Calving Basics: Pointers for Success

Jerry Rusch, DVM

It’s calving time—you’ve done what you can to get your cows and heifers bred and ready for this season. They’re in good shape, you’ve used some of the best genetics yet and have utilized known calving-case sires. All females were confirmed pregnant this past fall with appropriate shots given and are on a good plane of nutrition. You are geared up for calving season. But in order to be fully prepared for this exciting time, consider arming—or at least refreshing—yourself with some knowledge and basic skills for calving cows, while also having necessary supplies gathered and on hand. Unfortunately, a dystocia or difficult calving can be a stressful experience for both bovine and producer.

Prepare with a Plan, Approach

The best way to prepare for a successful calving season is to have a plan in place. You need to decide the schedule that works best for your operation and employees to check the cows and how often. Also have a plan on how to catch the cow and restrain it if intervention is necessary. In addition, you will need a clean area for this to be done with good hygiene. If there is a problem you cannot handle, you will need veterinary assistance. Having a good relationship with a veterinarian is paramount before you need to call on this person to assist with an emergency. Talk to your veterinarian beforehand to formulate a plan in the event you do need help. You can work out details such as when to contact your vet, how best to contact, and other preferences your veterinarian has. Another important to-do: check your equipment and animal health supplies. Make sure you have everything you need before you need it.

Have These Basic Supplies On Hand

For you as a producer, to be prepared to handle a dystocia, you will need some basic supplies on hand. An obstetrical kit containing OB full-arm sleeves, lubricant, a bucket, two clean sanitized OB chains, two OB handles, and a calf extractor/jack should be kept together. This will make it easier to grab and go when a calving emergency arises. Other supplies could include a light source, halter and pen with a head gate to utilize. Medical supplies to have readily accessible should include an injectable broad-spectrum antibiotic, oxytocin, anti-inflammatory and steroids. Consult with your veterinarian to obtain prescriptions products.

Recognize the Three Stages of Normal Parturition

Most times, a cow will not need calving assistance. But in order to know when to intervene, you need to know and recognize the normal stages of parturition.

Stage 1 of the birthing process is dilation of the cervix. This can take several days to complete and you may only notice a clear mucus string from the vagina. At the end of stage 1, uterine contractions start pushing the uterine contents against the cervix, which causes further dilation.

Stage 2 starts with the appearance of membranes (water bag). The calf should then be delivered in a timely fashion (usually 1 hour).

Stage 3 is the passing of the placenta, which can take up to 8–12 hours after the calf is delivered.

Be Familiar with the Causes of Dystocia

The basic causes of dystocia are either fetal/dam mal proportion (calf is too big) or calf mal presentation (calf is positioned incorrectly). Other causes can include cow malnourishment, uterine torsion, fetal monsters, genetic anomalies and twins. Usually uterine torsion, genetic
anomalies, fetal monsters and large calves require veterinary intervention for resolution. Options available to veterinarians include a C-section, which is surgical removal of the calf, or a fetotomy, which is to cut the dead calf into pieces in utero to facilitate removal.

Know When to Intervene

When you first notice a cow in active labor, you should monitor her for hourly progress. If you see a water bag hanging out, wait an hour and if no progress has been made, then do an internal vaginal exam. The exception to the one-hour rule is if a problem is suspected. If so, a vaginal exam should immediately be performed. For example, if one leg and the head are out but there is no sign of the other leg, then immediate intervention is necessary. It is always inadvisable to wait too long for intervention. This is even more important in a heifer versus a cow.

The first step in calving intervention is to safely and properly restrain the cow or heifer. Ideally a head gate and chute with a side gate that can be safely swung open should be utilized. There are situations where a head gate is not possible and a rope and halter will need to be used. In this situation you must be very careful of your safety when reaching into her vagina. Before reaching in, thoroughly clean the vaginal and perineal area of the cow. You can use dish soap or ideally a betadine scrub/solution to clean and then rinse with warm water. Using copious amounts of lubricant and utilizing OB sleeves, examine the cow/heifer internally to determine the alignment and position of the calf. Careful and systemically, palpate the area making sure to get your orientation. Do you feel a head or a tail? Do you feel one foot or two? Which legs are you feeling?

The normal position is head first with the head resting on the extended front legs, all three engaged in the pelvis [Figure 1] You should never apply traction until you have this alignment present. The opposite position is posterior, where the rear legs and tail are coming first [Figure 2] It is impossible to turn a calf that is coming posterior to deliver it head and front feet first.

When Should You Call for Veterinary Intervention

  • If calf is coming rear legs first, the fetal hips should be able to clear the pelvic inlet of the cow. If it feels like the calf will not fit, you will need to call your veterinarian immediately.
  • If both forelimbs and the poll of the head are not engaged in the pelvis, it may not fit and you will need to call your veterinarian.
  • Take note of the time when you first reach in. If you are not making significant progress in an hour or are unsure what you are feeling, call your veterinarian for assistance.
  • Difficulty pulling a calf
  • Large calves
  • Uterine torsion
  • Genetic anomalies
  • Fetal monsters
  • Anytime you feel it is beyond your skill set

Tips to Consider for Correcting Mal Placements

  • Feel for a head and two feet or tail and two feet
  • Do not apply traction unless you have two feet and a head or tail
  • The first and second joints will bend in the same direction on a front leg
  • The first and second joints will bend in opposite directions on a rear leg
  • Be clean and use plenty of OB lube
  • Know your limits and when to call your veterinarian for Assistance

Before applying traction, you should assess whether the calf will fit. If both forelimbs and the poll of the head engage in the pelvis, then that is a good indicator it will be able to be successfully delivered. If it is coming rear legs first, the fetal hips should be able to clear the pelvic inlet of the cow. If it feels like the calf will not fit, you will need to call your veterinarian immediately. Take note of the time when you first reach in. If you are not making significant progress in an hour or are unsure what you are feeling, call your veterinarian for assistance.

When assisting a cow, proper OB chain placement is critical. Make one loop and slide it above the fetlock joint. Then make another half hitch below the joint above the coronary band and below the dewclaws [Figure 3]. This allows for the pressure from pulling to be applied over the
entire fetlock. Failure to apply the second half hitch can result in too much pressure on one spot and a fractured bone.

After proper chain placement on both legs, attach the OB handle and, while using plenty of lube, alternate pressure on one leg then another. Do this in coordination with the cow as she contracts. Remember you are assisting her. In some cases, a calf jack can be used. I would caution that this should only be used by someone who has been properly instructed and has experience using one. If at any time you encounter difficulty or the calf seems stuck, call
your veterinarian

There are Multiple Variations of Abnormal Positions

The two most commonly encountered are breech [Figure 4] and head back [Figure 5]. On a breech calving, you will need to push the calf forward to make room. You can then attempt to grab one hock and pull it up to get it engaged in the pelvic inlet. In some cows there may be enough room to have one arm and hand in to push forward on the calf as you reach in with the other hand to grab and pull the hock up. After getting the hock up, you can slide your hand down and grab the hoof cradling it in your hand. Using your other hand to continue to push forward on the calf, you can pull up and try to engage the rear foot in the pelvis. Once you have one leg up, you repeat the process for the other. This is a difficult maneuver and should only be attempted by an experienced rancher. On a head back calving, you can actually push back and fold the front leg on the side the head is turned. This will allow room to grab the head and engage it in the pelvis. Once the head is brought up, you can then realign the leg and deliver the calf. When you successfully deliver the calf, you should always check to make sure there is not another calf present.

Twins are another possible dystocia cause. In that case it is just a matter of sorting out what legs belong to which calf and pulling one at a time. To determine if it is a front or rear leg, remember this: the first and second joints will bend in the same direction on a front leg, while the joints bend in opposite directions on a rear leg. There are many other possibilities of calving positions. Always work toward getting either the front legs and head or rear legs and pelvis engaged into the dam’s pelvic inlet for delivery. Other previously mentioned issues include uterine torsion, fetal monsters, and genetic anomalies. In those cases, prompt veterinary intervention is necessary.

Calving season can be a very rewarding time of year. By properly preparing the needed equipment and supplies, you can make calving a less stressful time for all involved.

You Have a Live Calf Pulled, Now What?

After successfully getting a live calf on the ground, there are a few things you can do to ensure a healthy calf at weaning. Depending on the status of the cow, you may need to rub the calf down and clear its mouth of any mucus or obstructions. Hanging it upside down is not a good idea as this pushes all the abdominal contents against the diaphragm and hinders breathing. Instead, you can use a piece of straw and put it into the calf’s nose to stimulate sneezing and head shaking to clear the airways.

Next, you need to ensure that the calf consumes colostrum, preferably within 6 hours of birth but definitely before 24 hours. This will provide adequate antibodies to fight disease. Calves that do not intake adequate colostrum can have a 50 percent mortality and are more likely to get sick even later in life in the feedlot.

If the calf will not nurse, ideally you would want to milk out the cow and tube feed the fresh colostrum to the calf. When using a tube feeder, make sure you have been trained in the proper placement, as it is possible to pass the tube down the trachea and into the lungs.1 If you cannot milk the cow, there are numerous commercially available colostrum products to totally replace the dam’s first milk or just supplement it.2

It is also a good time to give an injectable trace mineral like MULTIMIN® 90 to ensure optimal mineral levels for proper immune system development and to prevent deficiency of selenium, zinc, copper and manganese. If there is a chance of fluid in the lungs and a secondary pneumonia, an injectable broad-spectrum antibiotic may be necessary. Depending on the recommendation of your herd health veterinarian, you may also consider an intranasal respiratory vaccine or an oral scour preventative vaccine. This may be deemed necessary, depending on your particular situation.

Having the proper supplies on hand prior to calving season optimizes your calf crop’s survivability and maximizes your economic return.

Republished with permission from MWI Animal Health. Source: Producer Outlook, Winter 2021