This time of year it is always good to review our procedures and methods for the newly arriving calf crop. Even though calving problems have been largely minimized with bull selection it is still good to review some key points. The goal is to deliver as many lively calves as possible with a minimum of stress. The biggest loss in the cow-calf sector comes at calving time. Hopefully the following points will enlighten even the most experienced cattlemen or cattlewomen.
Good facilities are imperative to properly examine cows safely, thoroughly, and cleanly, yet causing minimum stress. A maternity pen will pay for itself numerous times over by utilizing it for vaginal exams, allowing calves to nurse, and treating recently calved cows. Having a good facility allows one person to be in total control of the calving. Producers often comment how they cannot believe they did without a maternity pen all those years. Remember to attach a clamp to the chute so the dirty tail can be kept out of the way when performing the vaginal exam.
Always be critical of yourself when pulling a calf. The goal is to get out a lively baby not just an alive calf. If you find calves, after pulling, are grunting from pain, have swollen legs, or seem slow to rise and suckle, perhaps the pull has been too excessive. In some cases it may have been too fast. Pull only in unison with the cow’s contractions.
Always check the viability of the calf first. The best approach is to stick your fingers down the throat for the swallowing reflex, or pinching between the toes. Gently pushing against the eye for a blink reflex also works. If any of these reflexes are sluggish it indicates a stressed calf, which may not withstand a hard pull like a vigorous calf. With backwards calf a gloved-finger can be placed in the rectum and feel for the sphincter pressure. This can be sluggish though even in a very lively calf. You may even be able to feel the pulsing of the umbilicus. A calf kicking very violently is often running out of time.
Keeping yourself and the cow as clean as possible is imperative. All producers need to wear obstetrical gloves on every examination. For women if the gloves are too big rip off the fingers and wear tight latex gloves. Wash the cow good with a surgical scrub such as hibitane or betadine. Human soaps are very irritating to the sensitive vaginal tissue. By keeping the cow, clean you minimize the chances of uterine infection as rebreeding in the subsequent season must be considered as well. A good nonirritating sterile lubricant is also imperative for prolonged or dry calvings. Use copious amounts of these lubricants if necessary.
The force of no more than two people should be used to pull a calf. If using a puller, keep in mind this force rule still applies. It is very easy in the heat of the moment to apply excessive pressure with a calf jack (upwards of 2,000 lbs.).
Never, never pull a calf in an improper position. We always need three things coming. Two front legs and a head for a forwards presentation or two back legs and a tail for a backwards presentation.
If more or less than two legs are present sort it out first. There is a simple trick to distinguish back versus front legs. The first two joints of the front legs bend the same way. The two joints in the back legs bend the opposite way.
Investigate if the cow has experienced 30 to 40 minutes of hard contractions and there is no progress in calving. A mistaken belief by many farmers is if the water bag has not broken they have lots of time. This is totally false. The calving process starts internally and the water bag breaking has no relevance on the process.
Investigate if there has been no progress in calving after 90 minutes in heifers and 60 minutes in cows. Something is wrong if these time frames have been exceeded.
Always assist a backwards calving. If you see the dewclaws pointed upwards often a backwards calf is impending. The umbilical cord will pinch off approximately when the tail head is coming through the vulva. At this point it is wise to pull relatively quickly as they calf may start breathing. This is the only time a fast extraction is advised. Initially pull the calf straight back making sure the tail is between the back legs.
Check for twins after an assisted calving, especially a backwards calf or when more than two legs were felt. With twins the top calf must come out first.
Schistosomas reflexus (inside out calves) can present with all four legs and be mistaken for twins. They can also present with the internal organs coming first. Removing this type of calf is a veterinary procedure as a fetotomy or caesarian will be necessary.
Twins come in all possible malpresentations, but the vast majority are one backwards and one forwards. Some herds especially the exotics have upwards of eight percent twins. Cows with a history of twins will often repeat. Remember most heifers born twin to a bull calf are sterile freemartins and should not be kept as replacements.
If frank blood is seen from the anus or vagina investigate. This could indicate a tear, excessive straining or placental separation.
If a cow experiences two to three hours of abdominal discomfort, a vaginal exam is in order. A breech (tail first presentation) or uterine torsion present this way.
Breech calvings (backwards tail first, with both legs tucked forwards) are best handled by a veterinarian. It is very easy to rip the uterus when repositioning these calves, so often veterinary assistance is a wise move. It is not uncommon for the backwards twin to be coming breech. The veterinarian will correct the breech and deliver it as a backwards calving. Breech births initially present as a cow being uneasy, appearing as if she is in the early stages of calving but does not progress. If suspicious of something wrong check her out.
Always recognize your limits. Some producers are more experienced than others, so if not making any forward progress after assisting for 15 to 20 minutes, get help. You will be tired by then and excessive time inside the cow can damage her reproductively. Limit the help to one other person either a spouse or experienced neighbour otherwise phone your veterinarian.
Recognize a closed or partially closed cervix. This structure dilates internally when parturition is pending. A closed cervix feels like a doughnut — you can insert your finger into the middle of the cervix. As it dilates, it feels like a thin band of tissue encroaching into the vaginal vault. Sometimes, especially in older cows, the cervix may not dilate properly and a c-section may be needed.
For a head-back presentation, purchase a head snare or use a chain behind the ears and through the lower jaw. Every year too many jaws are broken from twine placed solely on the lower jaw. Keep in mind, often with a head back, it indicates lack of room in the pelvis. Heifers that present this way usually are candidates for c-sections.
For one or both front feet back, gently push the head back in and try and bring the legs up. Check to see if there is enough room. The shoulders should be able to be pulled through without the front feet crossing.
Stimulants for a sluggish calf include snow or cold water poured in the ear, straw up the calf’s nostril or respiratory stimulants such as dopram (pr). This is a prescription respiratory stimulant and can only be gotten under veterinarian’s supervision. This is either given intravenously or put under the calfs tongue.
In order to establish proper breathing, put the calf in the dog sitting position. We pull both legs straight back and this allows both lungs to oxygenate evenly. Hanging a calf does nothing other than put pressure on the lungs from the abdominal organs, which is counterproductive. Most of the fluid, which drains out, is simply coming from the stomach, and the fluid remaining in the lungs will be absorbed naturally.
If the meconium (first manure) has stained the calf yellow this should raise a red flag. These calves are often more susceptible to calf hood diseases since the birthing has been delayed. Consult with your veterinarian on whether prophylactic antibiotics are necessary.
Always double wrap the chains above and below the fetlock (first joint) with the pull coming off the bottom of the leg. This spreads out any force and goes a long way to avoid broken legs.
A good source of Colostrum is imperative. The natural source is better than any commercial products, but some commercial products now available aren’t bad. Keep frozen and thaw out in a warm water bath. A calf needs about one to two liters at birth within the first six hours.
Fat heifers and cows are prone to tearing at calving from internal fat pushing out the vaginal area. Often one to two weeks later a large necrotic lump will extend out the vagina. Your veterinarian may remove this and will often suture up the tear it leaves.
A prolapsed uterus usually occurs immediately to several hours after calving. It is advisable to get cattle standing right after calving to avoid a prolapse. A prolapse is a veterinary emergency, and very quietly moving a cow to an area where she can be handled is advisable until help arrives. This is not a heritable condition, so if the cow breeds back (most will) she can be retained in the herd. Prolapsed vaginas, which come out before calving, are smaller (one gallon) and are heritable.
In weighing calves, I’ve always been skeptical of calf slings as a source of navel infection. Keep slings very clean, and if possible cut a large hole in belly area of the sling so irritation is not created in the navel area. Some producers with herds suffering navel ill use prophylactic antibiotics in this regard.
Hiplocks are generally stifle locks. Relax your puller and position it straight down between the heifer’s hind legs. This is only possible with the heifer down in lateral.
By adhering to these principles more calves will be saved and you will have more cows breed back helping to increase your profit margin.
Roy Lewis is a practising large animal veterinarian at the Westlock Veterinary Center, north of Edmonton, AB. His main interests are bovine reproduction and herd health.