Birthing season is a busy time for the farmers at Frying Pan Farm Park. Spring can bring calves, six kids (baby goats), 10 lambs, 20 or more piglets, and chicks and poults (baby turkeys). Here’s some Q-and-A about birthing season from Frying Pan’s park specialist and farmer, Paul Nicholson.
When do you know a birth is starting?
Staff pay attention to several details to know when to expect a birth. The most helpful is to know when the pregnancy started. We plan most of the breeding at the farm, but there’s still a window of a week or two for some animals. A veterinarian conducts an ultrasound between 30 and 60 days after breeding to confirm a pregnancy, to make sure our males are fertile, and to help adjust the diet of the pregnant animal. Most animals go through physical changes with their udder swelling with new milk and other parts relaxing right before birth. Herd animals usually separate themselves to a quiet maternity corner of the field. Other animals become nervous the day of the big event, scratching at the ground, appearing uncomfortable, and rising and laying down for a few hours before the actual birth takes place. Farm staff and our night maintenance staff check on the expectant mothers a few times each night, as often as every two hours if needed. Livestock are born any hour of the day or night, and farmers have seen many full moons turn into sunrises during deliveries and while waiting for the newborn to nurse. And sometimes you show up in the morning and you find a newborn!
How safe is a farm birth?
Livestock at the park are used to people, and this helps during the birthing process. We can move the animal to a stall if needed, either to keep out of mud, or to cool or heat the mother, and we have a new shed that has smaller stalls for sows to deliver their piglets. This helps to protect the tiny piglets from being crushed by the larger sow and to protect the farmer, as some sows can become aggressive during the process.
What can the baby animal do at birth – and a few hours later?
Farm animals are responsive right at birth, with most being able to walk in the first 30 minutes to one hour. The first milk is called colostrum and has important antibodies that the newborn animals need to get started in life. They must drink as soon as they can stand and for the first 12 to 24 hours. After that, they rely on just regular milk from the mother.
What does the farmer do during the birth? Is he like a dad with ice chips saying “Push, honey?”
The farmer working the birth has many jobs. Safety of the mother, newborn, staff and the public are the most important. Location of the birth, field or stall conditions, and temperature are all factors to think about. Depending on the situation, staff will assist with drying the baby and keeping the mother interested in her newborn. If needed, staff will assist with the birth by either repositioning or pulling to get the baby delivered. When there are multiple babies, sometimes a mother forgets to clean the first one and we will help her. Staff watches for signs of distress from the mother or newborn, and staff has access to several veterinarians or other farmers to ask questions. A vet could come to the farm if needed for a problem. And, just like human births, farmers text friends and coworkers to tell them the big news.
What do the farmer and the animals do immediately after the birth?
After the birth, staff assure mother and baby are bonding and assist with drying off as needed. Observing while interfering the least is the best approach. At the one-hour mark, if the newborn is not standing or trying to nurse, staff can intervene by holding the baby up and holding the mother still to allow the baby to latch on or, if needed, feed the baby by a stomach feeder to make sure it receives the colostrum in a timely manner.
What are staff members watching for?
We are watching to make sure the birthing process is progressing. Typically, less than one hour after we see feet, the baby should be born in cattle, sheep or goats. The pig farrowing process can take several hours to deliver up to 12 or 14 piglets, but she should deliver a piglet every 30 minutes to one hour. You can look at the feet to determine if the baby is upside down or backwards and take action as needed to correct the problem. Piglets are the exception and can be born backwards or forwards with no issues.
Are the animals comfortable with people around? Are the moms protective?
Some mothers, after the birth, are not comfortable with us touching their baby. One sheep named Stompy will do just that — stomp her front foot in anger if you get too close during birthing season. I have also seen a cow with a newborn calf charge a fence when a dog walked by.
How long before the public can see a newborn?
It all depends on when and where the birth takes place. We have had numerous births occur during the day with a large crowd on hand or a few times during evening programs. If the mother and farm staff are comfortable with the process, the visitors can watch the birthing. We try to answer questions and explain what is happening. If we do need to give the mother a quiet space, the public would be invited to see the newborn once everything calms down.
A successful birth means family income/table fare.
Successful births are important for many reasons. The public side is that everyone is expecting to see a barn full of healthy and happy newborns. The farming side wants to see a full barn of newborns and happy mothers that will raise and wean strong offspring. Some of the babies will remain at the farm and become mothers in the next year or two. The income from new animals was very important, especially during the 1930s, the time frame that Frying Pan re-creates. The farm today sells livestock to 4H clubs in Loudoun, Fauquier and other local counties, and the clubs rely on us for their project animals each year. A farm is a business, and if the farmer lost most of his newborns, the farm would not survive.
Frying Pan Farm Park has a birthing announcement web page at https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/frying-pan-park/arrivals.