Calving season tips & tricks: obstetrics and prolapses

Calving season is officially here for 2021 and with it comes the joy of new birth as well as the challenges of potentially difficult calving’s and prolapses. In this article I’m going to go through a few tips for when intervention is required and what to do if you need to assist.

The majority of cows will deliver their calf on their own in a short period of time. However, when the first stage of labor has been going on for more than 6 hours, i.e. the cow is restless, showing maternal behavior or tail kinked sideways it could mean that she has a uterine torsion, or a breech calf (only the bum is presenting) in which case no feet will show from the vulva and you should call your vet.  

Stage two labour is defined as the first appearance of the water bag, to when the calf is delivered. In a normal cow this usually occurs within 2 hours – if no progress has occurred in this time frame, she should be examined. 

At this point ideally one puts the cow in a maternity pen or squeeze to work on safely. Be patient and careful when handling cattle during labour. Even the nicest cow on a normal day can turn aggressive when she is moved; hormones are sky rocketing and she is uncomfortable. Once the cow is restrained wash her vulva with soap and warm water then put on long obstetrical gloves.  

Enter the vulva and advance to where you feel the calf. Normally, you will find 2 front legs and a head. You can put calving chains on both front legs and remember to place the first loop above the calf’s fetlock (ankle joint), then make a half hitch in the chain and place it below the fetlock. This will reduce the risk of fracturing the calf’s leg when you are pulling. 

When deciding how hard to pull use the 275 lbs. rule of thumb (when the cervix is completely dilated). 275lbs is roughly the pulling capacity of one large strong person, or two smaller people.  You should be able to pull the calf’s shoulders into the pelvis by hand. The knees should be visible, without slipping back in once you have let the tension go.  If you achieve this you should be able to pull the calf by hand or with a calf jack.  Being a smaller person myself, I find the use of calf jack incredibly helpful but use it carefully and with respect. When pulling the calf don’t rush, pull when the cow pushes. If the calf is coming normal presentation and you cannot engage it this far or the legs are crossed and the head will not engage into the pelvis a C-section will likely be required. 

If the calf gets hip locked when it is three quarters of the way out try rotating the calf in order to give you a bit more space between the calf’s pelvis and the cow’s pelvis. If the calf is quite dry or tight apply lubricant around the calf to allow it to slide easier. Tangled legs may also happen with twins or a weirdly positioned calf so try and identify if you have front or back legs and make sure they are from the same animal before you start pulling. 

Once the calf is out; if it’s been a tough pull and is having difficulty breathing put it in calf recovery position (upright on its chest (sternal) with its hind legs tucked up underneath it). You can stimulate it by tickling its nose with straw and vigorously rubbing it. 

Check the cow does not have a twin inside (even if it has a large calf always check) – with clean gloves and also make sure the cow has colostrum in her udder. 

With a difficult calving – calves often are a bit slower to get up and suck therefore tubing them with a some commercial colostrum or milking out the cow and tubing/bottle feeding for the first feeding is a good idea. 

Occasionally a cow will prolapse their uterus post calving typically following a difficult calving though it can happen when they calve on a downward slope or if they are an overweight/unfit cow. A uterine prolapse will only happen post calving in comparison to a vaginal prolapse that will most commonly happen before calving. The uterus appears as a large fleshy red mass with the buttons (or cotelydons) attached to the outside. It is very important not to move the cow very much after this happens since movement will often result in tearing of the tissue or the uterine artery. Call the vet out to your farm rather than hauling into the clinic for these cases. If the uterus can be replaced quickly and it is not damaged most cows will have a good prognosis. 

Delivering calves can be a very rewarding experience and your intervention can often save lives. Stock your calving supplies before the season starts, keep your barn/handling facility clean and be ready to assist. Have you vet’s phone number handy and keep your trailer ready/cleared out of the snow bank. We are very happy to assist you with your calving needs but can help out more producers/get to your calving sooner if you have the ability to haul into our clean/well lite and heated facility. 

May new life be abundant and the joy of seeing a new calf try its legs out for the first time never cease to amaze you! Wishing you all the very best for a safe and prosperous calving season! 

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