Calving: Knowing When to Check a Cow Can Save Calves
by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID
In our own herd (170 cows) over the past 38 years (more than 6000 births) we’ve been able to save almost all the problem calves just by being there at the right time. Over the years, we’ve learned a lot of good techniques for handling difficult births, partly from experience and partly with advice and help from several veterinarians, including Dr. Robert Cope, who has been here at Salmon, Idaho for 25 years.
Most cows progress normally through the stages of labor; uterine contractions in early labor get the calf aimed toward the birth canal, the cervix dilates and the calf starts through. The calf entering the birth canal stimulates abdominal straining and second stage (active) labor begins – to push him on out. Sometimes, however, the calf does not start into the birth canal and the cow does not begin hard straining. If you don’t intervene, you’ve lost the calf (and the cow, if you don’t get the dead calf out of her). Knowing when to check a cow is crucial – and you have to be watching her to know how long she’s been in early labor.
UTERINE INERTIA – Sometimes a cow has poor uterine tone, resulting in inability to contract properly and strongly – a condition called primary uterine inertia. The calf is not pushed up and into the birth canal on time. As Cope explains, this is commonly seen in older cows who start labor but no calf appears. If you examine the cow, the cervix is open; she is definitely in second stage labor but the calf is still down in the uterus and hasn’t started up over the pelvis yet – the cow is having few or no contractions.
If the calf is in a normal position, it can be pulled with very little difficulty. But the lack of uterine contractions may sometimes result in the calf being malpresented. “With no pressure forcing the calf into its proper position, it may be sitting any way imaginable,” says Cope. These situations must be discovered soon, and the malpresentation corrected in time to pull the calf while he is still alive.
TIMELY CHECKING IS CRUCIAL – Cope says abnormal presentations can occur with or without uterine inertia. A common challenge is the “breech” calf; the only part of his anatomy in the birth canal is the tail. This malpresentation may be difficult to detect, “since the cow is stimulated to strain mainly by the presence of the calf in her pelvis. There is no calf present in the birth canal, and therefore no stimulus for straining. If no water bag is observed, there may be no other visible sign that the birth has begun.”
He points out that time is the calf’s most deadly enemy in all cases of calving difficulty. “As a general rule of thumb, assume that any calf has roughly 3 to 4 hours of oxygen supply after the cow’s water breaks. If this time limit is approaching and no visible progress is being made, the cow needs assistance.”
We always check a cow within 2 hours of breaking her water, if she has not shown some visible progress, and sometimes check a cow even if we haven’t seen evidence of her water breaking. Sometimes the water bag does NOT precede the calf (in a number of normal births the water bag comes out after the calf), and this is not a reliable clue. The cow may be in trouble even if she hasn’t “broken her water” yet. We keep extensive records on every cow, and also know them very well as individuals. If a cow that normally calves swiftly seems to be taking too long, or isn’t acting quite right, we go ahead and check her.
As Cope says, “The most difficult decision to make is whether to intervene on a cow who is obviously calving but is not in hard labor, and is making slow or no progress. I feel it is better to assist cows who do not need help than to neglect a single cow that does. As long as you stay clean and well-lubricated, you are very unlikely to cause damage by examining a cow. If a cow, or particularly a heifer, has been acting in a suspicious manner, or laboring without progress, check her out!”
BREECH – On a breech calf (rump against the cervix, hind legs forward toward his ears, in a sitting position) the cow may not start straining at all. If you wait too long to check her, the placenta will detach and the calf will die. Any time a cow seems to be taking too long in early labor, check her.
If the calf is breech, you’ll feel only the tail or rump. The feet must be brought into the birth canal and this will be much easier if the cow is standing up, so you can get both arms into her. With one hand, push the calf’s rump forward into the uterus as far as possible. With the other hand, grasp a leg, bend the hock joint, and lift it upward. Draw the calf’s foot backward in an arc, keeping the hock joint flexed tightly and the calf pushed as far forward as you can. Lift the calf’s foot up over the cow’s pelvis and cup your hand around the hoof so it doesn’t tear the uterus. Do the same with the other hind leg. Once both legs are in the birth canal, you can attach chains and pull the calf.
HEAD TURNED BACK – Sometimes the head fails to enter the birth canal. One or both front feet may show, but sometimes nothing will show. If the head is turned back, get the cow up (or try to keep her up); there’s more room to work when she’s standing, and you can get both arms into the birth canal easier. It’s very difficult to get a turned-back head if the cow is down, with abdominal contents pressing on the calf; you don’t have room in there to maneuver.
A head turned back can be a challenge. Some ranchers use a snare to try to guide the head into the birth canal, but this may injure the cow. We have better luck just using both hands – holding the calf with one while grasping the head with the other (by the lower jaw) to bring it up into the birth canal. If you can get a good grip on the jaw you can usually get the head repositioned.
Cope feels “a head snare should never be used to try to turn a calf’s head which is pointed in the wrong direction. Traction of this type is likely to push the calf’s nose through the side of the uterus.” He uses a head snare only in rare instances when the head is aimed properly but will not enter the birth canal – and only in cows that have adequate room for the head to come through.
REPOSITIONING A CALF – Be careful when correcting a malpresentation and use lots of lubricant. If you are trying to straighten a leg or turn a head around, make sure you keep your hand between the calf and the uterine wall. “It is all too easy to tear a large and lethal laceration in the uterus with part of the calf. Hooves and noses are very capable of causing such damage, just as a result of the cow’s contractions. They can do it even more easily with human assistance. A torn uterus is serious damage; well over half of cows with this type of injury will die, no matter how immediately and efficiently surgical repair is accomplished. Use of a head snare is especially dangerous,” says Cope.
FIRST CALF HEIFERS – If a heifer is taking too long, check her to see if the calf is presented normally. Both feet and the head should be pointed into the birth canal. If the calf is coming properly, see if it is too large (inability of the heifer to move the calf’s head through the pelvis). The head may be turned back with nose pointed toward the front of the cow. In an adult cow, head turned back often indicates lack of uterine contraction, according to Cope, but “in the heifer it often indicates a lack of sufficient room for the head to fit into the pelvic cavity.”
If the calf’s head is pointed properly, his nose and/or tongue should be starting through the birth canal, just a little ways behind the feet. But if the cow’s pelvis is halting his forehead, there’s probably not enough room for him to fit through. Cope’s rule of thumb: “If the cow’s pelvis hits the calf between the eyes, a Caesarean should be performed.”
WHEN YOU NEED THE VET – Occasionally you’ll encounter a problem that requires professional assistance – if you cannot get a breech calf’s hind legs into the birth canal, or the calf is too big for the cow (the head really tight, trying to come through the pelvis), needing to be delivered Caesarean, or any malpresentation you cannot correct quickly and easily by yourself.
Sometimes you’ll encounter a cow with a torsion of the uterus – the uterus and contents have flipped over, creating a corkscrew twist which shuts off the birth canal so the calf cannot come through. The vet may be able to rotate the calf and uterus back again via the birth canal, if it’s only a partial torsion, or may have to cut an incision in the cow’s flank, reach through, and turn the uterus back over. If you can recognize a problem early, and get help before the cow is in serious trouble or the calf is dead, you can save those occasional odd ones you would otherwise lose.
BE THERE – We try to observe every birth. When we first started our herd, calving out in the fields with the cows not constantly observed, we averaged a 4% birth loss – from malpresentations, coyotes, first calf heifer not mothering her calf, or even a simple thing like the amnion sac not breaking. Sometimes we’d just find the calf dead and never know what actually happened.
But in the past 35 years (really watching the cows) we’ve averaged less than 1% annual birth loss, and many years no birth losses. If we are watching the cows, we know when a cow starts labor, how long she’s been at it, when she needs help (or checked, if nothing is happening). Most calves lost at birth are normal, healthy calves at the start of the birth process. They are lost only because mother nature needs a little help. If you are there to give that help, you can cut birth losses to practically nil.