Veterinarian Perspectives from the Birthing Barn: Part 1

Readiness prep and signs of labor

By Tony Hawkins, DVM, Valley Vet Supply Technical Service Veterinarian

There are few moments more special on the farm than welcoming in a newborn to your herd.

Whether you’re foaling, calving, kidding or lambing, some may be surprised how similar the process is. Let’s review readiness prep and signs of labor – while there could be some species-specific differences, much of this information is actually pretty similar for all species.

Readiness prep

When it comes to what you’ll need to have on hand, very importantly, you need to first have a relationship with a veterinarian. I would strongly encourage you to develop that relationship and speak with your veterinarian before your calving, foaling, kidding or lambing season. Rather than, say, just calling that veterinarian at two o’clock in the morning when the need is great. As a veterinarian, it’s nice to know people before you get that call. Be sure to have their contact information handy, should you need his or her help. 

Have some key items at the ready, like gloves and lubrication, in case you need to help with minor pulling, and iodine for disinfecting the umbilical stump. If you and your veterinarian decide that you need to give any vaccinations or medications at birth, have those medications on hand, as well as some syringes and needles. If you apply ear tags and band at birth, have those tags and bands available, as well as a tetanus toxoid to administer at that time.

It’s also important to have colostrum or colostrum replacers on hand, because you never know if colostrum is needed until you need it now. Colostrum is very important for all species, and the majority of the antibody absorption takes place in the first six to eight hours of life. Ideally, they should be up and nursing within the first four hours to receive these important antibodies from colostrum. If they’re not, then we need to start thinking about getting supplemental colostrum, or milking manually if possible, to get them the colostrum they need. Now, they can absorb the antibodies all the way up until 18 to 24 hours, but they just are not as efficient and will not absorb as many antibodies as they would have early on in life.

It is important to choose a species-specific colostrum replacer or serum replacement. This is because colostrum products come from hyper-immunized animals, and they don’t immunize goats, cattle and horses against the same disease risks.

The rest of the items you may need to have on hand all depend on your comfort level.

Some of the equipment you need to help an animal through a dystocia process include chains and handles, and if you’re calving, a calf jack. A calf jack is great if you’re comfortable using them, but remember that when used incorrectly, they can harm both the mama and the baby. When using OB chains, to ensure safety of the newborn put the first loop above the fetlock and then put a second loop (a half hitch) between the fetlock and hoof. Remember, if you’re just not comfortable using these items and something’s wrong, give your veterinarian a call to have them help in this delivery process.

Signs of labor

 In general, there are similar signs of labor for most every species of livestock. About three to four days prior, their pelvic muscles begin to relax on the backside, making their tail head become more prominent. You may notice a dilation of the cervix with an accompanying thick, clear mucus. Their bag also gets distended. About one day prior, cattle, goats and sheep tend to go off feed and go off by themselves. About two to five hours before delivery, the water bag will appear through the vulva.

If you have horses, they have a few more signs. Udder distension occurs about two to four weeks prior to foaling, and their teats become engorged four to six days prior. About one day before foaling, waxing of the teats occurs. During the earliest stage of foaling, contractions begin and the mare may start acting a bit colicky. It’s common for mares to be restless in their stall, sweating, pawing, swishing their tail and getting up and down.

There is nothing better than a safe delivery and healthy foal, calf, kid or lamb. As we continue into the spring season when many make their way into the world, I hope this information can be helpful to you. Stay tuned for Part 2, as we look at five common signs of trouble to watch for.

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About the author: Valley Vet Supply Technical Service Veterinarian, Tony Hawkins, DVM, attended Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. In addition to his role on the Technical Service team at Valley Vet Supply, Dr. Hawkins owns a mixed-practice veterinary clinic in Northeast Kansas and is treasured by the community for his care across species. He is greatly involved in cattle health, including processing and obstetrical work, as well as providing hands-on care for horses and pets through wellness appointments and surgery.  

 About Valley Vet Supply
Valley Vet Supply was founded in 1985 by veterinarians to provide customers with the very best animal health solutions. Building on over half a century of experience in veterinary medicine, Valley Vet Supply serves equine, pet and livestock owners with thousands of products and medications. With an in-house pharmacy that is licensed in all 50 states, and verified through the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), Valley Vet Supply is the dedicated source for all things horse, livestock and pet. For more information, please visit

Media contact: Aimee Robinson / 785-337-9035