Calving season can be unpredictable. You can’t eliminate all of the surprises and late night barn checks, but difficult births are much easier to manage when you’re prepared. First-calf heifers labor longer, tire easily, and are more likely to require assistance. Only a small percentage of calving problems come from seasoned cows.
Before stepping in to help, assess her progress by answering these questions:
Has the cervix dilated?
Has the water sac broken?
Will the calf fit through the pelvis?
Is the calf in normal birthing position?
When the cervix is fully dilated, active delivery begins and contractions become very strong. The calf should be right-side up in forward position with both front legs and the head extending into the birth canal. If the calf presents normally, most births will progress without your assistance. The cow will often lie down at this point and begin to push.
Once her water has broken, it’s important to see progress. When the calf moves from water to air, its first instinct is to take a breath. If the calf doesn’t present normally or progress hasn’t been made in a 30 minute period of laboring, determine whether you can assist or need to call on a veterinarian. Time is crucial. Most calves lost at birth will die from suffocation or from injuries associated with delayed calving.
If you make the decision to assist with the birth, wash and disinfect all equipment, your arms and hands, and the cow’s perineum to prevent bacteria and infection. Use OB gloves and OB lube for lubrication and protection during vaginal exams. If using OB chains, secure them around the calf’s legs and then pull alternately to gradually increase traction. This will help ease the head and shoulders free. A calf puller is a worthy investment for most cow-calf operations. It puts traction on the calf and the counterthrust against the cow for quicker delivery with less effort.