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Calving preparation: Advance preparation improves calving

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

As ranchers prepare for the upcoming calving season, University of Nebraska Extension Veterinarian Richard Randle encourages producers to not only make sure their cows are ready to calve, but they are, too. Randle gave a presentation recently about how to manage calving.

“It has been a challenging year for ranchers,” Randle said. “Calving will prove to be just another challenge.”

“In an ideal situation, we want to see the cows give birth to live, healthy, vigorous calves with little or no calving difficulty. We want to see these calves grow efficiently, and have the cows successfully rebreed,” he explained. 

Evaluate their nutrition

The first step to accomplishing these goals is to evaluate the cow’s nutrition program. 

As cows get closer to calving, their energy and protein requirements increase, so producers should evaluate their cows when they pregnancy check in the fall. Randle said it is easier to maintain and improve nutrition at that point, because nutritional requirements are at their lowest. 

He also encouraged ranchers to re-evaluate the cows 80 to 100 days prior to calving, because it is still easier to add condition prior to calving. 

Cows can be evaluated by determining their body condition score, from one to nine, with one being extremely thin and nine being extremely fat. 

Ideally, the cow should have a moderate body condition score between five and seven at calving. In this range, the ribs shouldn’t be visible, are covered and smooth looking. Some fat should be visible around the tail head. 

If a cow doesn’t have moderate body condition, Randle said a producer should consider improving her nutrition. 

“The cow will gain 0.8 pounds a day just from her growing calf,” he explained. 

If she has 80 days till calving and is thin, she will need to gain 225 pounds, or 2.8 pounds a day to reach moderate body condition. If the cow is borderline, she would have to gain 145 pounds, or 1.8 pounds a day. 

Calving takes work

If cows are too thin at calving, it can cause a variety of problems. 

“Calving takes work. Thin cows that are under-conditioned lack the energy and protein needed to have their calf,” the veterinarian explained. “These cows are weak and may have prolonged calving since their muscle contractions aren’t as strong as they need to be to push out the calf.”

“They will also fatigue quicker and have more dystocia problems,” he added.

Calves born to these cows will also be weak, may be deprived of oxygen and could lack the vigor to get up and suck colostrum. They may also be unable to absorb the colostrum as well as healthier calves. 

“These are good reasons why it is important to have the cows where they need to be from a nutritional standpoint,” Randle stressed.


If a cow suffers from dystocia, it can have long-term implications. In addition to calves or cows that die soon after calving, it can also delay or prevent rebreeding and extend the calving season. 

“Calves experiencing dystocia are four times more likely to be born dead or die within 24 hours of birth,” Randle said. 

Although some factors causing dystocia can be controlled through management, sire selection, EPDs and adequate growth of heifers, Randle relayed there is still a 63 percent variation in dystocia issues that remain unexplained. 

“If we have cows, we should expect to have ones that will need assistance and prepare ourselves for that,” he added. 

Calving preparation

To prepare for calving, it is important to understand the three stages of calving, to make sure the cow is progressing and know when to ask for help. 

Randle said it is important for producers to remember that the cervix is open during calving, which makes it open to contamination. 

“Try to be as sanitary as possible if you have to assist the cow,” he explained. “Make sure all the equipment is clean and is in good working order.” 

It is also important to have a minimum 12-foot by 12-foot calving area that is covered, well lit and bedded with straw or wood shavings, where the cow can be restrained. 

“It is important that it is also out of inclement weather, so if you have to assist you aren’t in a hurry and miss something that could hurt the cow or calf,” he explained. 

Randle said if the cow is in stage two of labor, and the time from the feet being visible to birth is longer than two hours, or if no progress has been made in a 30 minute period, then the producer needs to examine the cow to see if it needs assistance. 

During the examination, the producer should determine if the cervix is fully dilated, the calf is in the proper position and if the calf can pass through the pelvis. 

If the producer doesn’t feel they can handle the problem within 30 minutes, Randle said they should call for assistance. Otherwise, the tissues will continue to swell, the calf may be born weak or dead, the cow will be worn out, and it could increase potential future problems for the cow, he noted. 

Pulling calves

Randle also encouraged ranchers to try pulling the calf by hand and only resort to a mechanical calf puller as a last resort. 

“Mechanical pullers are incredibly strong and can injure a cow if they aren’t used appropriately,” he explained. “An adult male can exert 300 pounds of foot pressure pulling by hand, while a mechanical puller can exert over 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of foot pressure, which can result in a calf with a broken leg, and tears, lacerations and bruising on the cow.”

Randle said he likes to use a calf chain, placing independent chains on each leg using a double half hitch. He places one hitch above the fetlock and one below to pull the legs independently. Then, he pulls one leg ahead of the other to narrow up the shoulders as they pass through the birth canal. Once the head and shoulders have been delivered, he turns the calf 90 to 180 degrees to avoid hip lock.

As a final thought, Randle also encouraged producers to be willing to call for help if they can’t correct an abnormal presentation birth within 15 minutes. 

“You have to correct an abnormality before you can deliver the calf, even if its dead,” he said. “Push the calf back inside and work with the cow to correct the position of the calf in between contractions. If you can’t correct the abnormality within 15 minutes, consult a veterinarian.”

“Remember that every calving situation is different. It is dark inside the cow, and you can’t see what going on, so you have to trust your senses,” he continued. “Prepare in advance, and systematically approach each case the same way. Don’t overlook the details.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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