Know the Signs of Impending Calving in Cows or Heifers
As the 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 or springing. These indicate the cow is due to calve in the near future.
There are many differences between individuals in the development of these signs and certainly age is a factor. The first calf heifer, particularly in the milking breeds, develops udder for a very long time, sometimes for two or three months before parturition. The springing can be highly variable too.
Typically, in the immediate two weeks preceding calving, springing 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.
Signs within 24 hours of calving
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 can not be observed in fat cows, (body condition score 7 or greater). However, relaxation 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. 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.
Dr. Rick Rasby
Professor of Animal Science
University of Nebraska–Lincoln