Signs of impending calving in cows or heifers

As the spring calving season approaches, the cows will show typical signs that will indicate parturition is imminent.  Changes that are gradually seen are udder development, or making bag and the relaxation and swelling of the vulva.  These indicate the cow is due to calve in the near future.  There is much difference between individuals in the development of these signs and certainly age is a factor.  Typically, in the immediate 2 weeks preceding calving, swelling of the vulva becomes more evident, the udder is filling, and one of the things that might be seen is the loss of the cervical plug.  This is a very thick tenacious, mucous material hanging from the vulva.  It may be seen pooling behind the cow when she is lying down.  Some people mistakenly think this happens immediately before calving, but in fact this can be seen weeks before parturition and therefore is only another sign that the calving season is here. 

Occasionally she will kick at her belly and wring her tail.  Restlessness and a tendency to lie down and get up frequently are also often observed.  Stage 1 begins with contraction of the longitudinal and circular muscle fibers of the uterus and ends when the cervix is fully dilated and fetal parts enter the birth canal.  Uterine contractions first occur about every 15 minutes, but by the end of stage 1, they occur about every 3 minutes.  As the first stage progresses, the contractions become strong enough to cause the cow to arch her back and strain slightly.  In cattle, the normal duration of stage 1 is debatable.  Some scientists list it as short as 2 - 6 hours, others say it is longer (4 to 24 hours) in heifers.

The immediate signs that usually occur within 24 hours of calving would be relaxation of the pelvic ligaments and strutting of the teats.  These can be fairly dependable for the owner that watches his cows several times a day during the calving season. The casual observer or even the veterinarian who is knowledgeable of the signs but sees the herd infrequently cannot accurately predict calving time from these signs.  The relaxation of the pelvic ligaments really cannot be observed in fat cows, (body condition score 7 or greater).  However, relaxations of the ligaments can be seen very clearly in thin or moderate body condition cows and can be a clue of parturition within the next 12 - 24 hours.  These changes are signs the producer or herdsman can use to more closely pinpoint calving time.  Strutting of the teats is not really very dependable.  Some heavy milking cows will have strutting of the teats as much as two or three days before calving and on the other hand, a thin poor milking cow may calve without strutting of the teats. 

Another thing that might be seen in the immediate 12 hours before calving would be variable behavior such as a cow that does not come up to eat, or a cow that isolates herself into a particular corner of the pasture.  However, most of them have few behavioral changes until the parturition process starts.  More information can be found by downloading "Calving Time Management for Beef Cows and Heifers", Oklahoma State University Extension Circular E-1006.


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