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Be patient, smart using a calf puller

Animal Health with Roy Lewis: It is a useful tool when needed, but it can also be misused

In dealing with a breech birth, this photo shows the proper position of the calf puller, and chains properly attached to the calf’s legs.

Although calf pullers are not used today nearly as much as past years they still have an important place in the calving barn if used properly. To me every cow-calf producer and some feedlot owners need one type of puller, especially if they are often alone when calving. By using common guidelines when pulling, a calf puller can be a very valuable piece of equipment and save calves lives.

There are several makes on the market, each with their own unique features. The most important features are being able to release pressure easily and allowing the operator to work close to the back end of the cow when first jacking. The older block-and-tackle types necessitated having two people one by the cow and one running the pulling mechanism. These are archaic and should be discarded or used for fixing fence. Buy a proper new or lightly used calf puller.

Keep it clean

The puller should be well cleaned and disinfected after usage so infectious organisms are not transmitted between calvings. Many of the pullers I see are rather grungy from fetal fluids, placenta, or manure is allowed to freeze or dry onto the puller. Keep them like you would a kitchen utensil and clean often. That includes the breech (part that goes over the cow) and strap. Often they are hung up in the calving shed and these days collect dust.

Take a few minutes and to review their operation at the start of every calving season. There is no time to do a calf jack overhaul when the calf is stuck at the pelvis and bellowing for his life.

Anytime I use the pullers, I ensure I have two wraps of the chains on each leg (above and below the fetlock joint). You will spread out the force, minimize damage to the legs and avoid the disastrous broken leg if the pull gets tighter than you would like.

It is easy for me being the veterinarian as I have the farmer to help pull. In this circumstance I will not put the pullers on unless two people can’t pull the front shoulders through in a front presentation.

That is the rule of thumb that the rest of the calf should follow even with the help of pullers. By yourself you may put a puller on sooner to avoid fatigue from trying to pull by hand. Pay attention, however, the good pullers can apply nearly 2,000 pounds of force In inexperienced hands or when farmer’s adrenaline kicks in they can do considerable damage to calf and mother cow when care is not taken.

Periodically check the tension on the chains and always be patient, trying to time your pulling with the cow’s contractions. Pulling too fast does damage and I believe results in the odd prolapsed uterus as the suction seems to have the uterus directly follow the calf.

If we know for certain the calf is dead we can pull a bit harder, but remember it is now the cow we are concerned about. Use lots of lube as a dead calf is drier and the vaginal vault is dry as well, and again, pull slowly.

A real lifesaver

The puller can be a real lifesaver when the calf appears stuck at the hips (farmers refer to this as hiplock) although seldom is this usually true — it is just tight or in rare occasions it is the stifle that is locked. Relaxing and rotating the calf slightly may alleviate this issue.

By pulling by hand all you will do is pull the cow around. The puller is designed to push back against the cow’s pelvis. By being able to manipulate the angle of the pull you can extricate the calf easily most times. This one advantage will pay for the puller in one use.

The tighter the calf is means you need to increase the angle of the puller so eventually you are down between the cow’s back legs with your puller. This steep angle can only be achieved with the cow down in lateral recumbancy (lying preferably on her left side). A cow down in lateral also has her pelvis tipped slightly which helps with delivery. I find their contractions are also more forceful, which again helps with delivery. The cows that don’t force make for a very hard delivery. Be ready with the puller firmly in place, be patient and hopefully she will start contracting.

Always be methodically slow and steady when pulling. We want to save the calf by delivering a lively calf not just an alive calf. We also want the cows to be in good shape to rebreed. Always wear a calving suit and obstetrical gloves when assisting in a delivery, keep the cow clean, use lots of lubricant when necessary, and have a happy calving season. Hopefully you don’t have to use the puller too often. If that happens evaluate both your breeding and feeding programs. Know your limits and phone for help if not making progress after 20 minutes.

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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