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Tips on when and how to check cows during calving

Don’t hesitate to check progress — it’s better to intervene a bit early than too late

Veterinarian Susie Lutz works to dilate the vagina of this heifer in preparation of pulling the calf.

Most cows and heifers progress normally through three stages of labour (early labour, active labour with abdominal straining and expulsion of the placenta after delivery of the calf.) Uterine contractions in early labour get the calf aimed toward the birth canal, the cervix dilates and the calf starts through. The water sac and then the calf entering the birth canal stimulate abdominal straining and second-stage labour to push him out.

Sometimes a calf does not start into the birth canal and the cow doesn’t begin hard straining. You may think she’s still in first-stage labour. This is what happened in our first experience with a breech calf (backward, in dog-sitting position with hind legs forward, the feet by the calf’s head and only the rump bumping against the cervix.) It was an older cow that should have progressed quicker, and we realized something was wrong and checked her. Fortunately, the calf was still alive, but we couldn’t reach in far enough to bring the hind legs into the birth canal. We called our vet and his longer arms were able to do the job, so the calf could be pulled.

A rule of thumb

Dr. George Barrington, a professor with Washington State University Veterinary Clinical Sciences, says it may be hard to know when a cow starts labour when calving at pasture and is not watched closely. You may miss one that you should have checked earlier, and lose a calf. If you are watching, however, and notice that she is in labour and not progressing, you can check her and resolve a problem.

“My rule of thumb is that once you see the cow is in stage-two labour, if there is not reasonable progress within 30 minutes, she needs to be checked,” Barrington says. “If she’s making progress, just monitor the progress. It’s when she doesn’t make any progress after 30 minutes that you need to find out why. If you wait too long, the placenta detaches and the calf dies, and it’s harder to get a dead calf out of the cow, putting her at risk as well.”

Barrington says check when in doubt. If you discover front legs or back legs, the calf may be delivered, but might need help. With a posterior presentation, delivery must occur without delay once the calf’s hind legs come through the birth canal or he will suffocate if the umbilical cord breaks or pinches off as his hips come through the cow’s pelvis.

It’s better to check too early, and find everything normal (and then just give the cow more time) than to wait too long and have a dead calf, Barrington says. You can tell if the calf is coming frontward or backward by feeling the way the leg joints flex. On a front leg, the knee and fetlock both flex in the same direction, whereas hock and fetlock in a hind leg flex in opposite directions.

“If you can’t remember, just look at the cow’s legs,” he says. “With posterior presentation, also make sure the calf’s tail is down before you start pulling because if it’s up over his back, it will catch on the cow’s pelvis.”

Once in a while, the umbilical cord may be caught around a hind leg and will break even quicker as the calf comes through. After it’s broken, it’s a race against time to get the calf out. “Just think about how long you can hold your breath,” Barrington says. “Time is running out.”

Double check for twins

After the calf is delivered, reach back in and make sure there’s not another one. You may think about this if the calf is small and you suspect there might be a twin, but you can be fooled — sometimes twins are fairly large. It pays to check because if the second calf isn’t presented correctly. the cow may need help delivering it.

“Just be clean when you go in again to check,” Barrington says. “Also, if there are any tears in the uterus or birth canal it would be helpful to know that.” It pays to be proactive and check, and have your veterinarian deal with that kind of a problem.

Know when to call your vet. Beef producers can learn how to handle many problems themselves with guidance from a veterinarian. “The veterinarian may not need to come out to the farm every time you have a problem,” Barrington says. “But it may help to talk to him/her on the phone, for advice on what to do, or determine if you need professional assistance.”

When to seek help

You might have to reposition a leg that’s turned back, or find the head and bring it into the birth canal. Occasionally you’ll discover something unusual you haven’t encountered before — maybe a uterine torsion, or an abnormal calf (such as a lupine calf with fused joints) that can’t come into or fit through the birth canal. With twins, both calves may be trying to come at the same time and you have to figure out which legs are attached to which calf.

It also pays to know when you can safely pull a calf and when you need to call for assistance or a C-section. Sometimes the calf is just too large to come through the birth canal without injuring the cow and calf. If the calf’s feet are showing at the vulva and the head is in the proper position (maybe the nose showing) but the cow or heifer isn’t progressing, check to see if there’s room.

When you reach into the birth canal, if you cannot fit your fingers over the calf’s head (between his head and the cow’s pelvis) it’s too tight. If the calf’s feet are in the birth canal, but the head keeps turning back when you try to bring it around and pull the calf, this may be because there isn’t enough room.

“A uterine torsion or some other unusual problem could be why the cow is not progressing in labour,” Barrington says. “She hasn’t made any progress in 30 minutes, so you check, and realize something is not right. If it will be an hour or more before the veterinarian can get out there, keep this in mind when deciding when to check a cow. Check earlier than later, in case there is a serious problem and you need veterinary assistance.”

Experience helps. If you run into a situation you haven’t dealt with before, you’d know whether it’s something you can handle or not. When in doubt, seek help, even if it’s to ask your vet questions over the phone.

To be proactive, calving season is easier if you can select easy-calving bulls for heifers. Barrington says thanks to improved breeding programs there’s been a decrease in dystocias (calving difficulties) and fewer C-sections. However, there will always be occasional odd things such as a breech calf, uterine torsion or abnormal calf, so it pays to check any cow or heifer that is not progressing in normal labour.

On our ranch, we’ve always kept records on every cow — not only date of calving and sex of calf, but also noting when the cow or heifer started labour, how long she took, and whether she needed help, for example. If a cow is taking too long in labour, you can look back at her records and see if she has a history of swift, easy deliveries or whether she’s a slow calver, or has ever needed help. If a middle-aged cow is normally a fast calver and taking longer than you’d expect, you know there’s something wrong and you should check, rather than just giving her more time.

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