Skip to Content

The Weekly News Source for Wyoming's Ranchers, Farmers and AgriBusiness Community

Dealing with dystocia: Veterinarians remind producers how to properly handle difficult births during calving

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Many cow/calf producers with spring-calving herds are deep into their calving season, and regardless of how much time and effort spent trying to prevent cases of dystocia, it is likely they will deal with a difficult birth at some point or another.

In January 2019, Louisiana State University (LSU) Veterinarians Dr. Christine Navarre, Dr. Matt Welborn and Dr. Chance Armstrong coauthored an article titled “Calving: When to Call for Help,” which looks at the potential negative impacts of mishandling cases of dystocia as well as offering ways to properly deal with the issue. 

Potential negative impacts 

If mishandled, dystocia has the potential to cause several negative outcomes.

The first of these issues is an increased chance of calves failing to ingest or absorb colostrum, which subsequently leads to an increased chance of sickness and death.

“Calves that get sick or do not get colostrum within the first 24 to 48 hours of life have decreased production throughout their lifetimes,” they say.

Additionally, the three note calves can become paralyzed and/or suffer life-threatening illness or death if the uterus, vagina or blood vessels are torn. However, these complications are rare if dystocia is handled properly. 

“Dystocia also negatively impacts breed back,” they say. “But, handling dystocia appropriately minimizes this impact.” 

Recognizing signs of dystocia

According to Navarre, Welborn and Armstrong, the first step to properly deal with dystocia is to understand the stages of labor and what to expect during each one. 

They explain the first stage of labor occurs when the uterus begins to contract and the cervix starts dilating. This stage can last from two to six hours. 

Common signs include restlessness, pacing, repeatedly getting up and laying down, tail wringing and slight vaginal discharge. However, some cattle may show no signs at all. 

The second stage of labor includes forceful contractions, which should result in the birth of a calf. This stage is much shorter, lasting only one to two hours.

In order to prevent potential negative impacts caused by dystocia, the three veterinarians encourage producers to frequently check their cows and heifers during calving season. 

“If signs of stage one are noted, but no calf is delivered within six hours, call a veterinarian,” they say. “In general, once stage two is noted, cows should deliver a calf in 30 minutes and heifers in one hour.” 

When to intervene

If producers are not around to witness the beginning of labor and are therefore not able to time the stages correctly, the LSU veterinarians advise them to assume it has been going on for too long and to intervene based on several criteria. 

First, they encourage producers to call a veterinarian if the water bag is visible but there is no progress for two hours, if the feet are showing with the soles down but there is no progress for 30 minutes or if the feet are showing with the soles up. 

If the feet and nose are out, but there is no progress for 15 minutes or more, they suggest attempting to pull the calf. 

In order to decipher if a calf is coming backwards versus forward and upside down, producers need to look closely at the calf’s joints. 

The three veterinarians note if a calf is coming backwards, the first and second joints will bend in opposite directions, whereas if it is coming with the front legs first, the first and second joints will bend in the same direction. 

“If a calf is presenting with the back feet first, make sure the tail stays tucked between the back legs and attempt to pull,” they say. “If upside down, wait for a veterinarian.” 

The three experts also encourage producers to call a veterinarian if only the tail or head is visible; if there is only one leg visible up to the knee, with or without the head; if there are two legs up to the elbows without the head; if the cow is straining but nothing is showing; if there is a rest period between pushing longer than 15 minutes; if only the placenta is visible; if the calf has a swollen tongue or yellow staining or if the cow is sick or weak, has foul discharge or experiences severe bleeding.

“Do not try to manipulate a mal-presentation or pull a calf unless the head and feet are already out or the calf is backwards,” they state. “It is better to have an experienced person examine and determine if the cervix is dilated, if there is still enough lubrication and if the calf can be delivered vaginally or if a C-section is necessary.” 

How to intervene

When attempting to pull a calf, the three veterinarians remind producers of a few things to consider. 

First, they reiterate the importance of properly placing the chains to prevent cutting or breaking the calf’s legs. They explain chains should loop above the fetlock of one leg with a half hitch below the fetlock of the other. 

If producers are trying to pull a calf from a cow that is down, Navarre, Welborn and Armstrong recommend rolling the cow on to her right side in order to straighten the calf out in the birth canal, which will make pulling easier. 

“For front feet first presentation, pull straight out from the cow until the head is completely out, then start to angle down slightly,” they explain. “Pressure should be limited to one person per leg.” 

“Pull legs one at a time in an alternating fashion, always making sure the head is coming, and pull with the contractions of the cow,” they continue. “If the hips lock while trying to deliver the back end, rotate the calf slightly – about 45 degrees – and attempt to pull again.” 

For a calf coming backwards, producers should rotate the calf to a 45 degree angle, pull straight out or slightly up, limit pressure to one person per leg and pull both legs at the same time.

“If hocks pass the vulva, keep pulling,” they say. “If they won’t with the pressure of one person per leg, call a veterinarian.” 

“Calves delivered backwards have the umbilical cord clamped while the head is still in the cow, which puts them at risk of inhaling fluid,” they note. “Careful consideration to determine if the calf can be delivered or not before starting is important to calf survivability.” 

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

  • Posted in Animal Health
  • Comments Off on Dealing with dystocia: Veterinarians remind producers how to properly handle difficult births during calving
Back to top