Determining when a cow needs assistance

The stress of calving season is felt by novice and experienced farmers alike. No matter how many times producers go through a calving season, they are sure to come across a few curve balls along the way. One of the more perplexing scenarios to master, is determining when to step in and assist a cow during delivery. In some situations the answer is clear; but in others, deciding what to do and when it do it, is more challenging.  

First Observations

One of the first observations producers should make is the position in which the calf is being delivered. The calf should present with its head and front feet coming out first. According to Dr. Craig Payne, veterinarian with the University of Missouri Extension, a rule of thumb for a calf that presents normally is once the front feet appear, birth should be completed within two hours. “Considering we may not know when the feet first appear, I often recommend waiting 30 minutes and if no progress has been made during that time, consider examining the cow,” Craig Payne, DVM, extension veterinarian with the University of Missouri, explained. 

However, Dr. Payne added at this point in time if the cow hasn’t had the calf, it doesn’t necessarily mean the cow will need assistance. “Sometimes a cow or heifer just needs a little more time, and experience will help you sort out when you need to step in,” Payne shared. 

Stepping in to Help

In some situations, producers should not wait for the cow to try to deliver the calf on her own. Dr. Payne recommends producers immediately step in to help a cow when the position of the calf is an abnormal presentation. For example, in cases in which the calf is backwards, has its head turned back, a front leg turned back, or when the calf will not fit in the birth canal; immediate assistance is required. 

Calling the Vet 

There will be times when the problem is too complicated for producers to handle. Producers should call their herd veterinarian when they think there is a problem but do not know the solution. They should also reach out for professional assistance when they know there is a problem and what the solution is, but the problem is not something they can fix. Additionally, a veterinarian is needed when producers know the problem and solution but are unsuccessful in correcting the problem within 30 minutes.

Important Delivery Reminders

When stepping in to assist a cow during delivery, there are some important factors to keep in mind. “The mucosal lining of the birth canal is easily irritated, so use plenty of lubrication on your arm when you do an exam or correct an abnormal presentation,” Payne explained.

In addition, if producers are attempting to correct an abnormal presentation, they should proceed with caution to prevent tearing the uterus during manipulation. When producers need to use a calf jack, they should avoid using excessive force to keep from causing irreparable damage to the cow.  According to Dr. Payne, a rule of thumb is to apply only as much force as two people that were pulling by hand.   

Calving Season Supplies

Prior to calving season it’s a good idea to purchase and organize needed supplies. A few supplies producers will want to keep on hand include OB sleeves, OB chains or straps, OB handles, disinfectant and lubrication for their arm. Clean buckets and a calf jack are also items producers will want to have handy.


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