Calving difficulties in beef cattle
M.E. Howell, W.A. Zollinger, and D.E. Hansen
Calf death at or shortly after calving results in
losses of over 3.5 million calves annually in theUnited States. About 45% of these losses arecaused by dystocia (delayed and/or difficultparturition). The two principal factors involvedin dystocia are size of calf and age of cow.
occuring in mature cows, it’s apparent that thegreatest concern is in younger cows, especiallythe 2-year-old heifers. Size of calf is largelycontrolled by genetics. Stages of parturition
A review of the stages of parturition and the
calving process will help you make wise deci-sions on how to handle calving problems. Stage 1: Preparation for parturition
Parturition actually begins a few days before
delivery of the calf. It’s usually not possible toknow exactly when the cow will deliver, so youshould use the following indicators: relaxation
In a backward delivery, the soles of the feet
of the ligaments around the genitalia, swelling
are up, and the first joint of the leg (pastern)
of the vulva and udder, and dripping of co-
down or stand and move around in a nervous,
Stage 2: Parturition
restless fashion. Many times, she will lay back
Early in the parturition stage, the liquid
down and continue with the delivery. As the
cervical seal or water bag will extrude from the
normal delivery continues, you can see the nose
vulva, and the membrane walls will break. The
cow will become restless and leave the main
With the presentation of the calf, delivery
herd. Contractions continue, and the calf is
moves quickly to completion. Sometimes, a cow
pushed against and through the cervix.
will stand during this phase. Standing as the
As this stage continues, usually for 30 min-
calf’s shoulders pass through the pelvic canal
utes to 1 hour, the calf’s feet should be the first
assists in postioning the calf for delivery:
thing you see. The nose and head should soon
1. this arches the calf’s hips high through the
The position of the feet as they become visible
2. the use of gravity helps in completing the
will give you an indication of the calf’s position.
In a normal, forward-position delivery (feet andhead first), the soles of the front feet are pointed
Michael E. Howell, Extension agent (livestock),
down, and the joint of the leg bends down
Malheur County; William A. Zollinger, Extension
beef specialist; and Donald E. Hansen, Extensionveterinarian; Oregon State University.
In most cases after delivery, the cow will
clean and dry the calf off by licking the haircoat. This helps remove the membranes fromthe calf and helps stimulate blood circulation.
When you don’t see progress after 2 hours of
labor, find out what’s going on. In first-calfheifers, you should determine possible causesfor delay after an hour. You’ll need to determinethe position of the calf, whether or not it’s stillalive, and what’s causing the delay in delivery.
If all calves were presented in the normal
position, there wouldn’t be any problems exceptin the heifers with calves that are too large topass through the birth canal. Stage 3: Cleaning after calving
In this stage, the placenta (afterbirth) is
passed. This normally occurs within an hour ortwo, but it can be retained for several hours. Cases of retention involving normal delivery areoften the result of fatigue.
Figure 2.—A typical pelvic opening of the beef female
placentas, you should check diet ration forprotein and energy values. Any of severalmineral deficiencies—selenium, for example—may also cause this problem. Using calving equipment
know how to use it—isn’t very much help. Preparation for calving
When you use the stainless steel OB chains,
it’s important to place them properly on the
calf’s legs to reduce the chance of a broken leg or
calving time can mean the difference between a
dead or a live, healthy calf. Consider carefully
The best arrangement is a double half-hitch,
this list of equipment that you should have
where the first loop is placed above the fetlock
and the second half-hitch is placed below the
dewclaws. Apply traction steadily, alternating
This procedure helps to walk the shoulders of
the calf through the pelvis of the cow. It’s
important to apply the traction in an upward
direction until the calf’s shoulders are through
the pelvis. Then a downward pull is needed to
help move the calf’s hips through the wider
portion of the cow’s pelvis. Always use plenty oflubricant during this procedure.
In addition to the standard calving equip-
It’s important to remember the shape of the
ment, you should also consider the following
cow’s pelvis (figure 2). The narrowest part of the
pelvis is at the bottom where it’s pinched
together. The upper portion of the pelvis is
wider, and the widest portion is an angle of
about 45o across from top to bottom.
leave the birth canal, the calf’s hips are raised up
toward the top of the pelvis, where it’s wider.
Sometimes a hiplock occurs. In this situation, a
quarter turn of the calf will move it to a position
where the pelvis is widest and (therefore)
provides extra room for the delivery.
When the calf is large or its head tends to
move down or to the side during delivery, ahead snare can be quite effective in a normalforward presentation. Slight traction on the head
Figure 3.—Calf presented with its head in the birth
Figure 4.—Two front legs presented with calf’s head
canal but with one or both forelegs retained
will stretch out the neck and close up the
Push the calf backward a little and lift the
shoulders to allow the calf to slip through the
You may need both arms for this maneuver.
Proper placement of the head snare is impor-
You should try to cover the calf’s hoof with your
tant in reducing the chance of neck or spinal
hand to prevent injury to the uterine lining of
cord injury. Place the loop behind the poll,
under the ears and through the mouth. This maycause the mouth to gape open, so be careful to
Difficult head positions
ensure that the incisors do not cut the birth canal.
solve. For example, a calf that has his nose
slight traction to the head—only enough to keep
down, and the bridge of the nose is butting up
it in the proper position. The pressure is placed
against the brim of the pelvis, may be harder to
correct (figure 4). If you don’t correct this
position, the calf’s head can fall down between
puller is important. Most of the calves that die
the forelegs, which will prevent the delivery
during assistance, die because of improper use
of a mechanical puller. Experience is the best
This is generally easy to correct early in
delivery by grasping the calf’s mouth or nostrils
Proper placement of the strap on the cow’s
and pulling the head up into the normal posi-
rump allows for some downward pressure on
tion in the pelvis. If the calf’s head is to one side,
the lever end of the puller, to help lift the calf up
use the same procedure to correct it.
However, there’s a chance of breaking the
Always use plenty of aseptic lubricant before
jaw of the calf if you use excessive force to pull
and during assisting procedures—it’s vital for
the head into the canal. It’s generally recom-
easy delivery as well as for protecting the
mended that after correcting this malposition,
delicate tissue of the birth canal and vagina.
you should proceed with a gentle assisteddelivery. Backwards calf Abnormal presentations
This is another problem that’s sometimes
seen (figure 5). The first step in attempting to
One of the most common calving problems—
solve this problem is to make sure that what
and the easiest to correct—occurs when one or
you think is going on is in fact the case. Put your
both of the forefeet are back and the head is
arm inside and along the top of the legs until
presented in a normal position (figure 3).
you find the tail. The tail should be next to the
To correct this problem, push your arm into
the point of the shoulder and elbow of the calf.
Figure 6.—Calf presented in a breech position
After locating the tail, bring your arm out to
other to walk the hips through the pelvic
the hock joint. If it’s the hock, the joint should
bend downwards toward the cow’s feet.
gentle, and be quick. Do not try to turn the calf
Calf upside down
Sometimes, you may find a calf that’s not
down in the birth canal. An upside-down calf
This is another problem that causes concern.
will, of course, have a knee joint there, and it
As we mentioned earlier (“Using calving
equipment,” page 2), you can sometimes avoid
After you determine that the calf is indeed
this by arching the calf through the pelvis with a
coming backwards, apply plenty of lubricant
downward pull. If the hiplock is severe, rotating
and deliver the calf, as is, backwards. Be gentle
the calf a quarter turn will place the hips in the
Never try to turn a backwards calf around.
You can do this easily by grasping the calf
There’s not enough room or time, and you can
cause tremendous damage to the uterine tissue
around. Use plenty of lubricant. Sometimes, you
may need to push the calf back a little ways to
As you’re pulling the calf backward, you
correct the problem (this isn’t always possible).
must remember that the umbilical cord of thecalf is going to impact on the rim of the pelvis
Very abnormal presentations
much quicker than in a normal delivery. This
Sometimes you’ll see a calf upside down,
will cut off the circulation of blood to the calf for
a short time—and may be life-threatening.
C-section, or try to rotate the calf to an upright
Once you’ve decided to pull a backwards
calf, you must move quickly to deliver a live
This may mean rolling the cow over to get the
calf moving so you can bring the legs of the calfto a position where it can be turned over. Breech calf
Always use plenty of lubricant whenever you
This differs from a backwards calf—the calf is
backward, and the legs are down (figure 6). Inother words, the calf’s back is being presented at
the entrance to the birth canal with no feet
There may be times when a C-section is the
only solution. A C-section may be the only
The only assistance is to enter and raise both
means of saving the life of the cow and, there-
rear legs up and deliver the calf backwards. In a
fore, protect the investment in the cow or heifer.
backward pull, as in a forward pull, it’s advis-able to alternate the tension from one leg to the
A C-section is major surgery, which means
A calf should receive 10% of its body weight
that you’ll probably sell the cow, and you won’t
in colostrum in its first 24 hours of life. This is
about a gallon of colostrum for an 85 lb calf. You
another year. If the calf is lost, you can still
could freeze and store colostrum for situations
protect your dollar investment in the cow by
To ensure a high quality and concentration of
immunoglobulins, you should consider using acolostrometer to test colostrum obtained from
Post partum care—the calf
other sources. Superior-rated colostrum willcontain greater than 50 mg/ml of total immuno-
Helping the calf after it’s on the ground is
important, especially if the cow doesn’t get upto clean the calf. Make sure the calf can breatheand that its mouth and nose are free of mucusand phlegm. By tickling the inside of a nostril,
Post partum care—the cow
a reflex action or sneeze helps to clear out the
Many times, problems associated with birth
can create additional challenges. As a precau-
Sometimes, if you’re strong and tall enough,
tion against infection, you should give an
it helps to clear the air passageway by holding
antibiotic to any cow that has needed assistance
the calf upside down and swinging it back and
at birth, especially when assistance was pro-
forth. Often, you’ll need a dry rag or glove to
longed or when you were required to place your
keep a tight grip—the legs may be very slippery.
Grasp the hind legs at the hock joints and
swing the calf. Be sure the head is off the
powder (5 grams), mixed with sterile water and
ground. Centrifugal force will help gravity in
pumped into the uterus after calf delivery.
clearing the airways and allow the calf tobreathe. If this doesn’t work, respiration may be
Treatment is indicated if the placenta doesn’t
fall out after 24 hours. Remove only the mem-
branes that will come out easily. Don’t pull hard!
There are several types of respirators avail-
Treatment should include terramycin uterine
able commercially. The least expensive method
boluses, an intramuscular shot of penicillin or
of reviving a calf is to place your hand around
terramycin, and an injection of prostaglandin or
the mouth, close off one nostril, and blow into
the other nostril at about 6- or 7-second inter-vals. Prolapse
This is very effective in getting the calf to
Two types of prolapse can occur, vaginal or
breathe after a difficult birth. As you continue
uterine. Vaginal prolapses occur most often
this attempt, someone else should be drying the
before calving, and they can be corrected by
calf or rubbing its body vigorously to stimulate
using a Johnson button or a loose sew with
umbilical tape. Uterine prolapse can pose anemergency situation. Use iodine
Try to keep the cow as quiet as possible to
Treat the navel with an iodine solution—
avoid bleeding. In most cases, you can reverse
the womb like a sock and reposition it back into
the cow. Drug treatment could include the useof terramycin uterine boluses, penicillin or
combiotic, and oxytocin to help contract the
Make sure the calf gets it within the first 2 to
3 hours after birth. Colostrum is the calf’s only
If professional help is needed, clean the tissue
source of protection from many infectious
with a warm saline solution and wrap in a wet
agents. Research indicates that newborn calves
are only able to absorb the immunoglobulins in
The tendency to prolapse can be associated
colostrum within the first 24 to 36 hours.
with specific cows or blood lines. Therefore, it’s
A rapid decrease of the immunoglobulins in
recommended that you identify heifers and
colostrum is also noted within the first 12 hours
cows that have prolapsed and cull them to help
after calving. The antibody concentration in the
first milking is twice that present in the second,five times that in the third milking, and tentimes that in the fourth milking.
A high percentage of uterine prolapses can
For further reading
Pirelli, G., and W.A. Zollinger, Weaning Manage-
1. Synchronized pulling with the cows’ own
ment for Calves, Oregon State University
contractions will minimize uterine exhaus-
Extension Service Circular 1371 (Corvallis,
2. After difficult births, cows are prone to
This publication (and the one you’re holding,
EC 1370, Calving Difficulties in Beef Cattle, at 75¢
uterus deep into the body cavity and causes
a relaxation of the contraction processes.
Experience will convince you that you must
get cows on their feet in a standing position
within minutes of difficult births, to reduce
Shipping and handling: For single copies of Remember. . .
either publication (and for orders up to $2.50),please include 25¢.
As producers, we’re concerned about the
For orders between $2.50 and $100, include
welfare of both the cow and the calf. When
15%. For orders of $100 or more, or for 100 or
assistance at birth is needed, it should be given
more copies, please call Agricultural Communi-
by trained individuals. Excessive force should
cations (503-737-2513) for a quote on reduced
Proper facilities and equipment, and apply-
ing practical skills, can help minimize manycalving problems.
practices that allow for the proper developmentof replacement heifers and the selection of bullsthat sire lower-birth-weight calves.
Trade-name products are mentioned as illustrationsonly. This mention does not mean that the OSUExtension Service endorses these products—orintends to discriminate against products not men-tioned. Figures 1, 2, 5, and 6 are reproduced, withpermission, from John R. Beverly, Recognizing andHandling Calving Problems, Texas A&M University,Agricultural Extension Service publication B-1203,reprinted 1987.
Extension Service, Oregon State University, Corvallis,O.E. Smith, director. This publication was producedand distributed in furtherance of the Acts of Congressof May 8 and June 30, 1914. Extension work is acooperative program of Oregon State University, theU.S. Department of Agriculture, and Oregon counties.
Oregon State University Extension Service offerseducational programs, activities, and materials—without regard to race, color, national origin, sex, age, ordisability—as required by Title VI of the Civil RightsAct of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of1972, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of1973. Oregon State University Extension Service is anEqual Opportunity Employer.
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