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What to Expect When Your Livestock are Expecting

Raising animals is an important aspect being self-sufficient. In order to cease reliance on outside sources of food, you need to have domestic animals. People have survived for thousands of years by taking advantage of animals, both wild and domesticated. You may use hunting to get a significant portion of your nourishment, but that is probably not enough. Keeping animals gives you a steady and reliable source of food. And whether you keep cows, goats, sheep, or any other type of animal, you will need to breed them if you would like to continue with your current lifestyle.

If you raise large numbers of cattle, sheep, or goats, or just a few rabbits and pigs, caring for your animals when they are breeding is very important. They provide you with milk, meat, and fibers for clothing. Maybe you even sell some of the products they give you to your neighbors or at the local market. To keep doing what you’re doing, you may want to breed your animals. Different types of animals have different gestation periods and different possibilities for complications. To make the breeding a success, you need to care for pregnant animals, watch out for problems, and know what you are doing.

Caring for Any Pregnant Animal

Of course, animals have been breeding and giving birth without our input for quite a long time now, but since we domesticated them, we took responsibility for their well-being. Most of your livestock will be capable of getting pregnant, taking care of themselves, and giving birth with minimal help from you. However, to minimize the chances of death during the process, you should take some precautions.

First, consider nutrition. Most animals will not require any special food, but you need to ensure that they get enough. Monitor the weight of your pregnant animals to be sure they are getting adequate nutrition. Check with your local large animal veterinarian to find out if there are any supplements that can help. Also, look out for disease. You want to keep all of your animals healthy, but it is particularly important that the pregnant ones are free from disease. Illnesses can compromise her health as well as the health of the unborn animal. Often, gestation will occur during the winter. Be sure to keep your pregnant animals comfortable and warm. Provide them with protection from the elements and extra heat if necessary.


The gestation period for a cow is 284 days, or about 40 weeks. For the birthing of a calf, you should have a veterinarian or other experienced person on hand. It is not unheard of for a calf to be positioned incorrectly. In this case, it needs to be manipulated to come out correctly. This complication is called uterine torsion and results when the cow’s uterus has become twisted. Less common complications include hydrops amnii and hydrops allantois. The former is very rare and is caused by fluids accumulating in the amniotic sac. The latter is more common and is also related to accumulating fluid. This can be observed in the last month of gestation. A clue is when the cow stops eating, and she can die if it is not treated.


Goat gestation lasts for about 150 days or 21 weeks. Uterine torsion, as with cows, is not uncommon in goats. In this case, it is difficult to reposition the kid, and a vet’s help is usually needed. Ringwomb occurs when the cervix does not dilate completely. It needs to be manipulated and this should be done by a vet, as doing it incorrectly can cause serious damage to the tissue. Hypocalcemia, often called milk fever, occurs when the goat has an imbalance of calcium just before kidding. This can happen when she gets too much calcium in her diet in the last month of gestation. Periparturient edema may occur if the goat has multiple fetuses and lacks nutrition as a result. A clue is a swelling in the legs.

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Sheep gestation is similar to goats: about 150 days. As with goats, sheep are vulnerable to hypocalcemia. Your pregnant sheep needs to have just the right amount of calcium in her diet. Another issue which may arise is that the placenta may be retained. The placenta needs to pass out with the lamb, but it may not if the ewe did not get adequate vitamin E and selenium in her diet. Parasite problems may arise as well, as a ewe’s immune system is compromised as her hormone levels change during gestation. She should be adequately vaccinated and dewormed to avoid getting dangerous parasites. Finally, during the birth, the lamb may be turned in the womb and need to be manipulated, as with goats and cows. Sometimes, a lamb is too large to come out. Both of these require a veterinarian’s help.


Rabbit gestation only lasts for about 33 days, which means many baby rabbits can be born every year. It is important to control mating if you do not want to be overwhelmed by adorable little bunnies. A rabbit will indicate that the time to birth her bunnies is near when she builds a nest. Make sure she has plenty of nesting materials. She may even pull out her fur or the fur of other rabbits at this time. Complications for pregnant rabbits are minimal, and they should not need much assistance. You should observe her though, just to be sure she is fine. One possible complication is pregnancy toxemia. This occurs from poor nutrition during gestation and is characterized by labored breathing, weakness, and poor coordination. If you have a rabbit with this, she may not be able to care for her young. She needs veterinary treatment quickly to recover from toxemia.


Horse gestation lasts longer than many other animals, around 340 days. This can vary by a month either way. Horses are large animals, and there are many complications that can occur with them while giving birth. It is highly recommended that you have a vet on hand if you have never helped a mare give birth before. Uterine torsion in a mare can be very serious and usually occurs in the last few months of gestation. It usually requires surgery to correct and is necessary to protect the life of the mare and colt. A uterine rupture can also be serious. You may suspect this if the mare seems to be in pain. Miniature horses are much more likely to have a difficult birth than a normal-sized horse.


Donkeys gestate even longer than horses, typically a full twelve months or around 360 days. It is important to keep watch on a jenny when she is close to foaling. Unlike horses, they can go into labor at any time of day or night. The foal may require manipulation in order to come out correctly and safely. Donkeys often have dystocia, or difficult pregnancy. If you are inexperienced with foaling donkeys, you should have someone around to help, if not a veterinarian. Donkeys commonly have twins in the uterus and, typically, one is destroyed as early as possible. It is very difficult for a donkey to give birth to two foals.

Breeding your own livestock can be very rewarding, but it requires a great deal of care and effort. Your animals are dependent upon you, and it is therefore your responsibility to do all you can to make their pregnancies successful. Find someone who is knowledgeable, such as a neighbor on a nearby farm or homestead. Take advantage of expertise in your area to be sure you will be comfortable with the process.

©2012 Off the Grid News

Listen to Deborah Niemann, a homesteader, writer, self-sufficiency expert, and author of the book Homegrown and Handmade on the Off The Grid Radio Show.

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