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There is a reason pregnant cows prefer to isolate

Being alone at calving is natural, and improves bonding

The act of a pregnant cow seeking isolation and birthing a calf without interruption to establish a strong and healthy bond is never guaranteed. It can be a fragile chain of events in need of support.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Beef Systems extension educator Aaron Berger sees the process as complex. “Weather conditions, the environment the cattle are in and the disposition of the cow, can all contribute or take away from the success of the event,” Berger says, adding that many things that can influence the chain happen in a short time. “Can that calf be born in a way that it gets up, nurses and receives colostrum in a timely way, and will the cow protect the calf and get it to weaning?”

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Allow the isolation

When the heavily pregnant female becomes aware of her approaching delivery, maternal instincts established through the evolutionary process tell her to seek isolation. Experts see this preliminary step as vital in the formation of the mother/offspring bond because it establishes the protection of the pair from predators. It also facilitates early social interactions without unwanted interference. A cow’s hormones are triggered and the pump is primed well before the physical act of calving. Isolation readies her for the next step.

“A cow that has open space on pasture can go off by herself and complete the birthing process without interruption,” Berger says. “This should mean less stress for the cow and result in a better opportunity for bonding. If she has limited space and ability to get up and move around, these are things in my mind that can contribute to the bonding process being more challenging for that cow.”

Dr. Jack Whittier, Director of the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center, agrees and encourages producers to give cows and heifers plenty of room. “If cows are closely confined in groups, they don’t get a chance to isolate themselves to calve. There are always a few individuals, particularly heifers that initially lack a strong mothering instinct. Allowing them to calve out in the field by themselves is best.”

Respect the birth

Changes in progesterone and estrogen levels initiate birthing, but it’s the increasing oxytocin levels released during the physical event that triggers maternal behaviour. Studies show that cervical stimulation is crucial for the hormonal release of oxytocin. It may not be a visual part of the bonding process, but the hormonal release combined with contractions is considered vital.

Berger sees the sensory clues of the birth fluids and the movements of the calf at the time of birth as critical to what’s ahead for the pair. “A vocal calf that is vigorous and struggling to get up encourages the cow and symbiotically the cow encourages the calf. An aggressive cow and calf seem to be the scenario with the best opportunity for that calf to get colostrum in a timely way and further bonding to occur.”

Make the bond

A study by Cornell University showed even a brief five minutes of postpartum result in the formation of a strong and specific maternal bond between cow and calf, but even with the best of intentions, sometimes things don’t go as nature intended.

Whittier preaches patience as a key to success. “There’s a complex hormone system involved in causing birth and initiating lactation,” he says. “Like any biological system, it can get a little out of sequence. I prefer to wait and see rather than immediately jump in and try to change something.”

In situations where a calf must be moved into a more protective environment, Berger encourages producers to let the cow smell and lick the calf long enough that she can identify it as hers. “And when you do remove the calf, try to minimize that calf’s contact with other calves because smell is a big way for that cow to identify the calf as hers.”

Having a cow give birth and bond to a live healthy calf while manoeuvring through interruptions is critical for cow-calf producers. “We have to think of the whole thing as not necessarily linear,” Berger says. “Some disruptions will impact it. The production scenario and process will impact the maternal bonding. Mould that scenario to give the best opportunity for that bonding to occur.”

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