I have enjoyed following North Iowan Laura Cunningham through social media and I have recently gotten to know Laura in real life. It's evident that she is passionate about her farm. I invited her to share what her life has been like on her farm. I think you will find her story fun and fascinating!
A Day in the Life of a SkyView Farms OB Nurse
By Laura Cunningham
Wednesday started out like any other day during our three-month calving season at SkyView Farms. The sun was shining, cool breeze blowing and the cows and calves were enjoying a relaxed morning in the pasture. While making my midday rounds, I came upon one cow who stood alone at the opposite end of the lot. Tail lifted and cocked to the side. Pacing ever so carefully with her ears slightly back and an anxious expression on her face. This momma was going to calve soon.
When cows are in labor, we (my husband Aaron and I) do our best to make sure someone is always on the farm to monitor progress. As a rule we give the cow space, access to water and a dry place to deliver. All was in order for this momma’s delivery but something was telling me she needed to be watched closely this morning.
An hour into labor, no hooves or little nose had appeared, the cow’s pacing had increased and her anxiety was noticeably worse. Something wasn’t right and I was going to need help. A quick phone call and the vet was on the farm within 15 minutes. After a brief exam he immediately went to work setting up the tools we would use to assist delivery, knowing with each passing minute the mother was getting weaker and the calf could be in trouble.
One of the biggest challenges in raising cows and calves, is knowing when to intervene and when to let Nature run its course. Unlike a human who can verbally communicate pain, discomfort or problems, calf delivery decisions are based solely on non-verbal cues and monitoring body language. Intervening too early could place unneeded strain on the mother, but waiting too long could risk the life of both the mother and the calf.
With one of us on each end of the calf puller we carefully watched the mother, matching her pushes and contractions with our pulling motions. Within five minutes, the 75 pound heifer (female) calf was born.
We released the mother and quickly backed away giving her space to care for and bond with her newborn baby.
With delivery complete, it was time to shift to post-partum care. This includes monitoring the mother to make sure she recovered from delivery, and watching for the calf to make its first attempts to stand and then to nurse. It’s important that the newborn nurses within 2-8 hours to ensure she receives first colostrum. This is the first milk produced by her mother and contains all the essential antibodies needed to help build her immune system. Calves experiencing troubled births often struggle with this, and such was the case with our newborn.
Seven hours had passed and our little heifer hadn’t yet successfully nursed and was too weak to stand. I mixed up a batch of colostrum replacer and attempted feeding with a bottle. Her little tongue was still so swollen and painful from her biting it during birth that she didn’t accept it.
The only option was to deliver milk via feeding tube every five hours to build up strength while her mouth healed. It’s a painless process for the calf, but can run the risk of interfering with the maternal bond. This calf's mother was good though. She seemed to understand I needed to help her baby, and quietly watched as I fed her each day, continually licking her calf and trying to get her to nurse in between.
On day two when the swelling had noticeably reduced on her tongue, I started in on what I like to call “bottle therapy”. I downsized from the normal large calf nipple to a lamb nipple.
It’s much smaller and softer in hopes our little heifer would accept the bottle. Over the course of the next two days, she continued to make progress and finally drank a full bottle on her own at the end of day three. Day four continued with bottle therapy and during evening chores, our little heifer took her first feedings from mom. A huge sigh of relief. While I was prepared to be a foster mom, seeing those two bond and successfully nurse together left a warm feeling in my heart. All the hard work and constant care had paid off.
Calving season as a whole could be compared to working in the obstetrics ward at a hospital, in which you are the sole nurse on deck for forty expectant mothers who don’t speak the same language as you, and may or may not deliver every day for the next three months. However, the joy that comes from nursing a baby calf back to health far outweighs the long hours and heavy eyelids. It’s all in the life of a cattle farm “OB nurse” caring for her forty newborns.