If a cow is taking too long to deliver her calf, or it appears the calf may be coming out the wrong way, don’t wait. Call your vet.
“We don’t want to have a dead calf,” Dr. Robert Wells, livestock consultant with the Samuel R. Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla., told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor. “We don’t want to lose a cow, and we just don’t make any money when we have calves that don’t come out unassisted in a timely fashion.”
Normally as the cow is giving birth you’ll see the calf’s nose and front two feet; the soles of the feet should be pointed down. If any of those elements is missing, there is a much greater chance of a “malpresentation,” and that can spell trouble with the delivery.
It could be a “breach” delivery, in which the calf is presenting its hind rump first, with the legs folded underneath it. Wells said other typical calving problems include a head, or one of the legs, turned back.
“Even if the calf is presenting normally, we can have what we call a ‘hiplocking,’ where the calf has a big enough hip that it gets caught in the birth canal,” he said. That can also happen with shoulders.
Wells said in many of these conditions, especially with a breach delivery, the cow will exhibit abdominal pressing.
“She’s really contracting, using those muscles in her abdomen trying to push that calf out, but we’re not seeing any progress,” he said. “She’s going to lay down and get up repeatedly; she may even kick at her side, turn her head and look at her belly, especially on a heifer that doesn’t have experience calving. If we don’t see anything while she’s been in Stage 1 labor for six hours or more, and she’s exhibiting the abdominal press, then it’s time to go in and see what’s going on, and also get a veterinarian to assist us if we’re not comfortable helping that female to pass that calf.”
A University of Missouri Extension publication, Assisting the Beef Cow at Calving Time, describes the three stages of calving, also called parturition. Stage 1 is preparatory, Stage 2 is fetal expulsion, and Stage 3 is expulsion of the placenta or afterbirth. Stage 1 typically takes two to six hours as the calf rotates to an upright position, rhythmic contractions of the uterus begin and gradually become more frequent, and the cervix expands to allow the uterus and vagina to become a continuous canal.
The delivery period, Stage 2, usually takes one to two hours, but can be longer in a heifer. The cow is usually lying down, and her uterine contractions are accompanied by voluntary contractions of her abdomen and diaphragm. In a normal birth, as the calf’s nose emerges, the cow pushes her hardest to get the calf’s shoulders and chest through her pelvic girdle.
“Once the shoulders have passed, the abdominal muscles of the calf relax and its hips and hind legs extend back to permit easier passage of the hip region,” the document reads.
Finally, the calf is on the ground, and the cow ejects the placenta in Stage 3, taking anywhere form two to eight hours.
Wells said a cow will normally calve unassisted within four hours. If they don’t go through the stages in a timely fashion – if they’re in Stage 1 for more than six hours and the abdominal press hasn’t begun, for instance – there may be issues.
Similarly, if the cow is in Stage 2 for two hours but no part of the calf has emerged, “then she should be examined, and possibly helped.”
Once you call the vet, get the female up to your working facilities.
“The worst thing you can do is ask the veterinarian to deliver the calf out in the middle of a pasture,” Wells said. “If you’re calling at night, do everything you possibly can to have plenty of light, so the veterinarian can see what he needs to do.”
You should also have clean equipment available; the vet will bring his own equipment, but it doesn’t hurt to have a backup.
And, to reduce the likelihood of problems like this, you should improve your herd’s genetics.
“We need to do everything we can to make sure that we’re buying females from somebody who has actually got a known calving ease bull, that is documentable by a set of registration papers or DNA data,” Wells said.
In addition, keep your cow in good body condition; while some producers believe restricted nutrition in the final trimester reduces calving problems, Wells said research at Texas A & M University shows the opposite is true, and “we would actually have higher rates of dystocia and lower rates of rebreeding in a timely fashion, and reduced viability of the calf through weaning, in females that were underconditioned prior to calving.


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