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Assisting with calving difficulty

Jeremy Powell Published on 31 January 2011
Putting chains on a calf

Calving difficulty (dystocia) is an important economic problem in the U.S. beef cattle industry. According to the USDA, the economic impact of calving difficulty is $350 million each year, and approximately 3 percent of all beef calves born in the U.S. will be lost due to calving difficulty.

Several factors can play a role in causing calving difficulty, including heavy birth weights, abnormal fetal position, limited pelvic area and the female’s age. In order to recognize dystocia and know when assistance is required, it is important to be familiar with the different stages of labor.

  • Stage 1: Uterine contractions and cervical dilation begin. The cow will exhibit behavioral changes such as moving away from the herd, restlessness, and her tail may be raised. This stage typically lasts between two to six hours and ends when you see the presentation of the water bag.
  • Stage 2: This stage is considered “hard labor.” Powerful uterine contractions are occurring, and the cow will usually be lying down and pushing. This stage ends with the birth of the calf and typically lasts between 30 minutes to two hours.
  • Stage 3: This is the stage when the cow will “clean.” The afterbirth and placenta will be expelled from the cow, usually within eight hours after the calf was born. A normal delivery should be completed during Stage 2 and within one to two hours after the water bag appears.

It is important to observe a cow in labor and to leave her alone if the calving is proceeding normally. However, if the cow is in Stage 2 and no progress is observed after one hour, then assistance may be required.

When applying calf chains, wrap a loop above and below the ankle joint on each leg.

When a prolonged calving period is observed (longer than the typical duration noted above), a pelvic examination should be performed. Proper measures should be taken to disinfect yourself and the cow before attempting a pelvic exam. Always wear an OB sleeve while performing this exam.

The first thing to determine upon examination of the birth canal is if the calf is in the normal delivery position. If the calf is positioned correctly in the birth canal and the cow requires assistance to complete the delivery, OB chains can be applied to the front legs.

Carefully secure the two loops of the OB chains, one loop above the ankle joints onto the cannon bones of the front legs and one loop below the ankle joint. The chains should be adjusted so they pull from the bottom side of the legs to help prevent a leg fracture.

OB handles should then be attached to the chains and traction applied to the calf to aid the cow in delivery. After the calf’s head and shoulders are exposed, the calf should be pulled downward at a 45-degree angle parallel with the cow’s back legs.

In some situations, a calf jack may be needed for delivery.If using a calf jack, always bear in mind that significant pressure can be applied with this instrument.

The force during a calf pull when using a calf jack is approximately equal to the same force as seven men pulling on the animal. It is very easy to place excessive force. Be very aware not to traumatize or injure the cow and/or calf when using a calf jack.

After the calf has been delivered up to the last rib, rotate the calf one half-turn to avoid hip lock, and the rest of the calf’s body should deliver on its own.

There are a few things to avoid while assisting a cow during calving. Never use soap as a lubricant because it removes the cow’s natural lubricants in the birth canal. Several good commercial lubricants are available for obstetrical use.

Use caution when using a calf jack.

Try to avoid pulling on the calf until the cow is also pushing, and maintain tension when she rests to keep the calf from slipping back into the uterus. Also, be as sanitary as possible. Clean the cow, and sanitize the equipment and your hands before you begin.

After the calf is delivered, remove all mucus and birthing tissues from the calf’s airway and mouth. The calf should be tagged for identification and its birth weight recorded. Bull calves can be castrated at this time. The navel can be disinfected with iodine to reduce the possibility of infection.

Cows and heifers due to calve should be moved a couple of weeks before the calving season to a smaller pasture where they can be easily observed. Always try to avoid moving the animal long distances after labor has begun.

Because a cow or heifer will stop to examine new surroundings, moving the animal will slow down the labor process. It is a good idea to always have proper facilities and equipment close at hand and in working order for use during calving season.

Calving difficulty can be somewhat manageable, and remember that good nutrition and proper sire selection can go a long way to help improve the percent calf crop. It is important to learn more about the proper use of calving ease EPDs when selecting a sire for your herd.  end_mark

—Excerpts from University of Arkansas Beef CHAMPS newsletter, February 2010

Jeremy Powell

Jeremy Powell
University of Arkansas


Middle: OB chains should be carefully secured, with one loop above the ankle joint and one loop below it.

Bottom: Be very aware not to traumatize or injure the cow and/or calf when using a calf jack.

Photos courtesy Bunchgrass Veterinary, Dr. Wendy Meek