In case you ever thought you wanted a cow, or How to tell if your cow is in heat

I get little notes every so often from people who wish they could do what we’re doing: buy a little land, get some chickens, maybe a cow and grow as much of their own food as they can.

I’m here to tell you that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. That Little House dream we all grew up with? Well, it’s a lot of work. It involves making decisions based on experience I don’t have. It means a lot of reading and asking questions and making mistakes.

It also involves a lot of time looking at a cow’s backside.  Most of that rambling above was out of respect to my readers who have no interest in going there. I mentioned “discharge” on my facebook page and got complaints and I’m about to share pictures. So be forewarned.

This is a peek at what country living is really like.

Now we have two little Dexter heifers because we want milk from them and because we want to eat their babies. Well, the male ones, anyway. We’d like to sell the heifers. A heifer, by the way, is a female that has not yet delivered her first calf, at which point she becomes a cow. In order to have milk, you must have a calf. In order to have a calf, you must breed your heifer. And in order to do that, you have to be able to tell when she is coming into heat.

There are many secondary signs that she’s coming into heat. The first is the increase in mucous discharge as things begin to happen. I seem to notice this best in the evening when I go out to collect the cattle by flashlight. The gleam is unmistakable, though not very photogenic.

So Wednesday night, I saw the gleam and was actually a bit worried because Tasha, the particular heifer in question, is actually supposed to be bred. She stood for the bull 23 days ago and since the average cycle is 21 days (and ranges from 18 to 24 days), I was just beginning to think I had a pregnant heifer.

But Thursday morning, I woke up to this.

You can click for a better view, but see how there’s just stuff stuck to her and how the fur under her tail just looks wet? That’s what caught the glare of the flashlight. And it isn’t normal for her to have that much stuff stuck to her backside. But mucous is sticky. And icky. But pregnant heifers can have a lot of discharge, too, and the breeder warned me that pregnancy discharge can be mistaken for heat. And they have a pet Great Pyrenees that will like their backside and any other part of them. He particularly likes to style the hair in between their ears.

The color and consistency is supposed to be a bit different, but I don’t have the experience to tell that, yet. At any rate, I needed a closer look. This isn’t even the icky part, even though it involves looking at the animal’s lady parts. If your heifer is gentle and used to you checking her rear end every single day, she won’t really object beyond turning around to see what you’re doing. Sometimes she’ll pinch her tail down, but can you blame her? If you do it while her head is stuck in the feed bucket, she might not even notice.

The bottom part there is the vulva where the mucous, urine and calf come out and semen goes in to help make the calf. You can see the guard hairs are moist, but other than the wet backside, it’s hard to tell much about it. Sometimes the vulva can become swollen and a little redder inside than normal. But I’m dealing with a heifer whose heat cycle is pretty easy to detect, so this is as close as I’ve looked at this particular feature of my heifers.

In my experience, the real place to look for the mucous is on the tail. That little thing swishes and twitches and spreads the mucous around, making you wonder just how much there is and whether or not it really is mucous or maybe just dog slobber. If she’s coming into heat, she’ll look like someone blew their nose on the inside of her tail. And shared it with the entire kindergarten class.

If you see this, your heifer’s probably coming into heat. Viscosity is part of it. Heifers have normal discharge now and again, but it isn’t as gooey as it is during heat. But at this point, I was still hoping that I was dealing with a pregnant heifer so I wanted to get a better look at the color.

This is the icky part. It took me four months of observing before I could do this and that was only out of desperation. But see how stringy this is?

Even if a heifer (or cow) has very little discharge, if she is in heat, it will be gooey and stretch out like this. If you get a good glob, it is supposed to stretch out several inches, but it was freezing cold out, I didn’t have a good glob, and I wasn’t actually wanting to play in it. I was trying to get a good picture of the color for the camera so I could ask the breeder whether it looked more clear like a heat cycle or more straw colored like pregnancy discharge.

Hence the next picture. Blech.

Then I washed my hands. And washed them. And washed them. It takes awhile before it feels like they’re clean.

After this, we went to move them back to the barn and as soon as the lead was clipped on Candy, Tasha tried to mount her. That was behavior I didn’t want to see. As they come into heat, they will become increasingly amorous. They may bellow. Or pace. And they will try to mount other cattle. Tasha will even try to mount the horses and the dog.

And then comes the moment everyone is waiting for. When the heifer in question stands there, allowing another animal to mount her. It doesn’t have to be a bull. The other heifers and cows will do it, too. When she stands and doesn’t protest, she is in standing heat and ready to accept a bull. Twelve hours later, she’s ready to be artificially inseminated.

But I didn’t actually see the standing heat part. I didn’t think it important because I was too focused on the part where she probably isn’t pregnant if she’s in heat. Plus I have sick kids so we dumped their hay and didn’t spend much time with them today.

The breeder deduced, however, that she will likely be ready to be artificially inseminated in the morning so he’s driving all the way out here in the morning to do it.

Every single step of this process has made me incredibly thankful that we made the choice to buy the more expensive heifers. At the time it was a logistics issue because we figured by the time we got a trailer and hauled them home, we wouldn’t save that much. But it was definitely worth it just to be able to work with someone whose primary interest is the preservation of the breed and helping educate people about these amazing little cows.

And here’s more information on the whole heat cycle for the cattle owner, the curious and the homeschooler: The Estrus Cycle of Cattle.

About Dana

Dana homeschools her children on five acres in the country with her husband John.
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8 Responses to In case you ever thought you wanted a cow, or How to tell if your cow is in heat

  1. Florida Homesteader says:

    I agree… Little House on the Prairie made it seem so easy. But we’re dealing with generations of lost information and experience. And the gruesome fact that its just plain hard. So hard it was officially determined to be heat… But so glad you have people who are really willing to work with you and not charge you extra for the breeding not working on the first (or second or umpteenth) time. Good choice, well done… and don’t worry. They’ll be fine. ;-)

    • Dana says:

      The lost knowledge and experience is tough to deal with sometimes. But even then, how many times did Pa move his family? It wasn’t because they were doing so well and moving up in the world. People out here clung to the promise of next year and had just enough good years to make it through the bad.

  2. Last night saw a couple in our Dexter herd showing us they were ready for the bull…LOL! And this morning, despite our mediocre efforts, had all the water frozen. Including the frost free spigots. And we choose this lifestyle. :)

    • Dana says:

      Yeah, watering in winter is my least favorite. Here, it involves hauling water down in five gallon buckets while it sloshes on my leg. Two buckets to the cows, two to the horses, one to the poultry. Every morning and every evening. And if we tie them out, it means moving the water along with them.

      Great times.

      Sometimes I wonder how it is even possible that I’m not fit and trim because it sure seems like I’m getting my exercise in!

  3. mommaof10 says:

    We always know when our Jersey cow is in heat. First of all, she bellows and bellows and BELLOWS so everybody hears her. Secondly, she will break through the hot wire fence and go a bull huntin’.

    For several months at 4 am on the way to work, my husband would find her 4 miles down the road looking for a way to get to the bulls out in the neighboring ranches. Sigh…… But, the bright side of that is that it forced us to get the hot wire fence replaced with a real fence so no more breakin’ out and taking a walk every 21 days ; )

    You’re right…….homesteading is LOTS of work, disappointment, toil, and yet fulfillment and lots and lots of learning.

  4. Patty says:

    Very, um, informative. We have wanted a cow for two years, but are a little scared to get one. Goats seemed easier, but we didn’t like the milk and sold them. Last fall we planted a 3 acre pasture, and Lord willing we did it right and it will actually grow. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll get a cow this spring. My biggest worry, besides the who reproductive part, is who will babysit my cow when we want to go away, if we can ever get away. I suppose if it didn’t turn out like we hoped we could just eat them.

    • Dana says:

      Cows definitely tie you down, especially during milking. If you milk twice a day, your entire day needs to be scheduled around that. But you dry them off after nine months and have a little more freedom in the dry season.

      You might also see if there’s someone who would like to take over chores for you in exchange for extra milk. A lot of people want raw milk and it is expensive. You might find someone who would milk a weekend a month or two weeks a year in exchange for some milk.

  5. Bria says:

    Totally gross, I’ll admit, but pretty much the same way to track ovulation for us ladies, too (My in laws have been NFP teachers for the sympto thermal method for 30+ years)!

    Fertility is an amazing, but kinda icky process, haha!

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