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How to troubleshoot difficult calvings

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 20 August 2015

newborn calf

Ideally, a cow calves on her own with no human assistance needed. However, for one reason or another, that does not always happen.



Dr. Vicky Lauer, a member of Animart’s professional services veterinarian team, says there are a number of things that can go wrong during the calving process.

Before those are addressed, it is best to set the cow and calf up for success by creating a good calving environment, understanding the three stages of labor and knowing when to assist.

Maternity pen

The ideal maternity pen is set up with individual pens that are cleaned and disinfected between cows or at least once per day and rebedded with clean, dry bedding. The pen will provide 140 square feet per cow with water access and possibly feed access. There should be a restraint system and easy access for workers. A viewing area or camera should be set up to allow someone to watch the cows. If not, someone should walk the pen every one to two hours.

Lauer says the best time to move a cow into the maternity pen is 24 hours before calving begins. Moving during early labor increases stillbirth and dystocia rates because the cow will halt the labor process. Yet moving the cow too early – three to five days before calving – can increase her risk for ketosis and displaced abomasum.

Therefore, it has been determined that another optimum time to move the cow is when the calf’s feet are showing. At that point, the cow is committed to the delivery process and will continue labor. This method does require someone to walk the pen every hour to catch a cow at this stage.


Stages of labor

There are three stages of labor. Stage one is the dilation phase. It will last the longest, at two to eight hours. During this time, the cervix is dilating, the pelvic ligaments relax, and uterine contractions begin. The cow will be restless, raising and shaking her tail, more vocal, and pawing and smelling the ground.

The second stage of labor is the expulsion phase when the cow pushes the calf out. This can last 30 minutes to two hours for a cow or one to three hours for a heifer. During this phase, abdominal contractions occur, the amniotic sac is visible outside the vulva, and then the calf is visible.

The third stage is the expulsion of the fetal membranes. The cow will pass the fetal membranes (also known as the placenta) within 24 hours of giving birth.

When to assist

Lauer recommends stepping in to help when there is no progress after eight hours in stage one, when there is no calf visible one hour after the amniotic sac is visible, or when there is no progress after 30 minutes if the calf is visible.

She also suggests helping if the calf’s tongue or head is swollen, if there is excessive bleeding, or if the calf is stained brown or yellow, which is a sign the calf is stressed.

If you need to assist with calving, she says it is good to have the following equipment on hand: soap or disinfectant to clean the cow, a pail, gloves, lubricant, obstetrical chains, handles and a calf jack (on back-up).


If assistance is necessary, restrain the cow first, but in doing so, always assume the cow will lie down. Make sure there is room for a calf jack if it should come to that and, most importantly, that you have an exit.

Chutes can work as a restraint system, but they limit the ability for the cow and the handler to move if needed. Lauer says a halter and a swing gate are ideal, as it limits movement of the cow if she’s up but can be moved out of the way if the cow goes down.

The first step when assisting is to clean the vulva with disinfectant and water. Put on gloves to avoid disease transfer from the cow to you. Apply lubricant, and take a feel of what is going on inside the cow. “Don’t rush,” Lauer says, “Take your time.” From the start of labor, a calf can live for approximately 12 hours.

In a normal birth, there will be two feet of the same shape and size with the head on top of the feet. An abnormal birth could present in any number of ways.

The following are types of abnormal deliveries and how Lauer suggests addressing each one. Be sure to contact your veterinarian for any of these situations.

Not dilated – If the cow has not yet dilated, the vagina will be smooth and straight with just a small opening in the cervix.

Lauer says not to force a hand through the cervix. Try to feel the calf if possible, but do not rupture the amniotic sac. Placing some pressure on the cervix can help stimulate dilation; then simply give the cow more time. If the placenta is hanging out, the cow may require a C-section.

Uterine torsion – This is when the uterus twists on itself. It can be felt rectally and will present as a tight band with a twist. The cow won’t experience abdominal contractions and often won’t be dilated once it is corrected.

To correct a torsion, Lauer says a veterinarian can flip the calf by hand or use a detorsion rod with chains. If the cervix is open, lay the cow down and have the veterinarian hold the calf as the farmer or herdsman rolls the cow in the direction instructed by the vet.

If either of those methods doesn’t work, a C-section can be performed. “If the cow is not dilated, the good thing is the calf is likely to be alive,” she says.

Oversized calf – The calf will present normally with both front legs and a head between, but it will be very large. If the calf is alive, use gentle traction, lots of lube and slowly pull – or have a C-section done if the calf still won’t fit. If the calf is dead, have a veterinarian do a fetotomy (a dissection of the dead fetus in utero), as it will no longer hurt the calf and is the best option for the cow to maintain her fertility.

Front leg back – If you can only see one leg and a head, the front leg might be back. Gently push the calf’s head back, cup the foot with your hand and pull up on the foot while pushing forward on the front knee.

If the calf is dead, Lauer says a fetotomy with just removing the calf’s head will likely be enough to get the rest of the calf out.

If both front legs are back, there will be a head but no feet. Proceed like you would with only one front leg back, she says.

Head back or down – When there are two legs but no head, gently push the neck back, grab the nose or jaw and pull the head around and up. Again, if the calf is dead, a veterinarian should be able to cut off the head to remove the rest of the body.

Backward – The calf is backward when there are two feet and a tail with the hooves facing upward, and you can feel the hocks. Pull the calf as is, she says, but pull quickly and gently.

“Once you reach a certain point, the calf will compress or rupture the umbilical veins,” Lauer says. “Once the hips are out, start cranking – because the veins will have ruptured by then.”

Breech – When there is a tail and nothing else, the situation can be challenging, she says. Gently push the pelvis in and cup one foot with a hand to keep the foot from tearing the cow. Push the hock forward while pulling up on the foot. Pull the foot to the middle while keeping the hock toward one side. Repeat with the other foot. Then pull quickly but gently, again to avoid rupturing the umbilical veins.

Upside-down – “These are bad,” Lauer says. When upside-down, the calf can be forwards or backwards. Gently get both legs into the pelvis. Cross the limbs to try to rotate the calf, making sure the head rotates with it. Then pull the calf.

Transverse #1 – This is when there are four feet and a head from one calf all presenting. Lauer says she has better luck pushing the front legs and head back, then delivering the calf backward.

Transverse #2 – If the spine is presenting, gently push back on the calf and try to get the back feet into the pelvis – or deliver via C-section.

Twins – With twins, there are a lot of possibilities, such as two legs and a head (one leg from each calf), three to four legs, or three to four legs and a head. The most important step here is to trace each body part back to each calf. Pull one calf while gently pushing the other calf back.

“If something’s not working, try again,” Lauer says, starting with tracing body parts back to each calf.

Rare situations – Some very uncommon deliveries are those of malformed fetuses. Schistosomus reflexus is when the calf developed inside-out. It will have crooked, immovable legs and will usually be delivered as a fetotomy or a C-section.

A two-headed calf or conjoined twins won’t fit through the cow’s pelvis. A fetotomy or C-section is the best delivery here, she says.

Amorphus globosus is a ball of tissue covered in skin. It is basically a shapeless blob that should be delivered any way possible.

Post-delivery care

Once the calf is delivered, always check for twins or triplets, as the next calf could be stuck too.

Look for vaginal tears that may need to be stitched. “If the cow is not bleeding, don’t worry too much,” Lauer says.

Look for excessive bleeding. If the uterine veins ruptured, it is best to clamp them off and leave the clamp for two to three days, as sutures can be difficult.

Assessing the situation and taking the proper course of action is the best way to deliver a live calve and keep a live cow that maintains her fertility. PD

PHOTO: Knowing how to troubleshoot difficult calvings can save the lives of calf and parent. Staff photo.