Spring on the ranch is always a busy time, and motherhood is a central feature. While calving time on the ranch can have its challenges, the excitement is always accompanied by a sense of wonderment for this part of the life cycle. We have both cows and heifers on the ranch. A “cow” is defined as a female that has given birth before. A “heifer” is a female that has not given birth yet. This year we have a nice group of heifers giving birth for the first time. It never ceases to amaze us how these first time mamas know what to do through both nature and nurture.
The birthing process takes about one to two hours. Cows start having contractions and pushing, and the calf comes out front feet first then the head, as if diving into the world. Once the calf is dropped mom starts sniffing and licking the calf, beginning the bonding process and helping her recognize the scent. The calf expels fluid from their lungs and starts breathing. It takes only several minutes for the calf to take its first steps, but as soon as they are up they use their mouth and nose to poke around moms belly trying to find the udder. Mom patiently waits, letting her calf explore. When the placenta comes out, most cows consume it to receive all those good nutrients and hide the scent from predators.
This bonding and protecting behavior is due to both hormones and learned behavior, and it is an incredible process to witness. Of course there are sometimes complications, particularly with heifers, and as ranchers it is our responsibility to step in and assist to ensure that both mom and baby are getting the attention they need. While we see hundreds of these each year, we are continually fascinated and learning from these mamas.
Here is a heifer that who just gave birth for the first time. Sometimes if we see that one is about to give birth we will put her in her own pen so she can focus and not worry about the other heifers. Notice how she is licking and sniffing her calf, initiating that bonding process.