Fern: Buttercup's First Baby
Updated: Mar 24
When your heifer is approaching the arrival of her first calf, you never know exactly what to expect. As our heifer, Buttercup, a Dexter/Jersey cross, approached her first freshening, we were eager, nervous, and uncertain of what this pregnancy would entail. Our other milk cow, Sweet Alyssum, has already calved three times and will soon be due with her fourth calf. Each time, she has been a champion, needing nothing more from us than moral support (or maybe we were the ones who needed reassuring!). You can read about Lissy here: Thank You for the Milk, Sweet Lissy, and about her first calf on the homestead: Our Little Dandy.
With a heifer who has never calved before, the best indications of how her pregnancy will go are in genetics: the nature of her dam's first calving, her own birthweight, the sire's birthweight, etc. For a small heifer like Buttercup, it is essential that the sire be a small bull. Even then, first-calf heifers' bodies have a great deal of adjusting to do in the weeks leading up to delivery. (Fern's sire is our Jersey/Dexter bull, Chicory.)
During the month prior to calving, your heifer's belly will continue to widen, stretching her ribcage. Her gait might change as well, as the ligaments around her tail and pelvic area loosen. For some cows, these adjustments will happen in the days immediately before calving. With Buttercup, the changes were gradual, spanning several weeks. It's normal for a heifer to experience more discomfort than a mature cow as her udder expands to accommodate her first lactation. She may also have significant edema across her belly and all around the udder. Buttercup and Lissy have both had edema that lasted from the month before to two weeks after calving. Your heifer may become restless, impatient, or fussy. She may also be more affectionate than usual, as her maternal hormones begin to kick in.
As the big day approaches, your heifer may become agitated. Buttercup began eating fitfully, wandering the pen, and occasionally rocking back and forth in the characteristic pre-labor pattern. She is usually our bovine drama queen, so we had every reason to believe that she would use her oh-so-powerful lungs to let us know when the time arrived. Unlike an experienced cow, heifers don't always seem to understand what is happening, making them anxious and hard to predict.
There are several signs to watch for if your heifer is in this pre-labor phase:
kicking at her belly
murmuring "calf call" moos
swollen, waxy looking teats
loosening of her tail base (if that hasn't happened already)
bloody discharge from her vulva
If any or all of these signs are present, she will probably calve within a day.
Until your heifer's first calf is on the ground, you never know exactly how she will behave during the calving process. Heifers in general tend to fuss more often and find the birthing process more difficult. Your heifer may not have any problem, but it is always good to be prepared in case a problem occurs. To do this, we go through a pre-calving review of correct birth presentations (and what to do about incorrect ones), pre- and post-calving nutrition, milk fever, etc. I also keep a checklist on hand of "just in case" supplies: calving rope, colostrum replacement (either powdered or frozen), a nipple bottle, a towel, iodine, and gloves.
If your heifer's water breaks and calving proceeds normally, it's best to stay out of the way. Because she is unfamiliar with her job, she may resent your interference, be hostile, or become confused. If she does need you, be prepared to step in!
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
One thing we felt certain about with Buttercup's first calf was that she would be loud. She usually bellows to tell us she's hungry. Or that there are elk on the hillside. Or that she's feeling emotional. So the morning she freshened, we weren't surprised to hear bellowing coming from the paddock in the predawn darkness. We hurried out the door, pulling on jackets in the chilly September morning, and approached the cow enclosure. To our amazement, we found that Buttercup--far from being a drama queen--had already finished calving and cleaned up the afterbirth. Standing by her side was the tiniest calf we've yet seen on the homestead. Baby Fern was still wet, wobbling on unsteady legs, and looking hungry.
As with many heifers, Buttercup's mothering instincts hadn't fully engaged yet, but Lissy--with all her maternal experience--was trying to take over. Not only was she cleaning Fern, she was jealously keeping Buttercup at a distance. We moved Lissy to a separate pen, and then watched the new mother and baby. It was essential for Fern to get colostrum within the first two hours, but she was struggling to find her dam's teats. Every time she did, Buttercup would restlessly move away.
As the two-hour mark approached, Kindra hurried to the house to mix powdered colostrum with warm water. It would be better than nothing.
Bottle in hand, I stood over the tiny baby, tipping her chin up into the correct feeding position. She wouldn't swallow it. Maybe she'd already tasted the real thing and rejected the substitute (I don't blame her). After several failed attempts, I switched tactics and focused on getting Fern back onto Buttercup's teats. She was starting to get the idea, so I distracted Buttercup with alfalfa pellets to keep her still. By the time we finally felt sure that Fern had gotten enough colostrum to establish her immune system, the sun was already shining down on us through the oaks.
It took several days for Buttercup to fully embrace motherhood, but once she got into the routine, she did an excellent job. It's important to keep an eye on your heifer through the first weeks of motherhood, watching for any signs of trouble between mother and calf. As the calf nurses, it encourages an oxytocin release in the heifer, which helps her relax and embrace her new job. First-calf heifers don't produce as much milk as a more mature cow would, so your calf might need more time to get established. Tiny calves like Fern benefit from a vitamin and mineral booster such as BO-SE or Nutri-Drench. (We use Nutri-Drench, because it's easier than an injection and can be given more than once, as needed.) Fern has continued to be small but spunky. She is growing every day and showing all the precocious energy we would expect from Buttercup's first baby.