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Veterinarian provides tips and tricks for handling calving problems

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Even with the best planning, some calves need assistance at birth. It is important for cattle producers to know how long a cow or heifer has been in labor, whether she is making progress or needs checked and how to determine whether the producer can correct it or if a veterinarian should be called for assistance.

Stages of labor

Dr. Ryan Grant has a veterinary practice in Grove, Okla. and educates his clients about the three stages of labor.  

“Stage one is when the cow starts uterine contractions and goes off by herself to find a place to calve,” Grant explained. “Some of the typical things we see include the cow looking around at her side, kicking her belly and holding her tail out.”  

Some cows continue to eat with the herd while others leave or pace the fence.        “Some take longer in stage one than others, and heifers take longer than cows.  The important thing to know is when stage two begins,” he continued. 

At this point, the cow is actively straining with abdominal contractions, as well as uterine contractions, the water sac ruptures and the calf moves through the birth canal.

“When the water breaks, we start timing active labor,” Grant said. “In a few cases, the water bag doesn’t rupture and comes out alongside the calf or after it’s born. But, in general, the breaking of the water is when second stage labor begins. If the producer isn’t there to see it, they may not know how long the cow has been in active labor. If her tail is wet and she’s straining, she is in stage two.” 

Stage three is shedding the placenta after the calf is born.

“From the time the cow’s water breaks, producers can usually allow 60 to 75 minutes before assisting, depending on the cow, and heifers may need a bit longer,” shared Grant. “If the feet are showing and the tip of the calf’s nose can be seen with continued progress, I recommend giving the cow a little more time to stretch.”

“The worst thing someone can do is pull on the calf too hard, too soon and tear the cervix,” he added. 

Breech calves

Sometimes it is difficult to know when a cow begins active labor. Abdominal straining is triggered when part of the calf, generally the front feet, presses against the cervix and enters the birth canal. If the calf is not presented correctly and nothing comes through the cervix, the cow will not strain.

With a breech calf coming through the birth canal rump first, some producers might think the cow is still in stage one and might not check her soon enough.

“It’s tricky with a breech calf,” Grant said. “Without calf feet tickling the cervix, there’s nothing to tell the cow’s prostaglandin receptors to relax the cervix and the cow won’t be straining.” 

Eventually, the placenta detaches and the calf ultimately is lost if the issue isn’t resolved. If cows are calving unobserved, producers often lose the breech calf and possibly the cow if the problem is not discovered in time. 

Solving calving problems

If the herd is closely watched and producers know their calves well, they can take notice of cows that usually calve quickly and catch the issue if she is taking too long. 

It always pays to check, especially if producers are suspicious of a problem. Hopefully, producers can determine whether there’s a leg or head turned back or if the calf is too big while the calf is still alive. The next decision is whether it’s something the producer can remedy or if they need to call the vet.

“If the calf can be pulled, and I have extra help available, I use chains and handles to pull the calf rather than a calf jack,” Grant said. 

All too often people try to pull a calf, which should have been delivered by C-section and end up with a dead calf and an injured or paralyzed cow.

Sometimes, however, a calf jack is required, such as when working alone. Another example is if a calf is coming backwards, once the hind legs are out to the hips the calf needs to be pulled quickly to avoid suffocation, and to do so, the producer needs the extra power of the calf jack. 

The important thing is to be able to determine when to use the jack and when not to, making sure to not try to pull a big calf slated to be delivered by C-section.

Tough cases

“If the calf’s head keeps folding back and it is difficult to get a snare on or if the calf is too big for the head to come into the birth canal, the calf is too big to be pulled,” said Grant. “I have clients who are experienced enough when they call me and tell me their cow or heifer needs a C-section, I know they are correct.” 

If producers have tried for 30 minutes to pull a calf or correct a problem without progress, it’s time to call the vet – especially if the cow was having issues for an hour before hand.

“Tough cases include a front leg turned back at the shoulder and the other leg and the head are already jammed into the birth canal,” Grant explained. “It’s hard to push the calf back into the uterus where there’s room to correct the problem.”

“Most dystocias are due to calves which are simply too big. Even with calving-ease bulls, the heifer contributes half the genetics, and if she was a big calf at birth, her calf may also be too big,” he added.

If the cow or heifer is in a chute rather than tied and goes down, it is important to make sure the cow stands up again before continuing to pull the calf. 

“If the cow’s head is elevated and her back end is on the ground, it’s hard on her and the calf. If someone keeps pulling there’s more risk for uterine prolapse after the calf is born,” said Grant. 

“If the cow can’t get up, make sure she’s on her side before the calf is pulled,” he continued. 

Some people lay the cow or heifer down on her side, once the calf is straightened out or they are ready to pull it, to put her in a more natural position for calving so she can strain more effectively and help with the delivery and to prevent problems.

Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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