Stories of life on our farm in Northwest Georgia where every day is an adventure in this beautiful spot that God has entrusted to our stewardship.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Calf Watch for Ebony

Every year when a cow is getting close to calving, I go on "Calf Watch."  I observe developing signs of calving and take lots of photos for a visual record of her progress.  Since Ebby calved late this year, this will be a long Calf Watch post!  It will provide a good set of visual notes for me for next year, and hopefully it will help someone else figure out if their own Dexter is close to calving.

Remember, every cow is unique and every calving is different.  It's the combination of signs and their progression that is helpful.  There is no one particular sign that has to happen--not even the famous "her pins are gone."  Last year Ebby calved without me detecting that her pelvic ligaments had loosened.  You will hear that "once the pins are gone, she'll calve within 12 hours (or 24)."  I'm here to tell you that last year Ebby calved overnight after I felt her pelvic ligaments the evening before.  So, there are no guarantees!

Having missed the births of five previous calves, I was determined to see Royal's first calf born.  Based on Ebby's Estrotect patch and the date I sent milk for biotracking, the calf was due April 4.  I started Calf Watch early and took lots of photos.  Now that Ebby has calved and I'm down to milking only once a day, here's what transpired . . .

March 21 - Ebby moved into the Home Pasture for easy observation and feeding.  I started her on Dr. Hubert Karreman's 2-2-2 ACV regime:  Two ounces of apple cider vinegar twice a day for two weeks before calving.  I mixed the ACV with 1 Tbsp. of unsulfured molasses and poured it over a few ounces of non-GMO pellets.
Use apple cider vinegar 2 oz twice daily for two weeks prior to freshening to keep blood calcium levels up.
Be careful of low calcium since the muscles that control the teat sphincters at the very bottom of the teat may be weak and not close tightly between milking times. This is how environmental bugs get in and causes horrible problems (especially coliforms). 

March 24 -  Springing.  The vulva began to get swollen and floppy.

Udder development.  In my experience it is usually uneven, and Ebby's right rear quarter began to fill first.
Udder development from the side.  Please excuse the mud in these photos; we had a very rainy April.  I preferred to take photos while Ebby ate, then brush her after.  She's happy to stand still for brushing; not so much for a photo op!

March 28 - Side view.  In addition to peering closely at vulva and udder and feeling for ligaments, I like to stand back and look at the cow as a whole.

Udder development.  Not much happening.

March 31 - Rear udder development.  The left side is catching up to the right side.

In addition to twice daily checks during feeding, I started going out to check on Ebby before I went to bed.  We were having frequent thunderstorms, so she spent quite a few nights shut up safely in a stall.

April 2 - I began setting my alarm for 3 a.m. to make sure Ebby didn't do a repeat of last year, have her pelvic ligaments suddenly go, and calve overnight.  This was the first of many wee-hours-of-the-morning photos.

When I felt Ebby's pelvic ligaments, she usually backed up to "ask" for a massage, responding with what I called her "Pin Dance."  She would wiggle her entire body, snaking slowly from head to tail in obvious pleasure.  I could often feel contractions tightening her right side or feel the calf move, like here when it shifted and made a huge baby bump.

Here Ebby is later that morning, safe from thunderstorms, with a full rack of hay, two buckets of water, and plenty of bedding just in case she should calve.

Udder development.  It's beginning to fill.

April 3 - Rear view showing springing and Ebby's round belly, although she doesn't get as huge as Siobhan does.
Looking at her pelvic ligament area.

Palpating Ebby's pelvic ligaments.  While not as obvious as in a dairy cow, they can be felt like cord about the diameter of a pencil.  This sign of calving is the hardest one to detect without plenty of experience, and I still consider myself new at it.

April 4 - Springing.  There is a definite increase in puffiness from April 2.  Today was Ebby's due date.

Time to get the stanchion ready!  I thoroughly bleached everything, hosed it off, dried the mats by hanging them over the gate, and replaced them.  I filled the teat dip cups that I had previously bleached clean and made sure that all the supplies were ready to go.
April 5 - Mucus.  This was the first time I saw any, and it wasn't much.
April 6 - Mucus.  Another photo from the wee hours of the morning.
Rear view.  This makes it clear that Ebby had not gone slab-sided, which occurs when the calf drops low down to move into the birth canal.  She was also wet with rain.

Udder development.  It's fuller and rounder, swelling farther back than on March 28.

Not that much has changed from the side, although the angle a photo is taken from does make a difference.

April 8 - The udder is more visible than on March 24.  Note the front teat protruding more due to that quarter filling.

Springing.  Observe the folds of skin around the vulva.  By this time it was jiggly when Ebby walked.
Udder development.  The rear quarter is noticeably fuller than two days previously on April 6.  The front quarter is not noticeably fuller, although it was to the touch.  However, strutting of that teat is visible as it swells and points out.


April 9 - Springing.  The vulva is so swollen that Ebby's tail is pushed out to the side, and there are more folds of skin visible around it.
Springing from the side.

(NOTE:  The red block behind Ebby is not a mineral block, it's a bloat block.  She normally gets loose minerals free choice, but they get taken up when she has a bloat block because it contains minerals.)
April 10 - Mucus.  She had another long string, which her tail slapped around on her sides.

This morning Ebby looked slab-sided.  Note the lack of a baby bump on the right side.  I called to cancel a doctor's appointment, thinking she might calve in the hours I would be gone.
By the afternoon, the baby bump was back.
Side view.  There is marked udder development from two days previously on April 8.

April 11 - Ebby says, "Are you taking pictures of me AGAIN?  Let's get this over with!"
Udder development.  Ebby's teats were pulled so tight there were tiny wrinkles.  The reason they look dry is because I don't handle the teats before calving, not even to apply balm.  I don't want to take the risk of dislodging the wax plugs that seal the teats, which would allow bacteria to enter and lead to mastitis.  There will be time to soften that skin up once the calf is born and I'm milking.  And under NO circumstances would I express milk "just to see" if there is any.  Trust me--as swollen as Ebby's udder is, there's milk in there!  I leave the teats alone, doing nothing more than occasionally laying a hand high up on a quarter to check for filling under all that fuzzy winter coat.
Udderly miserable!  That night I found poor Ebby laying on her side with her legs sprawled out to keep the pressure off her swollen udder.  She normally lays tucked up nice and upright, so I knew how miserable she was.  She didn't even get up for a massage.

April 12 - Finally!  Ebby's pelvic ligaments were no longer palpable.

Slab-sided or not?  Maybe, although not dramatically so.
Side view.  Ebby still had an appetite and devoured her grain.

Her udder was full to bursting and very firm to the touch.

From the rear, you can see that her teats were strutting, so full they were sticking out to the side.

Springing and mucus.  Note all of the wrinkles under her tail.

Springing from the side.  She was holding her tail away from her body, off to one side.

When Ebby disappeared down to the bottom of the hill and hid in the woods, I was pretty sure the calf was on its way.

After I went down to check on Ebby and invaded her private hideout, she came back up to her shelter.  Royal seemed suddenly quite interested in Ebby's rear end, another indication that something was different.

Ebby seemed to want company, both Royal's and mine.  She came over to me, asking for a massage, went back to her shelter, and a little while later she headed down the hill again.  Note the hollow look between her hooks and pins, compared to the full side view on April 10.  If you're not also palpating the pelvic ligaments, that "hollow look" is easy to miss.

Clued in by Ebby's restlessness that something was happening, I was checking her every half hour.  She couldn't seem to find a place to settle, and she headed back up the hill again.

She laid down under the tree in a favorite spot, but got up a few minutes later.

By 2:08 p.m., Ebby had decided--the calf was going to be born on a nice bed of hay in her shelter.  I could tell she was miserable.  Just look at that cartoon-cow udder sticking straight out like it was pasted on by a child.  The calf couldn't come soon enough for either of us!

Half an hour later, the calf was clearly on its way and Ebby's Calf Watch was over.  Click here for the rest of the story, the birth of ZH Royal Celebration.


  1. Super helpful and wonderfully put together with daily changes. Thanks for putting this together. Out of curiosity, you mention the due date was April 4th. How many days wold that have been?

    1. You're very welcome, Ali, I'm glad it's helpful! I used a Dexter gestation chart put together by Silver Maple Dexters, based on over 70 breedings, which uses a 280.2 day gestation with a 7-day deviation. Ebby calved 8 days past her due date, so not far off the 7-day deviation.


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