The early part of February is quite quiet. We start to group the cows according to their due dates, and the waiting begins. The first due dates are around the 17th February. The gestation period of a cow is similar to a us, around 9 months. But, like us, calves can come early, or late, so we never quite know when to expect the first calf.
Night checks begin in the week or so prior to due dates, and we try and figure out which one is most likely to calve first. Is her udder starting to fill up with milk? Is she a little pre-occupied 'thinking about it'? Is she looking a little uncomfortable? We have cameras in the calving sheds, but you can't beat a proper look around to get a feel for what is going on.
One day, as Kirsty went home she checked the calving shed and sent me a message - 'just check 914, I think she might calve...' She was right, when I checked later on, we had our first calf, a Friesian heifer. Then a trickle of calves every day or so, before the floodgates opened. By the end of the month we were having about five or six calves a day.
Newborn calves are left with the cow for about 18 - 24 hours after being born. It is important that they have a good feed of colostrum, which contains vital antibodies. Calves are born without any antibodies, so they must get them from the colostrum. Usually the following afternoon, the cow goes into the milking parlour and the calf is taken to a cosy straw pen. On the way, it is weighed, and its umbilical cord is dipped with iodine, to prevent infection. It will also be tagged with two ear tags, which will be its official identification. We milk the cow separately and continue to give the calf colostrum for at least three days. After this, calves are fed whole milk. Some farms use dried milk powder, but we use normal milk powder. Calves are grouped in pens of up to 12, Friesian heifers together, and Aberdeen Angus heifers and bulls together.
Our Wwoofer Ambroise left at the end of February, to be replaces the very next day, by Emma, from America. She had previously worked on a ranch with goats, but had never been on a dairy farm so she was keen to learn about everything that went on. She was thrilled to see a calf being born on her first day, and was a big help in the milking parlour and in the calf shed.