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Assisting with calving takes knowledge, practice, equipment
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Assisting with calving takes knowledge, practice, equipment

Information on assisting with calving for those with less experience

Understanding how birthing works, getting the right equipment, and gaining experience are good ways to improve the odds for successfully helping a cow in difficult labor.

Timing is crucial.

There are certain times when you need to hold off on helping, and other times when you need to help quickly when a cow appears to be having problems calving, said Dr. Joe Armstrong, DVM and member of the University of Minnesota Beef Team. Armstrong started in private practice and now is the Cattle Production Systems Extension educator. He spoke recently at the February webinar series on calving.

The first thing to remember is that cattle go through three stages of labor. During stage one, the cervix is dilating, and the cow has small contractions that are far apart. She may decide to separate off by herself, may appear uncomfortable with her tail held higher than normal, and could refuse feed. You may see a mucous plug discharge at this stage.

Armstrong said that if you observe obvious signs of stage one labor, but there is no progress to stage two within four hours for a cow, or six hours for a heifer, it’s time to intervene.

Stage two is active calving. For a cow, this stage generally lasts no more than half an hour. For a heifer, this stage will likely last no more than one hour.

It begins with the appearance of a water bag or feet and ends with the delivery of the calf. The cow/heifer may be on her side with strong contractions that last for 30 seconds to a minute. (Stage three is expulsion of the placenta that needs to occur within 24 hours of calving.)

In stage two, intervene if a cow makes no progress after 30 minutes. For heifer, it’s time to intervene after one hour, but if there are signs the cow or heifer is having problems, act sooner.

“These might seem like pretty short times…the research is showing these are the correct times if you know you are in stage two,” he said. “You don’t have to give them too long.”

In preparation for calving and the inevitability of calving problems, have facilities set up to keep you and the cow/heifer safe through the assistance process. The cow is 9-10 times bigger than you, and that has to be respected.

You have to work with her weight and strength, rather than against it.

“Just get her to the chute,” he said. “That’s the best way to go, but we don’t want to get into a situation where the cow is down in the chute.”

Armstrong immediately halters the cow/heifer and then slightly opens the head gate.

Another option is to halter the animal, tie the halter rope toward the back of the chute, and then back her some of the way out.

It’s time to feel what’s going on inside the cow. It’s important to wash up before performing an examination. Armstrong says good warm water plus disinfectant and a gallon of obstetric lube are required.

Armstrong’s hacks for success include placing Vaseline on the top of the calf’s head if possible. Vaseline works well on the back of the hand, too. He also takes a long-sleeved examination glove and ties a knot above the fingers. He fills the plastic sleeve with one-half to one gallon of OB lube. He takes the whole thing inside the cow as far as possible, and squeezes all of the lube past the cervix and hopefully beyond the calf’s head.

“You just have to be okay with using a lot of lube,” he said. “OB lube can be expensive, but it’s not expensive compared to that calf or that cow. You need to use a ton of it. Don’t be afraid to have multiple gallons on hand and if you do get in a bad spot, use the whole gallon if you need to.”

When you reach into the cow to examine what is happening, the first step is to be certain the cervix is fully dilated. You really should not be able to feel much of the cervix if she is fully dilated.

Then it’s time to investigate the calf. Are there two legs? Carefully bend the first joint on the leg presented to you just above the hoof, then move your hand up the same leg and bend the next joint. If the joints bend the same way, you have the front legs. The first and second joints of the back leg bend the opposite directions.

Neonatal calves come with “caps” on their very sharp little hooves, but it’s still possible to get those caps off in this process, and that can rip the uterus, so be careful and practice keeping those hooves from hurting the cow. Cup the hoof with your hand if you need to move legs into position.

“When you’re trying to get a foot out, the foot of the calf always goes toward the center line of the cow,” he said. “Everything will flow very nicely that way.”

Is the head facing forward with those two front hooves/legs, or is it pushed back?

A backward head is a difficult situation, Armstrong said, because the cow’s contractions keep pushing the head further back into the pelvis.

“There’s not a lot to hold on to,” he said. “Everything is slippery. Things can get pushed way back and the neck is deceptively long.”

You have to find a way to get that head pulled up between those legs or call the vet – sooner than later.

If you find a calf hind end coming, you’ll also have to figure out a plan.

“It takes a lot of practice but you’re looking for that hock,” he said. “You need to grab the hock first and get that up. Then you cup the hoof and bring that up. Then go back and get the second one.

“That can be difficult if she’s pushing really hard. It can be even more difficult if you don’t have lube in there – so make sure you have lube in there,” he added.

Easier is to have the two back legs coming. If this is the case, you may want to help the cow quickly so that calf gets out before the umbilical cord breaks and the calf takes a breath.

The easiest (and what is considered normal) presentation is front legs and head.

If you decide to help a cow/calf pair, remember to pull when the cow pushes. Steady pressure is no longer recommended.

“When she is not pushing, you relax,” he said. “She needs a break to rest, so you should take a break, too.”

With calving chains, Armstrong recommends practicing your half-hitch loop.

“You need to have one loop above the fetlock and one below the fetlock, and they should be on top of the leg,” he said. “The chain should come down on top of the leg in-between the dewclaws on the calf.”

If it’s possible to get a chain on each leg, now is the time. A calf jack can be attached and used by people who understand calf presentation, and how to use the equipment correctly without causing any damage, he said.

“Be careful – a calf jack can apply five times as much force as two people pulling as hard as they can,” he said. “You need to use it correctly.”

Armstrong said that come-a-longs are not recommended.

He mentioned (yet again) that lube is needed, and it may be necessary to use as much as a gallon to get things slippery and easier to work with.

More difficult presentations can require pushing the calf or calves back into the womb. A small plunger can be an excellent tool to increase the distance to move that calf back.

Armstrong encourages producers to think of the pelvis as an egg-shaped fat oval with the narrower ends to the top and the bottom. The head of the calf comes out straight, the shoulders will arrive sometimes one at a time and at an angle, and the hips need to come out at another angle through the pelvis.

It may be necessary to rotate the calf a little bit to the side to fit the shoulders through the pelvis. It’s also possible to pull one leg at a time to shimmy back and forth. Rotate the calf back as the chest requires the calf more “upright” to match the pelvis.

Hips are the widest part on the calf and may not match the shape of the pelvis. The calf needs to be rotated to match the pelvis shape.

Once the head and chest have cleared the birth canal, cows will often pause and we need to respect that pause, Armstrong said. There is now no need to rush. The calf can breathe and expand their chest. It won’t hurt anything for the calf and the cow to rest.

If the cow or heifer is exhausted, consider giving her some water to help her perk up. Help only if needed and be sure to rotate the calf so its hips match the cow’s pelvis.

Let the calf fall on all but the hardest concrete. The process of hitting the ground can help the calf take its first strong breath. It also helps the cow know it’s time to start mothering.

The fluid on a calf’s face or seen coming from the nostrils or mouth is not coming from their respiratory tract (lungs). Instead, it is coming from the calf’s stomach.

Past recommendations incorrectly focused on clearing these fluids by hanging a calf on the gate, holding them upside down, or whirling the calf around.

“When we hang a calf on the gate or upside down, all we are doing is putting significant pressure on the calf’s diaphragm by pushing all of the gastrointestinal contents forward,” he said. “This makes it incredibly hard for the calf to breathe.

“Instead, we need to focus on getting that calf to take a large, gasping breath. We can do that by pinching the nasal septum or poking the nasal septum with a piece of straw, vigorously rubbing both sides of the ribs, or splashing cold water on the top of the calf’s head.”

The best position for a calf when they are recovering from the birthing process is sitting up on the chest, with both back legs up by the head to keep them from tipping over. This position allows the calf to fully expand both lungs.

And when the first calf comes out, you have to check for another calf. If there is a second calf, you have to check for a third calf. You just keep checking until you’re sure there are no more calves in her – sort of like checking for deer when you’re driving at twilight. Always assume there are more.

For many producers, the miracle of birth is one of the most wonderful sights on the farm. It is exciting to see how the calves look after carefully-selected matings and you’ve taken care of the cows/heifers for many months.

By learning and practicing all you can, investing in the proper equipment, and working with seasoned cattle producers and your veterinarian, you can be assured those first moments of life will be the best for both you and your herd.

“Really, if you’re in any doubt, you need to call your veterinarian and have a good relationship so that you don’t feel like you are intruding by calling,” Armstrong said. “They want to hear from you, they want to help you.”

To reach Dr. Armstrong, email

The Prairie Star Weekly Update

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