Assisting difficult calvings

South Dakota State University Extension  


Realizing  that a difficult calving is in progress is a critical, but only an initial, step in assuring that everything possible is being done to ensure as good an outcome as possible.  This article discusses what should be done to assist with a difficult birth and the situations in which one should call for help. 

Being prepared with a plan and the necessary supplies at hand for difficult calving situations will better insure a more successful delivery. For a list of supplies needed please see the iGrow article, “List of Supplies and Equipment for Calving Time,” by Dr. Russ Daly

Proper restraint, allowing a good examination of the cow and fetus, is an important first step.  In the case of a calf presented in the normal position in the birth canal, the critical question for the producer is to determine whether the calf can be safely delivered normally or whether a C-section will be necessary.  Using too much force in delivering a calf with a calf puller is a common error that often results in a calf that is too stressed to survive the calving process and a cow that is injured or is delayed in breeding back. 

One way to determine whether the calf can be delivered without undue force is to see whether you can place the width of your hand between the calf’s fetlock joint and the vulva of the cow.  In determining this, one person pulling manually on each leg is all the force that should be applied.  If the calf’s legs can be pulled out this far, it indicates that the shoulder of the calf is past the pelvis of the cow and even if the assistance of a calf puller is needed, it will not result in enough force to cause injury to the calf or cow. 

It is useful to remember, in the process of pulling the calf, that there should be a short pause taken once the chest of the calf is delivered, mimicking what the cow does in a normal delivery. It’s at this point that the calf is allowed a brief chance to take its first breath, making the transition from oxygen from the umbilical cord to oxygen from the air.  Constant aggressive pulling does not allow the calf to expand its chest and take in this breath, which may contribute to oxygen deprivation.

Once the chest has been delivered, a slight rotation (45o) often allows the hips to pass more easily which occurs with one more effort on the part of the cow. Once the calf is out, encourage breathing by sticking a piece of straw into a nostril, sitting the calf up on its chest, and rubbing the calf with towels or straw.  Calves should not be hung upside down:  this creates pressure on the lungs and makes it more difficult for the calf to breathe. 

When pulling a backwards calf there are just a couple things to keep in mind. Up until the point where the calf’s tail head and anus begin to emerge from the cow’s vulva, a person can move slowly. From that point you have approximately 3-4 minutes to get that calf out alive. At 4 minutes one in five calves die.

Another decision producers can expect to be face with is that of when to call a veterinarian or someone more experienced in delivering calves.  In general, when one does not know what the problem is or how it can be corrected, outside help should be called.  In addition, if attempts to deliver the calf have been proceeding for 30 minutes or more with no progress, a veterinarian or more experienced individual should be called.






Source: Dr. Russ Daly

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