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Vigilance needed despite fewer calving problems

Thanks to genetic selection for lower birth weight and easy-calving bulls, calving problems due to fetal oversize are becoming much more rare. However, there are still common problems worth reviewing to help producers recognize and assist these deliveries and save more calves.

Fetal malpresentations today are the most common calving difficulties we see. The simple front leg(s) pointing back are often corrected by the producer. Gently repelling the body and head back will give enough room to bring the leg around. This places the calf in the normal position to be pulled. Occasionally a cow can deliver a calf with one foot back depending on the size of her pelvic opening versus the size of the calf.


With twinning being in the range of five to 10 per cent in some herds they pose a much greater risk of malpresentation because of the eight legs and two heads. The various combinations of these body parts can really be a puzzle to sort out.

Most often, with twin malpresentations the front calf will be backward while the other one is forward. They can both be trying to come together. A few tricks for producers to sorts things out:

  •  Remember the top calf must be the one to come out first. Follow the leg back to the body and make sure you are pulling on two legs from the same calf.
  •  To determine between back and front legs, there are a couple things you can determine by feel. It may seem pretty obvious, but it is as simple as if you follow the legs to the body and first feel the neck and head those are the front legs, and/or if you follow the back legs to the body you should find the tail.
  •  If you can’t reach that far inside the cow, check the first two joints of the foot. They will bend in the same direction. The joints of the back two feet will bend in one direction and the joints of the front two will bend in the opposite direction. Find the pair that bend in the same direction.
  • If both calves are coming forward, four front legs need to be sorted out. If a cow had twins in the previous year or two watch her extra close as they often repeat.


My rule of thumb for any of these malpresentations is if no progress is being made after 20 minutes call your veterinarian. The vaginal vault will be drying out and time is running out, as well. Keep in mind generally you may have lost time in identifying a malpresentations since the uterine contractions may be delayed, or the water bag or feet showing may not happen as with normal calvings. As a result there is an increased risk of a stillborn birth.


The most common malpresentation we veterinarians attend to is complete breech births, where the calf is presented tail first into the birth chamber. It takes skill and experience to bring the back legs around without damaging the cow’s uterus. Again, these cases have a higher incidence with twin births. With just the butt end of the calf presented, often the cow delays pushing. It is not clear why, but it may be because nothing is presented into the pelvis.

I do know over half of these presented to us result in a stillborn calf. The cow will often look uneasy and start making a bed but won’t get down to the act of calving. With many the entire placenta is presented when the calf is delivered. The navel cord may be wrapped around the legs and veterinarians must be careful to not rip this during the delivery.


Torsion of the uterus, although rare, is important for the producer to recognize right away and call for help. Upon doing a vaginal exam, if you get the impression your hand and arm are going through a corkscrew with apparent tight tissue crossing your path it is likely caused by torsion of the uterus. When you do reach the calf it may appear upside down and the opening is not uniform, like a partially dilated cervix. Call for help right away, as a few options are available. An experienced veterinarian may be able roll the calf, or alternatively roll the cow while the calf is held in place, or if both these are unsuccessful a caesarean section (C-section) is performed.

Fetal monsters, fetal hydrops (excessive fluid in the calf’s abdomen), schistosomas reflexus (an inside-out calf), and many other rare conditions like two-headed calves should all be dealt with by a veterinarian. In most cases the calves are usually non-viable and are delivered by C-section or if necessary a fetotomy is performed. This is where the veterinarian will cut the fetus apart using obstetrical wire and an instrument called a fetotome. It is an undesirable measure, but the life of the cow is spared.

We as veterinarians also see cases where there is something wrong with the pelvis of the cow. The tail head and spine may have dropped down making the pelvic opening very small or there may be a mass or some obstruction in the pelvis. The solution is again a caesarean section even though the calf is normal sized. These cows are obviously culled out in subsequent years.


The days of lots of C-sections and hard pulls are over. With good bull and female selection, calving problems from fetal oversize are rare. All breeds have lines of lower birth weight or easy-calving bulls to use on heifers. Another problem worth noting is heifers that are maturing early. And in some situations older calves get bred at only a few months of age. These animals, of course, commonly have dystocia (calving problems) due to small pelvic openings.

Overall veterinarians are called about calving difficulties a lot less than they used to be, which is a good thing. The important thing is the producer still needs to be vigilant at calving, recognize when there is a problem, and act on it quickly. If you don’t make progress yourself in 20 minutes, call for backup. †

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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