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The three Ps in a calving 911

Heather Smith Thomas Published on 24 January 2013

Know practical steps to handle calving emergencies

You hope every cow or heifer calves without problems, but occasionally emergencies occur that demand attention.

Some of these include prolapse of the uterus, paralysis of the cow after a hard birth and retained placenta.


Dr. Robert Callan of Colorado State University says uterine prolapses are difficult to predict. “Sometimes there may be an underlying cause such as mineral imbalance, especially low calcium,” he says.

It’s generally a one-time event for that cow and safe to keep her in the breeding herd if she rebreeds on schedule.

The cow may prolapse immediately after calving or a short time later. “It’s challenging to try to replace the uterus without the benefit of an epidural injection to diminish the cow’s straining.

“Positioning the cow correctly is also helpful if her front end is pointed downhill (so you aren’t fighting gravity).

We like to lay the cow down so that she is sternal (lying on her breastbone and belly) and pull her hind legs back behind her to tilt the pelvis up,” says Callan.

To make it easier for the veterinarian, move the cow into a sheltered area with dry ground, good footing and bedding, if possible.

Have ropes, hobbles and a halter to restrain the cow, plenty of warm water, mild soap or disinfectant and a large plastic garbage bag to put under the prolapsed uterus.

“I give her an epidural and usually an anti-inflammatory drug, such as flunixen meglumine (Banamine).

Many veterinarians give an antibiotic as well, since the uterus is likely to be contaminated,” Callan says.

The longer the uterus is out, the more edema builds up in the tissues. “You can apply sugar to the surface to reduce edema.

This works as an osmotic agent to pull fluid out of the tissues and help shrink them as the uterus is being pushed back in. The high concentration of sugar on the tissue surfaces also has antibacterial properties,” he says.

“After the uterus is replaced, one of the most crucial factors to ensure it stays in is to extend both horns fully to their proper position,” says Callan.

Even a small tip of horn that is still inside out gives the cow something to push against and she may push the uterus right back out again.

For a really long uterine horn, a clean wine bottle can extend your reach. Some veterinarians instill an antibiotic into the uterus. Oxytocin can be administered to help improve uterine tone.

There is always risk for damage to the uterine arteries, and the cow may bleed internally. “Many of the deaths that occur are due to a ruptured uterine artery, and there’s really nothing you can do for this,” Callan says.

In some instances it is not practical or feasible to replace the uterus, particularly if it is severely damaged. “The best option might be to amputate the uterus to save the cow.

There are surgical methods, and banding methods similar to banding for castration,” he says.

Retained placenta

From a herd standpoint, nutritional deficiencies (selenium, other minerals, energy or protein) may increase overall risk of retained placenta.

For the individual animal, other causes include premature calving, induced calving, dystocia or twins.

“Most cows with retained placenta do not develop complications or clinical illness. They all develop some degree of uterine infection (metritis), but this is generally temporary and they clear the infection once the retained placenta is expelled.

Most of these cows will become pregnant again on schedule,” he says.

“The important thing is monitoring the cow and watching feed intake.” If she becomes dull and goes off feed, take her temperature. If it’s elevated, she likely has metritis and needs antibiotics.

“Many antibiotics are good for treating retained placenta. These include penicillin, ceftiofur (Excenel or Naxdel), oxytetracycline, sulfas and other broad-spectrum drugs labeled for cattle,” he says.

Do not try to remove the placenta. “Reaching into the uterus and stripping the placenta off the uterine attachments will cause damage and scarring – and decreases future fertility,” says Callan.

“The cause of a retained placenta is failure to release from the uterus. The bulge in the uterine lining (caruncle) and the cotyledon of the placenta hold very firmly during pregnancy.

During birth, these start to separate so the placenta can be shed after the calf is born,” he explains.

“This is the area that’s defective; it doesn’t release. Retained placenta is rarely caused by inadequate uterine contractions (which are triggered by oxytocin).

Oxytocin is often given to a cow that has a retained placenta – but generally doesn’t do much good because oxytocin does not influence release of the attachments. It simply helps the uterus contract and get back to normal size.”

If the placenta is hanging down, dragging on the ground and being stepped on by the cow, Callan suggests using a rectal palpation sleeve on your arm and grabbing hold of the placenta with gentle traction to see if it will readily come free.

“Sometimes the placenta has released from the uterus but is stuck in the cervix that has started to tighten and contract down on it. A little traction may start it coming on through,” says Callan.

“But if you feel it hang up or start to tear, stop. At that point, wad up the placenta and turn the sleeve inside out and tie it in a knot.”

This ball of tissue continues to put a little pull on what’s still inside – helping it work its way out – but no longer getting dirty or stepped on.

A cow and her newborn twins


If a cow has trouble getting up after calving, usually it’s due to pressure damage to the sciatic nerve that runs through the pelvis.

“This nerve is what innervates the muscles of the hind leg that enable an animal to stand.

After a difficult pull, you may be able to decrease the risk of paralysis by giving the cow an anti-inflammatory like flunixen meglumine (Banamine) or dexamethasone,” he says.

“Another simple way to decrease inflammation and prevent swelling is to fill a rectal sleeve or some other small-diameter plastic bag (like a newspaper-wrapper bag) with ice and place it within the vaginal vault right after a difficult calving.

You can help the cow if you are ahead of the game, even before you know if she’s a downer,” he explains.

“If she cannot get up, nursing care is crucial. Provide her with comfortable soft bedding material in a clean, dry area, with shelter,” he says.

If she’s out in a field, you place straw under her and some big straw bales around her, with a tarp over the top if weather is inclement, making sure she has hay and water within reach.

A “barn” of straw, with a portable panel “door,” enables you to bring her food and water and keep other cattle from eating and drinking it.

Roll her over frequently. “If she is always in the same position, she starts to get compartmentalization syndrome in muscles of the hind leg. The fascia – the connective tissue that surrounds the muscle bellies – is not very elastic.

When she is lying on one leg, with all that pressure in the same spot, it is difficult to get blood flow evenly into the muscles.

“Areas that don’t get sufficient blood (not enough oxygen and nutrients) start to die and begin to swell.

Since the fascia is not elastic enough to handle swelling, they become very tight within those fascial planes.

This perpetuates the problem because now there’s no way the blood can get there,” explains Callan.

“That process happens within four hours. An important part of care is to assist the cow to stand or regularly roll her from side to side, from hip to hip.

You may not be able to get out there every few hours to shift the cow, but it pays to do it as often as possible.

If the cow is shifting her weight/position on her own, this will be adequate as long as there is soft bedding,” he says.

When the cow first tries to get up, her legs may not hold her and may splay out. Hobble the hind legs together – with 18 to 24 inches of space between them – to prevent slipping and splaying.

“If the legs splay out when she falls back down, there is risk for injuring the obturator nerve. Then she is in even more serious trouble.

Another thing that may happen when a downer cow tries to get up and slips is possibly dislocate a hip or blow out the stifle joint,” he explains.

“Using a tractor, hip-lifter or bands to hold the cow up can help, if done right. It gets pressure off the leg – and just getting her up may speed recovery because it gives blood circulation a chance to flow into compromised areas. You can also massage the legs when she’s up.”  end mark

Heather Thomas is a freelance writer based in Idaho.


TOP: A prolapsed uterus will occur shortly after calving or a short time later. Photo courtesy of Alan Barth.

BOTTOM: A cow with newborn twins delivered through a difficult birth. Notice the mother’s posture and her wobbly stance on a hind leg after being temporarily paralyzed. Photo courtesy of Robert Callan.

Dealing with a downer cow

“One of the most effective ways to deal with a downer cow is a float tank. These are used on dairy farms and ideal for supporting a cow that can’t stand up on her own.

The tank is portable, with a doorway so you can move the animal into it with a front-end loader.

You close the door, keep her head restrained with a halter and fill the tank with water. This allows the cow to float and takes the pressure off her legs.

If this is done early on, often the cow will stand up while she’s in the float tank. This really makes a difference, if you can find a tank available,” Dr. Robert Callan explains.