Veterinarian’s Corner: Life on the Farm and Maintaining a Healthy Pregnancy…For the People

Posted on September 24, 2019 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Melissa Haag, Lodi Veterinary Clinic

“She’s pregnant!”

We are all happy to hear the herd veterinarian announce those words while examining one of the farm’s favorite cows.  The next generation of cattle on the farm brings feelings of excitement and anticipation for what may come in the future.  Diligent herdsmen/women take excellent care of cows throughout pregnancy while managing their nutritional and vaccination programs.  At birth, maternity workers take specialized care of the newborn calf and its mother.  Protocols have long been established by farm personnel to ensure an optimal start for both the cow and the calf.  We are dairy farmers and we are good at this!

Time for a rhetorical question.  Are we good at this when it comes to the female human workers on our dairies? 

Do we take care of them with established protocols that help ensure a safe, healthy pregnancy for the women working on our farms?  If you are pregnant and working on a dairy farm, are you taking a few extra steps to ensure your safety and that of your unborn child?

It’s no secret that farm work involves a significant amount of hard labor and, at times, carries an element of risk for anyone.  Adding pregnancy into that mix can complicate the situation, but it doesn’t have to create impossible scenarios.

As a farmer, veterinarian and mother, I am often asked by other pregnant women what precautions they should take while working on the farm.  Many women are nervous to admit a pregnancy to their employer and co-workers for fear of potential negative backlash.  Farm women are typically strong, driven individuals who don’t like to appear weak or feel like a hindrance to their farm team.

Pregnancy does not have to prevent you from working, but it will change your situation for a very brief period of time in your career.  Nine months to a year may feel like forever, but, in the grand scheme of things, the time will pass quickly.  Here are a few of my opinions to accommodate a safe pregnancy and life on the farm.

1.  Know your physical limitations, listen to your body and accept things will change throughout pregnancy!
The moment a woman becomes pregnant, her body begins to immediately undergo a significant amount of hormonal and physiological changes.  Early pregnancy can be plagued with nausea and fatigue.  The baby, in the sense of a “baby bump,” might not be a physical limitation on normal day-to-day routines, but some women do struggle to physically make it through those early pregnancy days.  Take each day as it comes and be open to some days feeling easier to work through than others.

It is good to keep a typical farm routine for as long as the woman feels comfortable.  A certain degree of physical fitness is a positive attribute for maintaining a healthy pregnancy.  Just because a woman is pregnant does not automatically imply that she has specific lifting or physical restrictions.  However, it is absolutely OK to make modifications during the day when her body is requesting it.  A woman should have frequent discussions with her doctor about her daily activities and the impact of those activities.  Many doctors are unfamiliar with the challenges of farm work, so take the time to educate them on daily routines.

As pregnancy progresses, core strength muscles are stretched thin and are most definitely not what they used to be.  Be cautious about performing any activity that requires significant use of the abdominal muscles.  In an attempt to complete tasks, the body may try to compensate with other muscles that are subpar for the job, increasing the risk for serious injury.  Take the time to use a cart to carry or push heavy objects, or enlist the help of a co-worker and move something with strength in numbers.

During the final stages of pregnancy, some normal routines are simply not physically feasible.  Bending over to pull boots on becomes somewhat of an athletic challenge.  Lying on your stomach to assist with a calving delivery or fix a piece of equipment is most likely physically impossible at that point.

No farm chore is worth a significant health risk for a woman and her unborn child.  If an activity or chore causes great pain or creates shortness of breath, the worker should feel free to take a moment to stop, breathe, and re-evaluate the situation.

Women, please hear this: You are important, and your baby needs you to be as healthy as you can be in order to take care of it!  Just like those momma cows on our dairy are a top priority, you also need to make yourself and your own health a top priority.

2.  Take extra caution when working with high-strung animals and perform treatments/procedures on animals that are adequately restrained.
Nervous, flighty animals are always a risk to their handlers, but extra precaution should be taken while pregnant.  Large animals have the potential to accidently hurt someone in the blink of an eye.  During pregnancy, reflexes and reaction times can be a little bit slower than normal, so it is not the time to be taking unnecessary chances.  Take the extra time to distance oneself from a fractious animal, use additional gates, and employ the use of additional co-workers to get the job done.

Animals that require a medical treatment or procedure should be properly restrained before administration occurs.  Again, a pregnant woman is typically not as nimble on her feet and she does not want to be caught without an escape route.  Additionally, a powerful kick or swipe from a cow’s head into the stomach can be a catastrophic injury for a woman and her baby.  Employ the use of good animal restraint techniques at all times.

3.  Do not handle certain pharmaceuticals under any circumstance for any reason.
As farmers, we become very comfortable administering a variety of treatments to our animals under the discretion of our herd veterinarian.  Farmers are far more familiar with giving injections than an average person in the general population.

It is important to remember that some injectable substances are readily absorbed through human skin.  This can cause harm to an unborn baby and unfavorable reactions in a pregnant individual.  Human medical doctors are not always well-versed on the common medications that are used on farms on a regular basis.  It can be a good discussion with your herd veterinarian to talk about which medications around your farm could potentially be harmful in a pregnancy situation.

Many of the hormone treatments utilized in breeding synchronization protocols should not be handled by pregnant women, as well as dexamethasone and oxytocin products, just to name a few.  Utilization of gloves does not provide an ample safety margin when handling these products.  Gloves are still somewhat permeable and the risks of a bottle breaking or accidental self-injection are too great.

Yes, this can be an inconvenient disruption to a farm’s normal working routine if one of the herdswomen responsible for certain shots is unable to give them.  Unfortunately, the risk to the unborn baby is simply too great and the farm team should work together to find a temporary alternate schedule.

4.  It is not a weakness to ask for help in an unusual or difficult situation.
Farm women are tough.  There is no doubt that many of the women I work with on farms are very driven and passionate about hard work.  You are not letting the team down by needing appropriate modifications to your work while pregnant.

Remember, you are raising the next generation and, quite possibly, the next generation of farmers and agricultural workers.  It is important to give these babies a safe journey into this world.  You are also important and very much valued.  You do not have to stop doing the work that you enjoy, but remember, complications during pregnancy can and do occur.

Self-care during pregnancy becomes as important as preparation to nurture the new baby when it arrives.  The months during pregnancy feel like an unending amount of time, but I promise those months will become so very short in the grand scheme of life.

Never forget to take care of yourself as well as that precious, growing baby.

Category: Employee management
Starting Strong - Calf Care