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Dealing with dystocia: Tips and tricks

Caitlin Wiley for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 December 2019

Calving season is an exciting and nerve-wracking time of year. While we hope each cow will calve on their own, with a live, healthy calf, any beef producer knows that often life goes awry and we find ourselves with a prolonged or difficult calving, known as dystocia.

This article will highlight normal parturition and a few tips and tricks to intervene when parturition is not going as expected.

Tip and tricks of dealing with dystocia


Normal parturition can be broken down into three stages:

  • Stage 1: Relaxation and dilation of the cervix; calf rotates and enters cervix. The dam may be restless, isolate herself from the rest of her herdmates. Lasts two to eight hours.

  • Stage 2: Begins with rupture of the allantoic sac, or water bag. The dam will have strong uterine contractions with delivery of the fetus. Generally lasts 30 minutes (cows) to four hours (heifers).

  • Stage 3: Expulsion of the fetal membranes, ideally within 12 hours.

Any delay or prolongation in progression of stages 1 or 2 of labor are considered abnormal. Using a general guideline of observing progress every hour, you can help determine points of intervention. If progress is not made hourly, especially during stage 2 with calf expulsion, the dam should be examined.


Once restrained, clean the cow’s vulva before vaginal assessment.

  • Be as clean and sterile as possible to reduce the risk of disease development in the cow and calf.

  • Wear obstetrical (OB) sleeves. There are numerous zoonotic diseases that can be transmitted during parturition from animal to human – and especially during abortions.

  • Lubrication. Applying generous amounts of lube to your gloved hands and arms will help with delivery of the calf and may reduce injury to both the dam and calf.

  • Start with a vaginal palpation. It allows assessment of cervical dilation, calf viability and calf presentation.

  • If you cannot palpate through the cervix, or cannot feel the calf present vaginally, then a rectal palpation is warranted to determine calf location and potential uterine torsions.

  • Use both arms vaginally, if they fit. You may be able to manipulate the calf better with one arm versus the other. Additionally, using both arms aids in stretching the vaginal cavity to allow easier passage of the calf.

  • Determine the calf’s presentation. It is important to decipher whether the front limbs or hind limbs are present prior to extracting the calf.

  • Normal presentation is front limbs extended forward and head between legs; toes or hooves are pointed down. The front limbs have an extra joint (front knee) between their fetlock joint and their elbow.

  • With a backward calf, their toes or hooves will be pointed up; you will see the bottom of the hooves first. Furthermore, when palpating hind limbs, there is not an extra joint between the fetlock and the hock.

  • Calves can be extracted in either presentation; it helps in determining the subsequent steps and timeliness of extraction to know which presentation.


Monitor your progress. Every 15 minutes, you should be making progress. If not, stop and re-assess the situation to determine what you can change.

Manual extraction

The most common cause of dystocia is fetal-maternal mismatch (calf too big and cow too small). If the shoulders or hips of the calf are wider than the pelvis, it’s obviously not going to fit, and an alternative plan needs to be made to get the calf out. Another sign the calf may be too large is crisscrossing of the calf’s legs as they enter the vaginal canal.

Ideal equipment to have clean and readily available during calving season includes:

  • Two long OB chains and two handles. Chains should be placed with a loop above the fetlock and a half-hitch placement below the fetlock prior to applying pulling pressure. Place a chain on whichever limb or limbs can be accessed; even if the calf needs to be pushed back into the uterus for further manipulation, place a chain on any accessible limb. It is much easier to retrieve a limb if there is already a chain around it.

  • Some people choose to use straps or rope to pull calves. Those work fine; however, chains are easier to clean and disinfect between cows.

  • Head snare or third long chain. With a normal presentation, the head may warrant a handle if it is not resting between the front limbs. A head snare or a long chain (used as a head snare) can be used to assist in keeping it in the correct position during extraction. The head should never be used as a primary pulling place.

  • Plenty of OB lube

  • OB sleeves

How much pressure/force?

  • One person on each limb with adequate strength is acceptable for forced vaginal extraction.

  • Apply force when the cow has contractions. When the cow rests in between contractions, keep tension on the chains but wait to pull when another contraction occurs.

  • A normal presenting calf does not have to be extracted at lightning speed. Slow, steady progress is ideal.

  • Backward calves require timely extraction. As the calf’s pelvis enters the cow’s pelvis, the umbilicus will be occluded and break, stopping the calf’s oxygen supply. With removal of its only oxygen source, it becomes a time-sensitive situation as the calf is trying to breathe in the uterus.

A calf jack can be a valuable piece of equipment to have available.

  • Use with caution; it can apply up to 1,000 pounds of pressure, easily breaking bones, dislocating joints and causing significant damage to the cow and/or calf.

  • Use as a relief tool for you by holding the calf steady while you wait for another contraction or re-evaluate progression within the vaginal canal.

  • Apply multiple ratchets to tighten the chains, followed by slow downward pressure on the jack for 20 to 30 seconds. Return the jack back perpendicular to the cow and repeat.

  • Come-alongs and rope pulleys are common alternatives to calf jacks. Utilize in the same manner as a calf jack. The same principle of slow ratcheting and rest intervals apply.

  • Regardless of the device, if you are not making progress, you will need to palpate and determine what needs to be changed, adjusted or call for assistance.

Prevent hip lock

Hip lock is a common occurrence in some breeds. This is where the calf’s pelvis becomes wedged and locked in the cow’s pelvis. To help alleviate this problem during extraction, rotate the calf 90 degrees as it is coming out of the vagina to align the widest part of the calf’s pelvis with the widest part of the cow’s pelvis to prevent hip lock.

Abnormal presentations

In scenarios where the calf presents with no limbs in the vaginal canal, either a breech (backward presentation) or head first with no limbs, attempt to reach one or both of the displaced limbs and bring into the vaginal canal. It helps to place a chain on the flexed limb to aid in adjusting the leg into the birth canal.

  • Take one end of a chain into the uterus and drop it or wedge it down around the desired limb.

  • Palpate under that same limb and pull the end of the chain through and back out of the cow to complete the loop encompassing the limb. Now you have a handle on that limb and can work to push the calf into the uterus, allowing more room to manipulate the limb into the pelvis.

  • As you progress in manipulating the retracted limb, move your chain down the limb toward the next joint. Pulling on the chain while pushing the calf back can help.

  • If any of the steps are out of your comfort level or what you feel does not make sense, call your veterinarian for assistance.


Once calf is delivered, place them on their sternum (belly) and work to clear their airways. Stimulate them to breathe by rubbing vigorously on their ribcage and stick straw into their nostrils. Additionally, ensure there is no excessive bleeding from the umbilicus.


Each dystocia can present differently and each producer has their own comfort level. Early intervention and monitoring progress is key to a successful calving. You do the best you can by being clean, using plenty of lubrication, and do not hesitate to call for assistance when a scenario is out of your comfort level.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

Caitlin Wiley
  • Caitlin Wiley

  • Assistant Clinical Professor
  • Iowa State University
  • Email Caitlin Wiley