We like to use udder development as a good indicator of how far along a cow is.
Keep in mind a few things:
- Every cow develops differently. The heifer in these pictures did not make up as much edema as heifers often do, so she’s kind of a good mix between heifer and cow.
- 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.
- Heifers tend to calve early, but any cow 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).
- 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
- The “Medicine Box” area of this website has many sections relevant to calving, particularly: Calving Preparation and Medicine Box
- 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.
- 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!)
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. 🙂
Many people may ask about “the pins”. First, you need to know what they are! 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, several hours (less than 24) before a cow calves, the pins will “drop” which means they will loosen up substantially in preparation for calving. Again, basically that means she’s getting ready to be able to push a 50-100 pound calf out her rear end!
Note, pins are NOT a good reference (like udder) for general indications of how far along a cow is. Yes, her pins WILL start to relax a little bit, but what you think is relaxed may be no where close to when she actually calves. You should be able to fit your hand down into the spot between a pin and the tail head when she’s really close:
Do I find pins a good indicator for beginners to know when their cow is soon to calve? No. 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.
March of 2015 calving:
First photos taken about 1 month from calving:
Nest photos taken 3 days before due date:
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)