Life in the Maternity Barn

My time in the maternity barn at Maddox Dairy has honestly been my favorite part of this internship yet! In general, what I enjoy most about interning here is the hands-on experience. Having interns is risky business for any farm, but it can also be rewarding. Thankfully, the folks here believe it is worth the risk. Without any task “on my own” I cannot learn as much and discover what I need to improve up on as a dairy woman. A few of my goals in coming to California were to sharpen my dairy skills, learn more about myself, and thus determine what I can improve upon. I also wanted to discover ideas that may be useful in the future for my family’s dairy or another I may come in contact with. I believe that I should never quit learning. Life is filled with far to many amazing things to decide I know enough! So back to the maternity barn, I love working with the big pregnant cows…even though they can be crazy, hormonal and absolutely nuts! They just want their baby is all haha! Plus what could be better than witnessing multiple miracles every day! Whether male or female, each calf born holds much value for the future of the farm.

A typical day in the maternity barn for me starts around six twenty in the morning and ends at 5 p.m. However the employees who work full-time in maternity are there from either 3:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the afternoon or 5 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. Right now I fill the open slot from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. First thing in the morning, we lock all the cows up in the headlocks and gently spray their teats with iodine to prevent mastitis. We also spray their feet a couple days a week with LinxMed-SP, which is lincomycin, since they don’t get a footbath in their maternity break (in the dairy world known as the dry period). That is done to prevent any contagious diseases such as heel warts, foot rot etc. We are also always watching for any signs that a cow is calving (in the dairy world calving means she is in labor).

Throughout the day we check the pens in the maternity barn every 30 to 45 minutes for cows that are calving. If we find a cow calving, we will move her to a clean, individual box stall in the barn. There she can have her own space, and hopefully relax to have her calf. If the cow is further along, the calf’s feet and head are out. We will leave her alone, but be close by to move the calf and cow to a clean area as soon as the calf is born. It is best to move the cow into a clean pen before she calves for the calf’s and her sake, because hygiene is extremely important for the health of the cow and the calf. The same as humans, a first time mother (in the dairy world known as a first calf heifer, primiparous) is typically in labor longer. A female bovine isn’t known as a cow officially until she has had a calf. Only after she calves can she produce milk and be known as a cow. However, a multiparous cow (a cow that has had more than one calf) usually calves faster than the first calf heifers (primiparous).

After a cow or first calf heifer is in labor we are checking her often for progress. We will often palpate the cow to check the position of the calf, see how dilated her cervix is and make sure the calf is still alive. (Palpation in this scenario is putting our hand or almost whole arm inside the animal for medical purposes, wearing a plastic palpation sleeve.) If the calf is correctly positioned, the front feet and the head will be coming first. In this case, if she is not showing signs of to much stress or strain we can let her keep pushing without assistance. If she is NOT progressing or is showing signs of to much strain and the calf is positioned correctly we will help her calve if her cervix is dilated enough. It’s best for the cow to calve without assistance, but sometimes assistance is needed, especially on a very hot day. The same is true for first calf heifers, but sometimes a first calf heifer is scared, and not relaxed enough to give birth on her own. More times than not, we must assist a first calf heifer so the calf can be born alive in a timely manner.

If we palpate a cow or heifer and discover the calf is positioned incorrectly; we have to reposition the calf in the best and timeliest manner possible. Giving birth is a miraculous process, being gentle with the cows and first calf heifers is extremely important but no matter how gentle we are, calving is difficult. That’s why the employees and I do our best to be calm around the cows especially when they are calving. Keeping calving cows relaxed is a key factor in having alive and healthy calves on any dairy.

In the situation where a calf is backwards, the back feet are coming first; we will have to assist the cow. But we will wait until her cervix is dilated. If a calf is breached there are many ways it can be positioned incorrectly, so we do out best to reposition the calf in the timeliest manner possible. A few pictures of what a breached delivery can look like are at this link, http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex3451. So far there have not been any cesarean sections on any cows or first calf heifers, which is a blessing. Here at Maddox Dairy, there are typically less than six c-sections per year.

Overall, as I stated earlier I enjoy working in the maternity barn. It can be extremely difficult at times, but extremely rewarding too. I love watching the cows or first calf heifers get up, turn around and starting licking off their baby so eagerly. I am always amazed after each and every calf is born. Amazed by the cow, how tough she is, amazed by the calf for the same reason and amazed by God knowing he loves and cares for all the creatures in His world.

Keep an eye out for my next blog post about the protocols right after a calf is born!

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