When to act, when to call for help during calving

There are no hard and fast rules — watch and be prepared to act

Most cows and heifers progress normally through the stages of labour; uterine contractions in early labour get the calf aimed toward the birth canal, the cervix dilates and the calf starts through.

The calf entering the birth canal stimulates abdominal straining and second stage (active) labour begins — to push the calf out. Sometimes, however, the calf does not start into the birth canal and the cow does not begin hard straining. If you don’t intervene, you’ve lost the calf (and perhaps the cow, if you don’t get the dead calf removed). Knowing when to check a cow is crucial and you have to be watching her to know how long she’s been in early labour.

W. Mark Hilton, clinical professor, Beef Production Medicine, Purdue University, says as a rule of thumb producers should see labour progress every hour.

“If I don’t see some progress each hour, something is wrong,” he says. “In older cows, there is some kind of problem like the head or a leg turned back, the calf backward or breech, or some other situation that prevents it from progressing through the birth canal. In heifers, most of the time, lack of progress is due to the calf being too big.

“If you go out there at 7 a.m. and she’s off by herself and by 8 a.m. the water bag is out, and by 9 a.m. the feet are sticking out, that’s great. Then, if by 10 a.m. there is no more progress, it’s time to walk her gently into the chute, clean her up, reach in and make sure the head is there. If it’s there, she just needs some help.”

Leading causes

Hilton says for a mature cow, the number one cause of dystocia is malpresentation.

“Clients tend to call me quickly on heifers, because they think the calf is too big and they’re going to need help from a veterinarian,” he says. “But on cows, they wait, and often wait too long because they think she should be able to calve. But in waiting too long, the placenta may detach and the calf dies.”

Producers should be aggressive on the cows, too, and not just heifers, he says. The cow should make progress every hour, just like the heifer. If she’s making progress with labour over two or three hours and then nothing, there’s likely a problem like a head turned back, or a backward calf. A cow will generally make progress faster than a heifer, and will often deliver the calf within 15 to 30 minutes from the time the feet appear.

If there are no feet showing, and you suspect she broke her water (or saw it happen), you should be suspicious about some kind of holdup. Keep track of the time, and be aware of when she started labour. If she goes an hour without making progress, something is wrong.

In a herd where a person is watching the cows closely and knows the cows well (or has calving records), producers know whether a certain cow calves fast or slow. If a cow normally doesn’t spend much time in early labour (or delivers her calf quickly once she starts active labour) and is taking longer than usual, don’t wait, check her out. It helps to know each cow’s individual behaviour and history.

“I had a cow that would always separate herself from the herd 24 to 36 hours before she would calve, and that was normal for her,” Hilton says. “They all have their own patterns.”

When assisting cows and heifers at calving, make sure they are properly restrained.

When assisting cows and heifers at calving, make sure they are properly restrained.
photo: Heather Smith Thomas

Checking the cow

When checking a cow, make sure she is properly restrained and cleaned. “Wash the vulva, use a clean OB sleeve and apply lubrication,” says Hilton. “You have two possible scenarios when you reach into the birth canal. One is that you’ll be able to figure out what you are feeling and the second is you aren’t sure that’s going on — and you’ll call your veterinarian for assistance.”

If you know what you are feeling there are two more choices. One is you think you can correct the problem and deliver the calf. The other is deciding to get help. There is no shame in calling for help on the tough ones — it can make the difference in saving a valuable calf.

On the other hand, if you aren’t sure what you are feeling, or how to correct it, get someone who deals with these problems on a regular basis and knows how to handle them.

“It might be breech (backward, with just the rump trying to come into the birth canal), it might be twins, or a uterine torsion,” says Hilton. “The important thing is to call quickly.

“Sometimes I don’t need to make a farm visit. The stockman calls, describes what they are feeling, and I can give advice over the phone. I am glad to give that kind of advice. But if they aren’t sure what they are doing, or they aren’t making any progress, that’s when I need to be there and help.”

When to pull

If the calf is simply too large for easy birth, you have to decide whether it can be pulled.

It’s important to have some guidelines, but it can still be a tough call.

“Even as a veterinarian I have made mistakes and pulled calves I should have delivered by C-section,” he says. “Pulling a big calf is hard on the cow and the calf — and sometimes results in a dead calf. You reach in and think the calf is not that big and start pulling. It gets halfway out and its hips are gigantic and you are in trouble.”

Hilton says if the calf’s feet are coming through the vulva, or its head is already out and the shoulders are close to coming through the pelvis, it can probably be pulled.

“If I reach my hand in and there’s no space between the calf’s shoulders and the cow’s pelvis, I am probably not going to get that calf through,” he says. “The shoulders are usually smaller than the hips, so if the shoulders can’t make it, you know the hips won’t.”

Stop pulling, push the calf back in, and have a C-section performed. If the calf gets stuck half way out, a C-section is no longer an option. The calf can be lost.

If you can’t get your fingers over the calf’s forehead as the head starts through the pelvis — no room between the pelvis and the calf’s head — push him back into the uterus and call your veterinarian.

“The head is significantly smaller than the shoulders, and if the head isn’t going to fit through easily, it’s time to get help,” says Hilton. “If it’s a case that’s borderline and you’re not sure, call the veterinarian.” Let the vet make that choice and you won’t have made a mistake.

“We don’t like getting calls when people have a calf half-way out, and it’s already too late to save the calf. We all want to give the calf every chance to be born alive.”

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