A freshly licked, healthy-born baby calf is the pride and joy of any farm but calves’ arrivals aren’t always a simple affair. Inclement weather, difficult birthing situations and calf size can all complicate matters and increase stress for both the mother and the cattleman assisting during labor.

University of Missouri Extension veterinarian Scott Poock has years of experience to lend from his veterinary practice, to time in the field and assisting on site at MU’s dairy. With his simple explanation, calving troubles don’t have to be daunting or difficult.

Know Normal

The first challenge to assessing calving difficulty and knowing when to phone for help, is simply knowing when an animal is having a regular delivery.

“If you know what normal is, abnormal will be more easily recognized,” Poock said. “Then, the question becomes whether you can handle it or whether it’s time to call for help.”

The first stage of labor to take note of is cervical dilation

“This is where a cow or heifer will be up and down, trying to seek to be off by themselves or maybe kicking at the belly,” Poock said. “A heifer may take four to eight hours in this stage where a cow may take half an hour to two hours.”

The second stage of delivery stretches from when the calf first engages the pelvis until it has hit the ground.

“Stage two is really when we are going to hit the clock to see just how fast the cow or heifer is progressing through this,” Poock said. “Again, for a mature cow, this will go pretty quickly, where a heifer could take longer.”

The third stage signals the end of labor and is complete with the arrival of the placenta. Again, in this stage, mature cows can finish very quickly while a little more patience may be required for heifers.

Recognizing the three stages of labor is key to identifying the difference between a normal or abnormal delivery. One sign to look for is if in stage two, the time from the feet becoming visible to birth has taken longer than two hours.

Another key indicator of a stalling or complicated delivery, is if there has been no progress in over a thirty-minute period at any stage. If either of those key indicators is present, Poock suggested bringing the cow or heifer in for a closer examination before offering assistance or calling for help.

Prepare Ahead of Time

One of the most frustration-saving aspects of preparing a calving plan ahead of time, is also preparing calving equipment. Lacking bottles for colostrum or fighting a rusty set of OB chains can add unnecessary levels of tension in already difficult calving situations.

Poock recommending having OB sleeves, OB chains or straps, OB handles, clean buckets, long rope, a halter, hot water, and disinfectant all on-hand before calving season begins in order make the least amount of fuss possible.

To go a step further, he also recommended a separate calving area. A 12 by 12 pen in a well-lighted area with a bedding or straw and a way to easily restrain the cow in a head gate or a chute works well in his experience.

After restraining the cow for an initial examination, Poock said he always prefers to assist the animal is a more open setting, rather than a restrictive headstall or alleyway.

“I usually like to get the cow out and into a smaller pen,” Poock said. “And the reason why is I don’t like the cows to go down in a chute. That just makes it hard on them, hard on you, and hard for the delivery.”

Poock said overall, lots of lube and plenty of disinfectant are critical for assisting a birth, even if the cow only receives an initial examination before she proceeds with delivery on her own.

Mixing up several clean buckets of water and disinfectant to use between pushes or pulls and during the examination. Cleanliness is extremely important for the cow’s post-partum health and longevity.

“The cleaner you are, the better and the more likely that cow is going to rebreed,” Poock said.

Examination Objectives

The first step to examining a cow or heifer in the midst of calving difficulties is to assess labor progress. Palpating the animal first can help reveal whether the cervix is dilated.

If the cervix is not dialated, the animal in question likely needs more time and monitoring before a vet is called. If the cervix is dilated with stalled labor progress, Poock said the animal could be ready to receive assistance or could be dealing with other issues like uterine torsion.

“What we call uterine torsion sometimes happens,” Poock said. “When you palpate her vaginally, your arm will actually turn, and it almost always turns clockwise.”

The next step to evaluating whether to assist or call for help is to check to the calf’s positioning and evaluating if the cow has enough pelvic room to deliver. If the nose and feet can engage the pelvis at the same time, the cow should be a good candidate for assisted labor.

“Normally, if I’m starting to pull on the calf, its head then engages into that pelvis,” Poock said. “Usually if the feet and the head can both engage into the pelvis, usually the calf will come.”

If only the feet are visible or accessible, it is important to check whether the front or back feet are presented. The front leg will have two joints that bend the same way, whereas the back leg has a first joint that bends normally, followed by the hock joint, which bends opposite the first joint.

Poock said once the examination into the calf’s positioning is complete, it’s important to self-evaluate whether the cow is a good candidate for some quick, onsite help or if a veterinarian needs to be called quickly.

“If you don’t know what the problem is, get help,” Poock said. “Or, if you know the problem and the solution, but you know you can’t handle it, get help. If you know the problem and solution, and you try for 30 minutes and you’re not making progress, then you get help.”

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