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5 things to know about dystocia before calving season

Taylor Grussing for Progressive Cattleman Published on 22 December 2017
First calf-heifer doing well after assistance

Calving season will start soon, and beef producers are preparing themselves for less sleep each night. Nearly 90 percent of beef producers regularly observe cows and heifers during calving.

Ideally, research shows doing calving checks every three hours is best. Yet, the best calving check regimen is not always practical or a guaranteed way to eliminate calving problems or dystocia from occurring.

It is estimated 11 percent of heifers and 4 percent of cows need some assistance during calving each year. Therefore, what can we learn about calving difficulty before it occurs so it can be a little less stressful for all parties involved?

1. What is dystocia?

By definition, dystocia or calving difficulty is any delayed or difficult parturition. Dystocia is the number one cause of death in calves during the first 24 hours of life. Factors that can influence dystocia in a herd include size, shape, gender and presentation of calf, as well as age, size, body condition and ability of the dam to give birth.

Most calving difficulties occur in 2- and 3-year-old cows, as they are still growing themselves, have smaller pelvic areas and are still inexperienced.

2. Stages of labor

Before dystocia can be prevented or treated, understanding the three stages of labor is critical. Some cows may take longer to progress from stage 1 to stage 2, but knowing the signs to watch for will aid in determining when assistance is needed.

3. Know when to intervene

Overall, beef operations in the U.S. allow heifers to labor for two to three hours before receiving assistance, while cows are allowed three or more hours. Once a cow begins showing signs of labor, it often can be easy to rush the process, especially when it is in the middle of the night.

If intervention occurs too soon, and the cervix is not yet fully dilated, then more harm may come from assisting the cow versus waiting another 30 to 60 minutes for dilation to complete. On the other hand, if calf distress or abnormal positioning is observed, intervening early may be the determining factor in preventing an unnecessary death.

When the appropriate amount of time has passed (Table 1), and assistance is determined to be necessary, consider the options of intervention to provide hand pull, hard pull or caesarean.

Stages of labor

First, try to determine what is limiting progress and try to correct it in the least invasive way possible. If unsuccessful in troubleshooting the problem for 30 minutes, have your veterinarian on speed dial. Since live calves getting to market measures profitability on cow-calf operations, each one counts despite what the vet call will cost.

4. Effects of dystocia on calf health and cow longevity

  • How it affects the calves – Dystocia is more than just difficulty during the calving event itself. Live calves that result from dystocia and difficult births are more likely to have symptoms of weakness, acidosis and decreased immunoglobulin G (antibody) absorption, leading to potentially greater morbidity or mortality of these calves down the road.

    Montana State University research also showed earlier assistance during calving had positive correlation on calf average daily gain and weaning weight compared to calves from cows allowed to labor longer and have a more difficult birth.

  • How it affects the cow – Depending on the stress and measures taken to relieve the dystocia, cows may have trouble breeding back due to a longer postpartum interval. This is due to any internal trauma, which may slow uterine involution and potentially delay hormone production.

5. How to reduce dystocia

What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? In the hours leading up to calving, there is often little anyone can do to prevent dystocia from occurring. Also, cows that have calving difficulty due to abnormal fetus presentation one year are not more prone to have the same issue next year.

On the other hand, when a cesarean is required, those females may need to be sent down the road in order to eliminate future breedback and dystocia problems.

What producers can do is consider altering some genetics and management practices to reduce potential dystocia next year. Here are some practices to utilize:

  • Calving ease direct EPD – Utilize calving ease bulls when mating to heifers, young or small cows that may have trouble calving. Calving ease direct EPD measures percent of unassisted births and takes into account the size and presentation of the fetus. Be careful not to over-select for calving ease direct EPD in mature cows, as valuable calf weight will be given up and sacrifice potential revenue.

  • Pelvic measure – Measuring pelvic area in replacement or bred heifers before their first calving event will give producers an idea of which females may have trouble due to abnormal pelvis shape or size. The pelvis continues to grow and shape until cows are mature, so keep in mind the pelvis can change between first and third calving events.

  • Body condition score – Pay attention to heifers and cows carrying extreme amounts of fat or which are very thin. Over-conditioned heifers are more likely to have troubles calving due to accumulation of fat in the pelvis, hindering fetal passage through the birth canal. In addition, if heifers are too skinny, their endurance during calving may be limited by the absence of energy resources.

  • Pregnancy detection – If you had the ability to know when a cow would have twins, would you do it? Most of us say yes, but only 20 percent of beef operations palpate or ultrasound for pregnancy. Modern technologies are available and should be used to confirm pregnancy in cows and identify twins or large calves so producers can pay more attention to certain cows as calving nears.

  • Provide exercise – Cows need to be in shape come calving season, so providing adequate exercise prior to calving is important to their physical strength. Feeding cows in a loafing pasture and providing water a quarter-mile away is a good distance for cows to travel daily.

    If keeping cows in a lot during gestation, less energy will be used every day, as they don’t have to walk so far. Design rations to meet requirements of cows based on location during gestation. Lastly, avoid moving cows close to calving, as fetal growth is occurring very rapidly and calf position can flip if cows slip or fall.

Ultimately, dystocia is not a fun event for anyone involved. Producers can do their best to estimate the size of the fetus, presentation in the birth canal and pelvic area in each specific cow, but only time will tell if cows will calve unassisted or need help.

Take steps to understand the stages of labor and when assistance is needed to successfully navigate through a dystocia event. I wish everyone the best going into calving season 2018.  end mark

PHOTO: First calf-heifer pair doing well after assistance was given during the dystocia. Photo provided by Taylor Grussing. 

Taylor Grussing
  • Taylor Grussing

  • Cow-Calf Field Specialist
  • SDSU Extension
  • Email Taylor Grussing

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