Calving: When and How to Help

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Source: National Farm Animal Care Council, Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle, Appendix C

The basis of a cow–calf enterprise is a healthy cow with a healthy nursing calf. Knowing when and how to help is an important part of responsible calving management.

A Cow or Heifer is Having Difficulty When:

  • the cow actively strains for 40 minutes with no progress
  • 90 minutes have passed since the waterbag first appeared
  • the legs emerge with the surface of the hooves pointing up
  • only the head or tail emerges
  • an uncalved cow is mothering another calf
  • a cow has demonstrated greater than 5-6 hours of anxiety, e.g. walking about, tail extended, apparently looking for something.

To Examine a Cow that is Having Difficulty:

  • restrain the cow either in a chute or in a safe and humane manner
  • wash all manure away from around rectum and vulva
  • soap your arm or use plastic sleeves with soap; hairy arms can bruise the birth canal
  • explore the problem.

Calves Should Only be Pulled If:

  • two front legs and a nose or two hind legs and the tail can be guided into the bony part of the birth canal.
    NOTE: To distinguish front and back legs, feel the joint above the one nearest the hoof. If it bends the same direction as the lower joint it is a knee–front leg. If it bends the opposite direction it is a hock–back leg.

If the Calf is Malpositioned:

Gently position the legs and head correctly. Gently push the calf back a little way to get some working room. Do not push against the cow’s contractions–work with her, not against her. Cover the teeth and feet with your hand as you move them to reduce injury to the cow.

NOTE: If the position is too difficult to correct in 20 minutes, or two strong people cannot pull the calf–call your veterinarian or an experienced cattle producer.

Attach loops of soft nylon rope or surgical chain to the legs. By convention, place a loop above the fetlock joint as well as a half hitch below. A loop may also be placed around the head–over the poll behind the ears and under the mouth. NEVER attach a loop to the lower jaw.

Pull back and down on the ropes for a head-first calf, straight back for a tail-first calf. Pull alternately on either leg to angle the shoulders through the pelvis. Two strong people (pulling force of 250lbs maximum) should be able to pull a calf into the birth canal.

Use calf pullers with caution. Remember to release tension periodically. Allow cow to push calf out.

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