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Calving Difficulty: Planning and Treatment

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Spring is here, which means it is calving time for many Wyoming ranches. As exciting as this time can be, many are also all too familiar with the extra work and frustration that comes with it. 

Calving difficulties are not only a great inconvenience, they are also costly. 

This problem, known as dystocia, leads to higher labor and vet costs, jeopardized performance, difficulties rebreeding and death loss. 

The majority of non-disease related calf death occurring in cow herds is due to dystocia, and dystocia can be caused by several factors.

As with most problems, the best solution for calving difficulty is prevention via good herd selection and management. 

However, difficult births will happen, so it is best to be prepared and know how to respond when the problem does arise. 


First, as calving dates approach, it is a good idea to go through any facilities that will be used. Producers should know the route animals will need to take from the pasture to the barn or calving pens, if this is where they will be treated.

They should also be sure alleys, gates, squeeze chutes and head catches are in working order. If it is not possible to move struggling animals into a facility, have a plan for assisting difficult births out in the pasture or range.

The two most common reasons cattlemen see issues in delivering a calf are the overall size of the calf at birth and the cow’s age. 

As many ranchers are aware, the vast majority of calving problems is going to come from first-calf heifers. Mature cows are much less likely to deal with dystocia. Therefore, if possible, it is advisable to try to keep first- and second-calf heifers close by as due dates approach. 

When younger mothers are close to the house or headquarters, it is much easier and efficient to monitor them for signs of approaching labor, and most importantly, know when to step in and assist. 

This also helps provide a more targeted nutrition plan specifically for growing replacements, if so desired. Nutrition is extremely important at this stage. 

An old misconception persists that underfeeding cows in late pregnancy leads to smaller calves, and therefore easier calving. This is not the case. Underfeeding will weaken the cow and lead to more dystocia – not less – especially when dealing with first-calf heifers.

Next, it is good to go through supplies and make sure inventory is up to par. Being stocked up on OB gloves, lubricant, medication and disinfectant before the first calf is due goes a long way. 

The ranch should also consider OB chains, a calf puller, rope halters and anything else to make assisting a difficult birth easier on both the producer and the animal. 

Frozen colostrum or replacer and an esophageal feeding tube will also be important. Getting enough colostrum within the first 12 hours after birth is crucial for calf longevity.

If producers expect to calve in cold temperatures, as most Wyoming ranches do, consider developing a warm up plan for new calves that may be weakened from a hard birth. 

Dealing with difficult birth

Finally, knowing when and how to actually deal with calving difficulty often requires experience. If producers are new to the trade and haven’t dealt with assisting a cow in labor, they should consult a veterinarian to learn when and how to intervene. 

The first step is to be aware of when labor is close, which helps producers know when to expect needed assistance.

The recommendation used to be to intervene after two or three hours of labor if no progress is made. Newer studies, however, suggest assisting earlier increases the odds of calf survival and decreases the time it will take the cow to come back into estrus. 

When labor lasts over an hour, a cow’s chances of becoming pregnant again the following breeding season are significantly decreased. 

Presentation of the calf is one more area where problems commonly occur. Normal presentation is typically forefeet first, with the head resting on the forelimbs. Abnormal presentation can be hard to judge, and pulling a calf when it is not in the right position can damage the calf and cow.

If the calf is suspected to be in an abnormal position, one may need to manually adjust the head or legs to allow passage. There are many nuances to knowing how and when to pull a calf. Study up on this and learn from more experienced individuals if needed. 

This being said, if possible and practical, it is best to have a veterinarian there, especially in uniquely difficult situations. Whether the expense and time is worth it is something each ranch will need to determine for themselves. 

These are just a few bits of advice to help prepare for and deal with calving issues. 

It’s important to remember nothing beats good management and selection practices. Having to pull every calf likely means it is time to cull difficult calvers and make different selection decisions in the cow herd. 

Each ranch will have to determine if the money, and especially the time needed, is worth it in the long run. 

Dagan Montgomery is a University of Wyoming Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension educator. He can be reached at

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