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Spring Calving - March 2018

The spring calving season is rapidly approaching, so it’s an excellent time to review the process, what you might encounter and when to step in and help.

It begins with good facilities. Monitor the close-up pen regularly, and move the cow to a calving pen when there are feet sticking out. If she is moved too soon, the stress of being separated from the group may delay delivery. The calving pen should be in a convenient location for observation and providing assistance, but also quiet with minimal disturbing traffic. It should be clean and dry with deep straw bedding. Dusty bedding can be kicked up and inhaled and a wet or muddy area encourages bacterial growth: both can easily cause health problems for the newborn calf.

Watch the cow’s progress through the three stages of labor. In Stage 1, mild uterine contractions position the calf for birth and the cervix dilates. The cow will be restless, holding her tail up or leaking milk and her pelvic ligaments loosen, causing the tailhead to drop. Cows on pasture will want to ‘nest,’ circling and separating themselves from the herd to find a quiet spot to calve. Stage 1 usually lasts 1-4 hours but up to 24 hours is normal, especially in heifers.

In Stage 2, the calf enters the pelvis and stimulates strong contractions. The cow will be visibly straining. This stage usually lasts 30 minutes to 2 hours, with younger animals taking longer. Stage 2 ends when the calf is born. During Stage 3, the placenta detaches and is expulsed in about four hours and uterine involution begins. It could take up to 24 hours for her to clean, especially if it was a difficult calving.

When to Step In – During a calving, your most important job is to know when a cow needs assistance. The rule of thumb to follow is that there should be a progression in labor every hour. This starts with Stage 1 with signs of discomfort, then the water bag, then the feet, then a nose, then a calf! If the cow ever stops having contractions, looks exhausted or something new doesn’t happen for longer than an hour, it’s time to take a feel. A few things require immediate attention: a tail only, anything that looks like intestines or a large amount of blood from the back end.

When checking a cow, she needs to be restrained properly in a headgate or chute for your own safety. Handle everything cleanly: clean the cow’s perineal area and yourself with soapy water and wear clean, shoulder length gloves and use lots of lube. Safe and clean handling will not hurt the cow or calf, so take a feel. We need two feet and a nose. If any of these are missing, the calf needs to be manipulated into position. Also check around the calf, feeling for a tight band of cervix indicating she isn’t fully dilated. If there’s only tissue, no calf at all, but the cow appears to be in the middle of labor, it could be a serious complication like a uterine torsion and unless you have experience identifying and correcting these, call your vet immediately.

If the calf is there but needs manipulation and you can confidently do so, the rule of thumb is 30 minutes. If the calf isn’t in the correct position within 30 minutes, call your vet. If something else is wrong, it needs to be corrected as soon as possible. And remember we still have to drive to your farm, which eats up time, so the sooner you call, the better. Once we are there we use a similar rule: if what we’re trying doesn’t result in progress in 30 minutes, we move to Plan B and so on. The best outcomes are with clients who checked the cow early and called early. Always do a vaginal exam before calling, the more information you give us, the better we can help.

Which Way is Which? – In the most common form of delivery, the calf comes out front end first and right side up with the front legs and head extended. A calf can often come out back end first, but still needs to be upright with its back legs extended. If the calf is in any other position, it need repositioning or it won’t come out. The obvious signs of the calf’s position are easy: if there’s feet and a head, its forwards, if there’s feet and a tail its backwards.

But what if there are just feet? Check the joints: in front legs, the fetlock and the knee bend in the same direction. On the back legs, the fetlock and the hock bend in opposite directions. If you have two feet, check them both and make sure they match before going further. It’s not impossible for a front and back foot to have worked their way out. If you know the cow has twins, make sure the two feet you have are connected to the same body! Twins sometimes try to come out together and running a hand up one leg, across the chest and down the other could save you a lot of frustration.

Push, Girl, Push! – While an incorrect position is common, the vast majority of difficult calvings are due to a large calf and the only help the cow requires is in getting the calf out. There’s one key factor here: force, or too much of it. Delivering the calf is exciting and pulling can be fun, but at the expense of the cow and calf. For the calf’s safety, place the chains on both feet correctly: a loop goes above the dew claw with a half-hitch below to distribute the pulling force. The chains should rest either on top or along the bottom of the leg and foot; lying along the side or only one loop per leg will break it.

Apply even, steady pressure while pulling and work in time with the cow’s contractions, resisting the temptation to jerk at the chains. When she pushes, you pull; when she rests, keep pressure steady you don’t lose progress. The maximum force applied to the legs should be no greater than two grown men (often one on each foot), even when using a calf puller. Calf pullers are only supposed to make delivering a calf less exhausting for us while providing consistent pressure, not to increase the amount of force applied.

When delivering a large calf, it will be able to come out if its fetlocks are more than six inches out (if forwards) or if the hocks are at the level of the vulva (if backwards). At these points, the largest part of the calf will be within the birth canal and should successfully come out. The calf’s hips will need to be rotated to prevent them from becoming locked against the cow’s pelvis. Rotate the calf 30 degrees after the shoulders are out to ensure its hips are at an angle when entering the birth canal.

If the cow happens to go down, its ok; it’s a cows natural calving position anyway. Just take a minute adjust to the new pulling angle, change gloves if they got dirty, apply more lube and be ready for when she pushes again. The most common cause of injuries to the cow and the calf are due to pulling too hard or too fast, so while it’s important for the calf to come out, proceed carefully, patiently, with lots of lube and recognize when no progress is being made and another route must be taken.

It’s a Girl! – After the calf is born, make sure it is lively enough to shake its head and clear its airways. If the calf isn’t very thrifty, pour some cold water in its ears to stimulate it to shake its head and repeat it a few times if necessary. Please don’t hang the calf upside-down, it actually makes it harder for them to breathe. Instead, sit the calf up with its front legs tucked at the knee and its hind legs stretched forward on either side of its body. This is the best recovery position for a calf to fill its lungs.

When the calf is stable, clean the cow up again and, with a new glove on, feel if there is another calf or tears in the uterus or birth canal that need attention. If there’s some swelling, which there will be since she just calved, fill an OB sleeve with ice and insert it into the vagina for 20 minutes. All cows should receive oral calcium immediately after calving and those in their second lactation or greater should receive another dose 12 hours later.

Ideally, the cow will calve on her own, but there are times when she needs help. In the end, if a cow appears to be in labor and instinct says something is not quite right, we’d much rather come out and help deliver a live calf than deal with the alternative.

5 Things to Remember About Calving:

1. Watch for progress every hour: restless, water bag, feet, nose, calf

2. If no progress, go in cleanly and safely.

3. Figure out forwards/backwards

4. Only 30 minutes to move the calf into the correct position, then call your vet!

5. If there’s anything out of the ordinary, call your vet! The sooner the better!

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