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Refresher on pulling a calf

Even if you have easy calvers, it's a skill worth perfecting

diagram of a calf at birth

Producers need to understand the proper use of a calf jack or hand-pulling techniques during a difficult calving, as different malpresentations need to be dealt with slightly differently.

When pulling, be cognizant of the stress this puts on both the calf and cow. With more producers selecting for ease of calving in their breeding program, pulling is a skill less needed but one still worth perfecting.

A successful “pull” can mean the difference between a live calf versus a dead one, or a cow which breeds back on time versus one which retains her placenta, has vaginal tears and never rebreeds.

The very first decision is about when to intervene — vaginally checking out a cow and initiating a helping hand. The rule of thumb is to wait one hour in cows and 1.5 hours with heifers once they show strong uterine contractions with no progress. Exceptions to this rule are when cows or heifers are uneasy, bawling, or nesting for an extraordinary period of time. These are also signs of how some malpresentations, torsions and breech births present themselves.

If you have a maternity pen it is easy to simply run them in and check them. You can avert a disaster and often save both calf and cow. With a higher percentage of twins born in some herds, malpresentations are more common than one might think. By now all farmers should have either a commercially made maternity pen calving chute or home made device, which accomplishes the same thing. The principle when pulling is you must be able to restrain the cow to clean and check her. At the same time, while keeping her head caught she must be able to lay out in lateral recumbency with enough room behind to fully manipulate the puller. Choked down at the end of a rope is not the proper position to pull a calf.

Cleanliness is key

Of paramount importance is cleanliness. Before examining the vagina make sure the whole perineal area is washed with warm water and surgical soap. Endure, Betadine, Hibitane are designed to not be irritating to the sensitive mucosal surfaces like the inside of the vagina. You can purchase a small container from your veterinarian — they are not costly and will last a long time. Ordinary soaps, which irritate can lead to infections potentially scarring and possibly a delay in rebreeding or even result in an open cow.

Keep yourself clean. Ideally wear a calving suit or at least minimally put on full-arm obstetrical gloves. Keep them held in position on your arms with a towel clamp or I use wide elastic bands. This keeps you clean and dry and the cow protected. Take a few minutes to do these procedures. It calms the cow down and you are then prepared when pulling ensues.

It is important to first determine the positioning of the calf. Make sure it is presented properly. You always want three things in the pelvis. Two front legs and a head for a forwards presentation or two back legs and a tail in a backwards presentation.

Attaching the chains properly can avoid damage to the calf’s legs and feet. This is especially true when a routine pull turns into a hard pull. Again take time and double loop above and below the fetlock. Make sure the links are laying flat and the pull of each wrap should be lined up. I prefer the pull to come off the bottom of the leg.

I personally like one long chain, which can be double looped on both feet. The only time I single loop is with a small malpresented calf or with twins where I absolutely know it will be a light hand pull. Calving straps are an alternative. My only issue with straps is they are harder to keep clean.

Always keep the calf jack close and have it cleaned and well serviced. It is a good idea to do maintenance and check operation of the jack at the start of calving season as it may be rusted stiff or worn out. This is again where some farmers’ efforts to keep the whole process of assisted calving sterile falls down. I have seen some pretty grungy calf pullers over the years. Take a few seconds to quickly wash especially the breech (part which goes around the cows back end) and hang it to dry. The breech straps should keep the puller just nicely below the bottom of the vagina when pulling. Keep the calving area and maternity pen clean and periodically disinfect with Virkon disinfectant to keep bacterial and viral contamination low.

Be patient

With the actual pull, only advance with the cow’s contractions. You have a bit of time here so don’t get in a rush. The cow’s contractions will greatly reduce the force you need to use. Apply lots of sterile lubricant. This is a cheap product, which can be purchased at the veterinary clinic. The lubricant is especially helpful when applied over the head in a tight pull. It minimizes friction in the vagina, which is where tears result. With long calvings or when the cow has been examined frequently the vaginal vault dries out so don’t hesitate to use lots of lubricant in these circumstances. You will be amazed at how much easier the pull becomes. Apply lots of lubricant over the o.b. sleeves as well to minimize friction this keeps your arms from fatiguing when doing manipulations or applying the chains.

Pull in a slightly downward motion following the natural curvature of the calf. This is easier if the cow is lying down. With a standing cow you can only get about a 45 degree angle on the puller. Always keep an eye on the tension of the chains. It is very easy in the heat of the moment to overpull, pull way too fast and injure the calf or cow.

Remember calf pullers can exert 2,000 pounds of pulling power, which can cause great damage in the wrong hands. Two good-sized people should be able to pull a calf by hand otherwise if it is too big a caesarean section may be needed. With today’s labour shortages on farms producers are often by themselves and the use of a puller greatly reduces fatigue by allowing a slow pull, timed with the cows contractions.

Backward situations

Backward calves are pulled pretty much straight back. Again you can take your time making sure the tail is down between the legs. Pull slowly until the tail and hips are presented out the back end. It is about at this time the calf’s umbilical cord breaks and the calf must be extracted fairly fast. This is the only time you will ever see me pulling a calf fast.

Keep in mind cows cannot deliver as big a calf backward as they can forward. If you see the dewclaws pointing skywards the calf should be assisted immediately as many found stillborn calves are the result of too long a delivery with a backward calf.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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