As Delaware State Fair nears end, new life begins

A baby calf was born at 12:20 p.m.

A baby calf was born at 12:20 p.m. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

HARRINGTON –– Twelve-year-old Sierra Jester first visited the Birthing Center at the Delaware State Fair two years ago and has since been fascinated by the miracle of life.

“I just wanted to keep coming back and learning more about it. So the past two years, I’ve actually helped out here,” she said.

Three calves were born on Saturday and Sierra helped with the birth of each, clearing the nose and throats of the newborns immediately after they emerged to ensure they could breathe.

A baby calf peers through bars after it was born at 12:20 p.m.

A baby calf peers through bars after it was born at 12:20 p.m.

“I know some people think it’s gross, but my dad is a paramedic and I’ve grown up around other farm animals, so I know all about it and it’s not something that bothers me,” she said.

The first cow to give birth on Saturday was Diamond, a four-year-old cow who had a particularly difficult labor.

After a nine-month gestation period, cows normally take about one to one and a half hours to deliver. But things were progressing slowly for Diamond so she had to be induced. After three hours, veterinarians performed a fetal extraction.

“A long labor doesn’t necessarily mean that something will go wrong, but the likelihood of something going wrong definitely increases,” said Bob Dyer, a veterinarian of 43 years. “We monitor how things are going and it’s really a judgment call, and three hours is a really long time and we knew we needed to get the calf out.”

Before the extraction, Dr. Dyer made sure the calf’s body was in the proper position for delivery and that the calf’s vitals were good.
Simple vitals to check are the color of the membrane which should be pink and the movement of the calf which should be minimal.

“If the membrane is purple or white or we feel the legs moving at all, that’s a definite sign of complication because the calf is struggling for one reason or another and it’s usually due to airway constriction, which is an emergency,” Dr. Dyer said.

The unborn calf, planned to be named Dexter, seemed to be doing well and was ready to come out. So vet techs reached into the birth canal to tie ropes around the unborn calf’s front legs to give the gentle tug he needed to get out.

Plenty of hands were on deck to make sure everything went smoothly. After Dexter was born, Sierra cleared his airway while he got a quick checkup to make sure he was healthy.

“The most amazing part is just having a healthy calf,” said Katie Mitchell, a vet tech of 13 years. “Usually when I assist with calf births, it’s because we were called to help with a complication or emergency. So when I assist a birth it isn’t always under the best circumstances.”

Veterinarian Matthew Weeman does a Q&A with spectators at the Birthing Center.

Veterinarian Matthew Weeman does a Q&A with spectators at the Birthing Center.

Ms. Mitchell has been working at the Birthing Center for seven years and sometimes forgets how amazing the process really is.

“We’re concerned with the animal’s well-being and sometimes I forget how special it is until I look up and see all the wide eyes watching,” she said.

She said one of her favorite parts is answering all the questions that onlookers have.

“For some people who come here, this is the first time they’ve been so close to farm animals. And for many more, this is the first time they’ve witnessed a birth. So there are always a lot of questions,” she said.

While she’s answering questions after a birth, the mother cow is already licking the calf and encouraging him to stand up.

“Cows are animals of prey and if they were in the wild and not on a farm, it would be a real danger to just lie on the ground. So it’s instinct for the mother to encourage the calf to get on its feet as soon as possible,” Ms. Mitchell said.

Calves are usually on their feet within 30 minutes of birth and walking or running within an hour.

Dexter was especially quick, struggling, but making it on his feet within 15 minutes of birth.

After the birth, Diamond will produce about 80 to 100 pounds of milk per day and will continue to produce a similar quantity for about 160 days before production tapers off. But Dexter will only benefit from Diamond’s milk for about two days.

Most female calves are raised to become dairy cows like their mothers. But males have one of three fates –– to be sold as veal, to be raised for beef or to be raised to breed.

Dr. Dyer estimated about 70 percent of male dairy cow offspring go on to become veal  (slaughtered between a few weeks, but no more than seven months of age). A much smaller percentage become beef (slaughtered at about two years of age) and an elite few with only the very best genetics go on to father more cows.

For mother cows like Diamond, after two days with her calf, it’s back to work producing milk for the farm. She will be impregnated within 60 days of the last birth. Although her milk production will slow down after about 160 days, she can produce milk for up to 300 days. But no matter the rate of her milk production, she will get a break from milking two months before her next due date to relieve her metabolism and prepare her body for birth.

Ms. Mitchell said dairy cows can produce up to seven calves beginning at two years of age –– usually one a year if there are no complications.
After helping with cows’ pregnancies and births, Sierra aspires to become a veterinarian so she can help animals of all kinds.

“I’ve always loved animals and I like that they all have different personalities,” she said. “But since I’m still kind of little, I can’t help too much with bigger animals that are mean or in a bad mood. When I’m older, I’ll be able to help all of them, though.”

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