It is important to recognise that no-one knows exactly how to predict when a calf is born. Preg testing and due dates will tell you approximately when to expect a calf but there is no way to pinpoint the day of calving until it has already started. It is the calf that determines when it will be born and this is most likely to be when staying in the uterus causes stress levels to rise, i.e. when it has got too big to stay there any longer.
Signs that calving is close
About 1 week before calving is due, the udder will start to fill with milk, ligaments around the tailhead relax, and the teats may appear waxy. This tells you when to bring cows into the calving paddock for closer observation.
12-24 hours before calving, you may start to see frequent urination/defaecation and restless behaviour with more activity, less total time lying down and more standing up/lying down. The cow may separate herself from the rest of the group, seeking a birth site, or show more interest in other cows' calves.
There are three stages of calving in cattle:
Early stage I - suddenly tense and enlarged udder, raised tail or relaxed pelvic ligaments (these signs could also be immediately prelabour). The cervix dilates, the uterus starts rhythmic contract of increasing frequency and at the end of this stage the cervix will be fully dilated. The cow may turn to look at her belly, swish her tail and kick as she notices the contractions.
Late stage I - signs of viscous, bloody mucus or abdominal contractions; could also be transitioning to stage II labor
Calving - Contractions will increase in intensity, with the cow starting to "push". The placenta, may appear as a black bag which bursts, releasing placental fluids. In a normal calving, the front feet of the calf will appear first, pointing downwards as if the calf is going to dive out of the cow, followed by the calf's nose.
Expelling the placenta - usually the placenta is expelled within 8-24 hours of birth. The cow may eat the placenta so you may not be aware that this stage has occurred.
When it all goes horribly wrong . . .
Cows that are having dystocia (difficult calving) will spend longer in the later stages of labour and there may be more evidence of pain behaviours.
Where there is a malpresentation (the calf is coming the wrong way) you may see more contractions, more time lying down, more restlessness (stamping, tail switching, rubbing, turning head back) and more time with the tail raised.