How close to calving? (Photos)

1. Udder Changes

We like to use udder development as a good indicator of how far along a cow is. This measure is usually effective for dairy cattle, whereas beef cattle do not always “make up” an udder much before calving.

Keep in mind a few things:

  1. Every cow develops differently. The heifer in these first pictures did not make up as much edema as heifers often do, so she is a good average between heifer and cow.
  2. Cows that have calved before are very different from heifers. You may not see much change in the udder until a few days before to a day after calving.

A note on the photos below. The Jan 1 photo is after little man (her baby) nursed. He was born in the night and when we peeked out the window about 7am, he was curled up sleeping, dry and full. So that is a post-milking photo. 🙂

2. Pins & Ligaments

Many people may ask about “the pins”. First, you need to know what they are! Pins are a part of a cow’s hips. Basically, “hooks” are the FRONT (closer to head of animal) part of the hips and “pins” are the BACK (closer to tail) part of hips.

Okay, so now, why are “pins” important? Well, 12-24 hours before a cow calves, the pins will change in preparation for calving so that a cow can push a 50-100 pound calf out.

There will be a noticeable loosening of the ligaments on each side – BETWEEN the PIN bone and the TAIL bone, the ligaments will soften and become loose and jelly-like (compared to normal muscle tone/normal ligament strength).

Think of there being a rubber band holding the pin bone to the tail bone, on each side. Picture the rubber band tight. Then picture the rubber band relaxing and sagging, so that when the calf comes out that little tiny space, the rubber band can be stretched wide open (and the pin bones along with it) for the calf to come out.

Seeing this change is a good indication your cow is imminently close to calving – like, time to bring her into the barn and check on her every hour or two!

Pin and ligament changes

To Measure Pin Ligament Changes: Do not measure a cow by looking at her once. Rather, start to monitor how she looks and then keep tracking change as she gets closer to her calving date. You may see slight softening of the ligaments as she “blooms” in preparation the final month. But the change we’re talking about is the significant change (up to inches in loosening of the ligaments) that indicate imminent calving.

Thin Cow Disclaimer: Pins are NOT a good reference point on thin cows. If a cow is really thin, she may always look like her ligaments are loose, when it’s really a lack of fat/muscle/bloom.

Photo example of changes in pin ligaments:

Same photo, with red circles emphasizing area in question:

pin ligaments


The night before Rosalind calved, I could fit my hand a long way down between her pin bone and tail bone. What is hard to see in a photo is pretty easy to recognize in person. The area where the ligaments are loosening goes from feeling like meat to feeling like jello.


Do I find pins a good indicator for beginners to know when their cow is soon to calve? Not necessarily. I find that so many cows are different, I mean recently I saw a cow that looked like Rosalind post-calving (Jan 1 photo) and she waited several more days to calve! Instead, I like to include “pin development” on my list of things to watch (check out the full list on the Calving Preparation page).

This last calving was my first time photographing and marking development of the pins. The photos are more difficult to take versus seeing the cow live, but they can give you an idea of how even on Dec 29, she had not developed a huge amount in the pins. That look was where she had been for almost two months, and I attribute it to the fact that she was a tad on the thin side when she arrived early November to our home.

Another udder example:

March of 2015 calving – First photos taken of heifer about 1 month from calving:

RosaliaRearView Rosalia

Next photos taken 3 days before due date:

DSC04883 DSC04884

Photos taken night of due date:



Photos at birth (about 7 hours later):


A third example:

Five weeks before due date:



Three weeks before due date:

??????????????????????????????? ??????????????????????????????? ???????????????????????????????

One week before due date – she’s not gonna make it any longer!

??????????????????????????????? ???????????????????????????????

Heifer calf born unassisted about 10:30 pm (earlier photos (above) were taken around 4:30 PM)


Example of a mature dairy cow:


12202017 - 8 days before due date sm
8 days before due date – slight bloom of udder for the past week
12252017 - 3 days before due date sm
3 days before due date – some more general bloom in body and udder, but teats are still empty and wrinkly
12282017 Day before due date sm
Day before due date – Rosebud stood as far away from barn as possible (looking for hiding spot to calve). Udder doubled in size. Pin ligaments significantly softened. Clear slick of good hanging out of vulva. Rosebud unusually alert and attentive. Not interested in eating food.
One hour before
Due date, an hour before calf is born. Udder is huge and “edema-filled” – teats are full of milk. Rosebud ran away from the barn to the far pen, tail sticking out, pins wiggling, looking very occupied in the mind. We put her in a box stall, went inside for a quick breakfast, and ran out when we saw her up and licking something – the cow didn’t wait for us!
video of rosebud and briar rose
Just for fun – click on this video link to watch a short video of Rosebud with her new heifer calf, Briar Rose – born December 29, 2017

A happy ending … heifer calves! 😀

Rosebud 2.5 weeks after calving sm
Follow up: Two and a half weeks post-calving, Rosebud is giving around 5 gallons per day, her calf is drinking 1.5 gallons per day. 

A few parting notes:

  1. Heifers tend to calve early, but any cow or heifer can calve several days in one direction or another of her due date. I’ve seen calves born two weeks early or over two weeks late with guaranteed breeding dates (meaning not just that a bull got them on a different heat).
  2. Be sure you have the right calving date! It’s easy enough to get dates mixed up. Keep records and check a gestation calendar to double check your math. You can find one on this page: Breeding Your Cow
  3. The “Medicine Box” area of this website has many sections relevant to calving, particularly: Calving Preparation and Medicine Box
  4. Focus on what is important for this calving. For example, if you have a heifer, you may want to read up on and be prepared for pulling a calf, as a heifer may need more help than a mature cow. If your cow has had multiple lactations or is a high producer, read up on milk fever and ketosis.
  5. Don’t forget to prepare for a baby, as well. Sometimes, we get so excited for our cow to calve, we forget about preparing for the calf! (And what to have on hand in case the calf is sick!)

24 thoughts on “How close to calving? (Photos)

  1. Hannah

    I bought a cow a couple months ago from a dairy. I was told she was due mid to late June. Its July now and nothing. Her udder shows no change. She does have mucus discharge almost every day and last week had a bit of fluid dripping when she would lie down. Is it possible she won’t develope her udder until labor starts? She is a dairy breed (guernsey).


    1. Dairy breeds usually always make up an udder before calving. If she was bull-bred, then her breeding date could be off. If it were my cow, I would draw blood and send it to (they have a map that can get you the info for your closest lab). The test will tell you if she is pregnant. From there, it’s a waiting game to see when she calves – at this point there would be no reliable way to tell her exact due date. If the test came back open, then you would know she’s open and wouldn’t keep waiting for a calf and could give hormone shots, etc. to get her to come back into heat.


  2. Natalie

    Hi! I have the same questions as the rest of you! It’s my first having a calf, very
    nervous! We bought her knowing she would have a baby April 24 if the AI took.
    If not, 3 weeks from now (she was put in with a bull). We have her pinned up just
    in case it is today. How long should I wait to put her back with the others if she is
    not due for another 3 weeks? I have been checking out all the signs of birthing, she
    has a few signs, but not much is happening. Just want to make sure our little Annie
    is ok!


    1. Is she showing signs of being due very soon? If not, she probably took to a later breeding date. Cows should not be kept in a pen so small that their movement is limited, but they also should not be out on the open range so close to calving. If you can keep her nearby but in an area she can move around, that would be best. Preferably somewhere you can easily see her.

      If she is a dairy cow, her “signs” of calving should be very obvious – her udder should be large and uncomfortable and tight, her vulva should be large and sloppy, she may be dripping milk or acting weird. There are lots of signs that should make it obvious – if you’re not seeing much, then sounds like you have some time. Feel free to email me some pictures, I can take a look at her and see if there’s anything further I could notice.


  3. pam

    My heifer should be due any time. she is discharging for a few weeks now and starting to bag up .we put her in a pen as the fields are wooded and dont want to have to hunt for . will this hinder her timing for calving ? as she seems to cry for her friends


  4. I bought a bred beef cow back in December of 2016, said it was 5×7 at the time… I’ve been watching!! For ever.. lol, when a cow was said to be bred for 7 months I was told it could be longer than that. I know it’s an impossible question but in this case how long could it have been bred for, is there a chance she is eight months along when I got her? The bag is starting to take shape, there is discharge and the whole pin bone thing is beyond me. Any thoughts of how much longer I may have? Thank you!!


    1. Yes, with beef cows bred to a bull, their due dates can vary widely! Unless the breeding was AI or the farmer took the cow on X day to be bred to the bull and no other day, then you really don’t know the due date. To complicate things further, beef cows don’t develop an udder in the same way that milk cows do.

      If you think she’s just starting to make up an udder, you’re probably 2 to 4 weeks away. The discharge is very normal and very good to see – means she’s progressing in a healthy way!

      Feel the ligament between her pin bones (the back hip bones) and her tail head/spine – right now it’s probably fairly firm. If you want to learn how it changes, feel it a few times and if one day you come out and the pin ligaments are loose like jello, she’s probably very close. If you miss the calving, you should still be able to feel the pins be loose for a little while after calving.

      Waiting is the hardest part of calving!! 🙂


  5. Ray

    How much longer. Last week she had a weird slimmy discharge. That stopped. For a week now she has been pawing and rocking when she lays down. And just being different.


  6. Ray R WHITMAN

    Don’t know exactly due date on mine. We got her already breed. Was told late Nov. She had a slimmy discharge last week but that stopped. She is pawing the ground and rocking when she lays down. Acting weird so now udder is filling up. Nervous she is our first. How much longer.


    1. Discharge can show up on and off for several weeks before calving, it is an indicator she’s doing everything right.

      Pawing and rocking are likely because she is very uncomfortable. The last month or so, the calf grows the most and the cow becomes very uncomfortable.

      Udder filling up happens in the last couple of weeks before calving. Very close to calving the udder usually changes a lot (grows about double in size in one day), also the teats may go from wrinkled to full or even start spraying milk.

      When she’s calving, you may hear her make a lot of noise, have contractions, lift her tail and not put it back down, see discharge with blood-tainted fluid. She may head to the far end of her pen, as far away from people/home as possible (she’s trying to calve in a “safe” quiet location).

      Hopefully you’ll head out soon and see a calf on the ground. If you see her pushing or see feet but nothing progresses over the next 30 minutes or so, you should call a cattle friend or vet to come help assess her.


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