-soap or from liquid soap onto the surface
- If you are not sure about how to check the position call an experienced person or a veterinarian
- If the afterbirth is retained wait for 12 hours then call a veterinarian to treat the animal; the vet will give the cow an antibiotic until the afterbirth has sloughed off; if a retained afterbirth is not treated it can cause severe infection of the mother and lead to death or infertility
When there is no colostrum - how to prepare colostrum substitute
If the mother does not give any colostrum milk or has died during birth you can prepare colostrums substitute using the following recipe (mix ingredients):
- 1 egg beaten (the egg must be from your own chicken, it contains chicken antibody against many diseases that occur on your farm, these antibodies protect the calf like a vaccine)
- 300 ml clean water (boiled and then allowed to cool down)
- 2 ml (½ teaspoon) castor oil
- 600 ml milk from another cow
Feed the artificial colostrums at least three times per day for the first three days after birth, prepare fresh every time.
For more information see also our page 'A calf life worth living'
June 2013: Review by Dr Mario Younan (DVM, PhD), Regional Technical Advisor for VSF-Germany, working in East Africa since 1995