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Important tips for pulling a calf

Have chains properly positioned; be gentle with the calf puller

Veterinariam Cody Creelman, right, gets some assistance as he prepares to pull a calf. There are several things to consider before either pulling by hand or with the help of a jack.

Some calves are injured at birth by improper pulling methods, says Cody Creelman, a veterinarian with Veterinary Agri-Health Services (VAHS) in Airdrie, Alta.

Most ranchers know when preparing to pull they should use a double half-hitch when placing chains on the calf’s legs. The correct setup should also include one loop mid-cannon and the other below the fetlock joint. But some people don’t understand where the chain should be, between those two points, says Creelman, who is part of a five-veterinarian beef cattle practice.

“The chain should be on top of the leg, in the 12 o’clock position if the calf is coming normally,” he says. “This applies most of the force and stress along the strongest part (and proper angle) of the leg bone. This is much better than having it underneath or to one side of the leg. Having the chain on top of the leg provides the most leverage when doing a forced extraction, but also is safest for the calf, to prevent injury to the leg.”

He says even getting only one loop around the leg when first applying chains will work. The calf’s legs are still inside the cow and you don’t have much room to work. After the legs are coming into the birth canal you will have more room to reposition the chains, before you put a lot of force on the calf. Always apply the double half hitch before you use a calf jack, he says.

Also be watching

Other positions to watch for include making sure the calf’s elbows are through the pelvis before applying much force. They may hang up and make extraction difficult or impossible.

“Pull on each leg individually until the elbow comes through,” says Creelman. “You can often feel/hear a pop as it comes through and the leg is finally straight. Then you can put equal pressure on both legs as you pull the calf. Head position is something else to keep track of. Make sure it is actually starting through the birth canal and not turning off to one side.”

When using a calf jack, always be aware that the amount of force you can apply is far greater than what can be applied by human strength.

“A calf jack can easily apply as much force as four strong men, which is too much — and can cause a lot of damage to the cow and calf if not appropriately applied,” says Creelman. “And we never want to hear the horror stories of hooking a quad or tractor to those chains. If that much force is required, we need a different kind of intervention, such as a Caesarean section or a fetotomy (cutting the calf into pieces to bring out, if the calf is already dead).”

Timing and knowing when to intervene are also important. “When the cow is in second stage labour, with forced abdominal contractions, the general rule of thumb is if she is not progressing within an hour, intervention/assistance is needed,” Creelman says.

Check to see if the calf is coming normally, or identify the problem and correct it. “Don’t let it go too long. It’s also important to know when to request help from your veterinarian. Our standard rule of thumb is that if you are unable to make progress with your intervention within 20 minutes, it may require a different intervention.”

Don’t wait too long to make that decision to call your veterinarian. It may take a while for him/her to get to your place. The best success comes with early intervention rather than waiting too long.

An oversized calf is the most common cause of dystocia, says Creelman.

“Rule of thumb that I use to determine if the calf is too large to come out include seeing if the legs are crossing. This usually means the calf is wide in the shoulders and may be too wide to come through. Also, if you are having trouble with the head going back or off to the side and not coming into the birth canal, this may mean the calf is too large.”

If the head is starting to enter the birth canal but is too large, it stops there and you can’t put your fingers over the forehead — there’s no room to force your fingers between the forehead and the cow’s pelvis. When in doubt, call your veterinarian. A Caesarean might be necessary but you’ll end up with a live calf.

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