Please note that these are our recommendations and intended as a guide rather than an absolute rule. Use extreme caution when learning how to interact with your specific yaks during calving season. Firebird Farms and its representatives are not responsible for injury, illness or death to humans or animals. Only your own experience will dictate the optimal way to do things on your farms and ranches. However, we receive a lot of questions about calving. In an attempt to cover the basics, we have outlined the process and preparedness measures based on our experience and talking to other ranchers. Safety in the pasture is of utmost importance during labor, birth, and after calving. Each cow is different and behavior will range from proud mom showing off her calf, to direct charges at any attempt to get near.
What to expect
In general yaks calve easily and without complication, which is one of their many benefits. Calves are much smaller than beef cattle and are hardy and vigorous. Complications from calving can occur very occasionally, and usually these are post-birth. Yaks have a gestation period of an average 260 days, which is shorter than that of cattle. We generally start checking expecting moms at 240 days for signs of upcoming calving. These dates may be challenging to determine because when the yak was bred is not necessarily known when using natural service of a bull in the pasture. So, it is calculated at the day the bull was introduced for the season, understanding that it was likely at least a few days later or whenever each cow cycled after he was introduced. All cows are different in how they present signs of calving, and you’ll get to know each one over the time of having them. Unless you are watching them constantly, you may miss seeing the birth. Our cows tend to calve in the early morning before dawn, and sometimes in the late morning and afternoon. The approximate calving times we have determined to be as follows:
- 10am/ mid morning
- 3pm/ mid afternoon
Especially during the last trimester, it is important to ensure your females are well fed and have plenty of access to minerals. While there are usually no problems with calving, it is good to be prepared for the worst. Here are some things to have on hand in the event that it does not go as planned. There is nothing more stressful than trying to save a baby yak with none of the necessary items, after store hours when they cannot be purchased. And conversely, quite a joy when it can all be handled with ease.
Preparedness: what to have on hand:
- General yak first aid kit, including antibiotics, pain relief and topical wound dressing.
- Sheep (lamb) nipple and bottle
- Electrolytes for calves
- Frozen colostrum from a local dairy (or dry powder if absolutely no other option, but it is not the same thing)
- Access to fresh raw milk from a local dairy (or store bought) and heavy cream
- Old clean towels
Third trimester: What to look for
Look at their udders (bag) while they are peeing or scratching themselves and the tail is lifted. Note their normal shape and when it starts getting bigger and they are “bagging up”. Generally first time heifers and young cows may show less sign, but older cows will develop a visible swelling of their udders. This can happen anywhere from weeks before, to the day of calving, depending on the cow. Look at the vulva and note its’ normal appearance. Not all cows will show much change, unlike dairy cattle. However, it will become more swollen and the skin will look more slack before calving.
If your cow has been handled and is tame enough to pet your cow all over, reach down and feel the bag daily to note when changes occur. When it is full, there may be dried milk plugs at the tips of their teats, indicating she is close to calving. You can watch for movement of the calf. If she is tame, you can gently press against her sides and feel the calf moving when it is active. Watch how they hold their tails. Often cows will walk with their tails raised up higher as they get closer. Watch for solitary behavior. Some cows calve right in the middle of everything, but often they will separate themselves from the group. This can start happening weeks before calving, where they will spend a portion of their day away from the herd. Note the location and duration of time alone, and see if it changes. Note at what intervals they return to feed. If they stay removed, or have a full bag and have not had this behavior prior, you may have a calf coming! Each cow can have different behavior prior to birth. Here are some things we have observed in various cows in our herd.
If you see one or more of these things and it is not normal behavior for your yak, she may be close:
- Anxiously moving around the fence perimeter, sometimes grunting.
- Going to a location where they do not normally rest, away from the herd.
- Getting up and laying back down repeatedly.
- Putting their head against their stomach and taking deep breaths while laying down. (Not scratching their necks with their horns). This is often a late pregnancy action. If followed by other signs, it can indicate labor.
- Looking very concentrated, nose quivering, head shaking slightly, and no subsequent chewing of cud.
- All four legs stretched out, lying on their side and breathing heavily (unlike normal sleep).
- Walking with their hips “hunched” over at a greater angle above the tail.
- Suddenly not looking full and pregnant as they did the day before. More hollowed out in front of the hips.
- Increased or decreased appetite after resting for long periods of time.
What to do
If you have a tame herd, use this time to spend with your expecting moms. Let them get used to you walking among them often, so that when calves come it is completely normal. Use this time to make mental notes on appearance and enjoy them. The time spent pre-calving really pays off when the calves arrive and the cows feel completely comfortable with you walking among them, petting them and being in their world more than usual, perhaps. If your herd is not tame, walk around them enough to ensure that everyone looks healthy, and for signs of calving to plan your schedule accordingly, should anything arise needing your time. Monitor behavior and make notes if cows become more aggressive, agitated or anxious. Do not approach these cows if they show signs of distress with your presence. Make sure all pregnant cows have ample access to feed, water and minerals.
We are very lucky when we get to see a yak give birth. Often they will have their baby when no one is watching. Depending upon the personality of your yak, they may specifically wait for you to leave, or want you to be present. It just depends on how much of a bond has been created between yak and human, and how rushed they are to calve. Often actual birth can be relatively quick. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine when active labor begins. They may have a long lead-up to calving, with many visible signs, or they may be very sneaky and a calf suddenly appears with no warning.
Being aware, quiet and respectful is key during labor and calving. Loud or sudden movements can make a yak cease labor, move their location, or suddenly view you as a threat. Even an accidental phone call can ruin her state of mind. Because of the hormones involved in the birthing process, it may seem like your yak cow is fine with you being there near the birthing experience, only to find her lunging at you once she regains her strength after calving. Every cow is different, and if you don’t know your yaks well yet, or this is the first calving on your property, be especially cautious. It is tempting to get as close as possible during birth and afterwards. It depends on the temperament of the cow what distance is appropriate and when she will let you pet the calf. Some of our cows are happy to let me pet the baby immediately, others will keep me away for weeks. Just remember that you can still tame up the baby, even if you were unable to get close at first. Do not let that need sway your actions to be in an unsafe proximity. Yak cows will charge you and injuries may result if you are not careful, respectful and watching their behavior.
What to watch for
Watch for labor. This can be tricky to identify sometimes. If it is warm outside and they are regurgitating their cud, they can have labored breaths, groan, pant, and make small grunts or huffing noises. If you stand long enough for them to start chewing their cud, it was just a digestion challenge with the baby inside. Some cows will have contractions and false labor for short periods, even weeks before calving. This can be vexing! It may seem like they are in pain, stretching their legs while laying down and breathing heavily, at intervals. You may sit for a long time waiting for birth to take place, only to watch them get up and go eat again. However, watching for these signs will help you get to know each cow and make better predictions during the next calving. Some cows will have contractions, then they will subside for a while but the cow does not want to return to the herd. Leading up to labor, the cow may be hyper-alert and wary of noises and potential threats to the peacefulness of her process. Watch her body language and keep away if your presence disturbs her. There is usually a distance that can be determined where she will be relaxed. That distance is different for each cow.
What to do
There is usually nothing to be done by us during this time. If it looks like a challenging process, and the cow is tame and not bothered by your presence, here are a few things you can do for her, if you like. This is not necessary. This is not recommended for yaks that are not visibly comfortable in your presence during this process.
Occasionally we have some pregnant cows that are having trouble getting up, are close to calving and seem to want food or water but either don’t have the energy to walk to food, or don’t want to leave their location. In this case, you can do the following:
- Bring a shallow bucket of water, walking very slowly toward your cow. Make sure her body language is not startled. Place the water near her head, or just nearby.
- Bring an armful of delicious hay for her to nibble on in peace. Sometimes they just need a little more food, then they relax and go into labor a while later.
- If your yaks like certain treats, have them on hand to remind her you are her friend during the crazy hormones that are about to happen. Place a few by her and step away.
- If the cow shows any signs of distress, shakes her head at you or tries to move away, leave the items nearby and back away.
- Keep as quiet as possible.
When your cow is finally in the birth process, and you are privileged to be present, here are some things to know and look out for:
- Do not assist! Unless something is very wrong (see below) and you have veterinary training, yaks generally do not need assistance with calving. Even first time heifers can almost always get the baby delivered by themselves.
- Keep a safe distance! During the actual birth process, most cows are very distracted with the duty at hand and it may be tempting to get very close. This is not recommended unless you have done so before with that exact cow and it went well. It may be tempting to edge forward as they are in too much pain to notice you. While that may be true for a brief time, that soon changes after the calf is delivered. Keeping a respectful distance is unique to each cow in terms of what that measured distance is. Some of our cows will not let us within 30 feet without getting up mid-birth and staggering farther away. Other tame ones will let me (one person only) very near them. Some are too distracted to care if anyone is around.
- Keep as quiet as possible during this entire process. Unnatural noises can trigger their panic and disrupt the birth process.
Post-Birth: What to watch for
The baby should arrive front feet first. The tips of the front two feet is the first thing you should see. They are soft and white on the bottom, even with darker colored yaks. Next will come the head. This is the most difficult part, and may take some time, especially for first time heifers. Once the head is out, it is usually quick to pass the rest of the body. When the cow calves, their immediate need is to lick the calf. Some cows are busy eating their placenta first, some go straight to cleaning the calf. If the birth has been especially challenging, she may take a rest for a few minutes but that is rare.
Generally, the calf should be licked clean immediately, in between her own recovery. Watch your distance! It has been our experience that the strong hormones that take over the cow last only for a short time after birth. Sometimes a cow will seem fine with your presence being very close during the birth, but as the hormones adjust, even a tame cow can accidentally see you as a threat and make small charges in your direction, usually in between feverishly licking her baby. Check that the baby is moving and breathing. The calf should start attempting to stand within one hour or so of birth. It usually happens much sooner. It should be nursing within two hours. Be patient. If it hasn’t, but is standing and laying back down, it may just need to gain strength. Monitor that nursing does occur. Watch the status of the after birth on the cow and note what it looks like. The afterbirth is generally shed within 24 hours of calving, but it can take days.
What to do:
- DO NOT attempt to pull the afterbirth out. This can take time, up to 5 days have been reported. Removing the afterbirth prematurely can damage the uterus for future calving. Consult your vet if you are unsure, just know that it can take longer than other species.
- If your cow is tame, you can bring them the “birth care package” of hay, a bucket of water and treats. They are usually very grateful. Be very slow and cautious in your movements, and don’t get too close. Now that lactation is starting, it’s time to make sure mom has the best nutrition possible. This is why we have calves in the spring months, when the grass is most nutritious. It is best for both cow recovery and calf growth.
When to call the vet
You are welcome to call your vet anytime you feel you need guidance. However, here are some times to definitely call the vet.
- The cow is not in labor, but it looks like there is a round bag coming out of her vulva when she is laying down. This is likely a (very rare) vaginal prolapse.
- The cow has been laying on her side and not getting up all day. Their rumen must be active through movement and lying with legs stretched out of this long is very concerning.
- The cow is in labor but it appears the calf may be in the wrong position (not feet first).
Watch for infection. The main thing that happens in those rare issues with calving is usually post-birth.
- The cow is lackluster, having trouble moving, stiff, does not eat, or is acting very a-typical for that cow.
- A foul smelling substance coming from the vagina
- Tissue that has distended during the birth process (uterine prolapse)
- Is eating but unable to put on weight, has a dull coat and low energy during the weeks after calving.
- Is feeding her calf, but something doesn’t seem right in how she holding her body, moving, and appearance.
- Frothing at the mouth (not cud being chewed), constipated stool, dark urine.
If something goes wrong:
Calf and mom. Sometimes it is not a veterinary situation, but rather between the cow and the calf. Occasionally a first-time mom can reject her calf, or not know what to do with it. Sometimes a cow is not mentally prepared for motherhood, and needs a little help. If the mom is not cleaning the calf, or actively not allowing the calf to nurse, here is the optimal course of action:
- Get the cow into the chute and head catch. Clean and dry the baby. Bring the calf to the mom and attempt to put the calf on the cow to nurse. If she puts up a fight kicking, she may need to be hobbled. This method can work and avoids having to bottle raise the calf.
- Call the vet and see if they recommend oxytocin to help with bonding to her calf.
- This may have to be repeated multiple times to get them to bond successfully.
- It may seem like a lot of work, but it is best for both cow and calf to have each other and is a lot less work than bottle feeding for half a year.
When to bottle feed:
Some people like to have bottle baby pets. That is not what this discussion is regarding. There are occasional times when this is the best option to save the calf. Situations such as:
- The cow is not doing well/ got sick/ has an infection and unable to nurse her baby
- The attempts at grafting calf to mom did not work
- The calf is not nursing as it should, despite the mom being an excellent mother
- The cow is aggressive and dangerous, and/or going to be butchered