Sometimes a cow needs help to deliver her calf. The feet (and maybe the nose) are showing, but he’s too large to move on through the birth canal. In other situations the calf may not even enter the birth canal because he’s in the wrong position. You have to go fishing for him and correct the problem before you can pull him.
When you reach in to find the calf, a live calf will generally jerk his foot when you pinch the skin between his toes. If you stick your finger in his mouth, he’ll respond with a sucking or gag reflex. On a backward calf, stick your finger in his anus to check muscle tone. “If the anal sphincter is completely loose and flaccid, he’s dead. If there’s some muscle tone, he’s still alive,” says Dr. Ron Skinner, a veterinarian and seedstock breeder near Hall, Montana.
To check a cow, tie or restrain her in a headcatch, with sides that swing away, that allows her to lie down.
Once you’ve determined whether the calf is in proper position or have corrected a malpresentation, it’s best to have the cow lying down when you pull the calf. She can strain more effectively that way, and gravity isn’t working against you. It’s easier on you, the cow, and the calf. When a cow is down, you only need to pull half as hard as when she’s standing. If she doesn’t lie down once you’ve corrected a problem, put her on the ground, using a rope.
Tie it loosely around her neck in a non-slip knot then use the long end to make a half hitch around her girth (behind her shoulders) and another around her flanks, with the remainder of the rope behind her. Pull on it to tighten the half hitches, and this pressure makes her go down. This is easier on her than trying to pull her legs out from under her.
Using lubricant around the calf makes it easier to pull, if it’s a dry birth. It won’t be needed, however, if labour has not been so long that fluids have been lost from around the calf. “There are some good obstetrical lubricants, but one of the best has a serious drawback if you end up having to do a C-section after you’ve tried to pull the calf — if any of the lubricant spills into the cow’s abdominal cavity from the uterus,” says Skinner. “Even though it’s not toxic to the uterus, your hands or the calf, if it gets into the abdominal cavity it will kill the cow. So be sure, when you start pulling a calf, that it can be pulled and you won’t be calling the vet to deliver the calf surgically.”
A safe lubricant that’s cheap and readily available is cooking shortening (like Crisco). It readily sticks to your arm and to the calf to provide a slippery surface and won’t hurt the cow if some of it gets into her abdomen.
One way to tell if the calf can be delivered vaginally or must be taken by C-section is whether progress can be made with the strength of two people pulling when the cow is pushing. If the feet are showing and the calf’s head is in the birth canal, and two people pulling on one leg can’t bring that leg out past the knee, the calf probably can’t be pulled without damage to the cow and calf. “If the calf isn’t moving, even when you’re going slowly and giving the cervix time to dilate, this tells you the calf is too big to come through,” says Skinner. It’s time to call your vet for a C-section.
When pulling a calf, pull when the cow is straining, and rest when she rests. Don’t put steady traction on the calf without periodic let up. It takes time for the cervix to dilate and the birth canal to stretch to fullest capacity. “A cow doesn’t just squirt a calf out in two minutes during normal birth,” says Skinner. “She’ll get up and down, and push, and rest. The calf makes progress as she strains, then goes back in a little. The cow keeps stretching a little more, gets up and walks around and lies back down. So take your time when pulling. If you only pull as the cow pushes, you don’t need to pull as hard to get as much done. When she’s not pushing, let the calf go back.” Almost always, the cow will work with you as you pull, unless she’s already exhausted.
If you pull constantly, there is constant pressure on the calf, impairing its blood circulation. “This is one reason some calves are unconscious and fail to start breathing when born,” he says. “If the calf is really tight in the birth canal (and you feel its elbows pop when they enter the birth canal), and you are constantly pulling on his legs that are tight against his head, his legs are putting pressure against his jugular veins. When I have a tight one, I’ll pull when the cow pushes, doing this four or five times, and then I’ll push the calf back, to let it get some circulation to his head. After giving the cow a little time to rest, with the calf pushed back inside (just like she’d be doing out in the field when she gets up and walks around), I’ll pull him again. Once its his head is out to his eyebrows, then you can finish pulling him — with just a few more pulls because the cow is now stretched enough for him to come. And when it gets out it will usually breathe.”
“What happens with most calves that don’t start breathing (even though they still have a heartbeat) is that we’ve impaired circulation to their head too long,” says Skinner.”What stimulates the calf to breathe is the dropping level of oxygen in the bloodstream (as when the umbilical cord breaks and he no longer has a constant supply of oxygen). This triggers the brain to tell the calf to breathe. But if we’ve been pulling him with constant pressure, we’ve cut circulation off to the brain enough that this trigger isn’t happening,” Pulling a calf too fast (with unrelenting traction, either by hand or with a puller) may injure the calf or the cow, and also puts a cow at risk for a prolapsed uterus. “If you’ve taken a little time, working with the cow, the uterus will be contracting behind that calf by the time you deliver the calf, and not so apt to turn inside out,” says Skinner.
It’s also important to get the cow or heifer up right after she calves, so the uterus will drop back down into the abdominal cavity. Some will lie there and keep straining, and if the uterine horns have started to turn inside out, this gives her something to push against and she’ll keep straining and push the uterus out.
Sometimes a calf makes it partway through the birth canal then hangs up at the hips or stifles on the cow’s pelvic bones. To prevent this, the first thing to do once the calf’s head comes out is to rotate the calf about 180 degrees — to where the front of the calf is upside down, facing the cow’s tail. This will rotate his hips about 45 degrees so they are coming through the cow’s pelvis diagonally where there’s more room.
Pull the calf straight out (only a slight angle from the cow’s backbone) until its ribcage emerges. Then pull the calf straight down toward the cow’s feet, which raises his hindquarters in the cow’s pelvis to where the pelvis is wider. If he’s stuck, pull him in alternately from one side to the other so his hips can come through the pelvis one at a time. As long as the calf’s chest is out past the vulva and he can breathe, you have time to manipulate the calf and get him out alive. Get him breathing, then take time to put more lubricant around the calf and try to work him out.
One instance in which you need to hurry is when you see the placenta coming out ahead of the calf. If the placenta is detaching prematurely, the calf will lose his “lifeline” and die before he’s born. If you can pull the calf immediately, you can often save him.
The other time to hustle is in the last stages of a backward delivery, since the calf’s head is still in the uterus when his umbilical cord is pinched off. Pull slowly and give the cow time to stretch as his hind legs and rump are coming through the cervix; pulling too fast at this stage may injure the cow or calf (hurting his back or crushing his ribcage as it starts through the pelvis). But once his rump is emerging, get him out of there as quickly as possible because the umbilical cord is being broken or pinched off and he needs to start breathing.
USING A PULLER
The less you use a calf puller the better. Almost all calves can be pulled by hand; with a puller you may be tempted to pull a calf that should be delivered by C-section. A puller can put so much pressure on a calf that it may injure or kill it or the cow. It may save a calf, however, in certain instances, such as a calf coming backward — in the final stages of delivery when you need to get him out quickly.
Apply chains properly to the calf’s legs, using a double loop. The first loop should be above the fetlock joint, then make a half hitch with the second loop around the pastern, with the chain pulling from the underside of the leg. This helps spread the pressure and ensure a straight pull, to prevent injury to bones and joints. It also keeps the chain from slipping down and pulling the hoof shell off.
Before hooking the puller to the chains, adjust the rump strap on the cow so it’s not too loose. It holds the puller in proper position to keep the metal plate pressing against her rear end — pushing her pelvis into the best angle for the calf to come through. The cow should be lying down, not standing, when using a puller.
Apply traction only when the cow strains, going slowly at first to give her time to fully dilate. A calf coming backward is not streamlined and the cow must stretch to full capacity early on in the delivery because his hindquarters are larger than his head and shoulders. If using a cable type puller with winch, take time to reposition your chains on a backward calf once you get his legs out past the hocks; put the chains above its hocks. Otherwise you might run out of room to winch — just when you need to be pulling the calf quickly. After you reposition the chains, continue to winch slowly, taking advantage of the up and down leverage of the pulling rod, until the hindquarters are emerging, then pull him out as quickly as possible so he can start breathing.
Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband Lynn near Salmon, Idaho. Contact her at 208-756-2841