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Calving difficulties in Cattle

Calf death at or shortly after calving results in losses of over 3.5 million calves annually in the United States. About 45% of these losses are caused by dystocia (delayed and/or difficult parturition). The two principal factors involved in dystocia are size of calf and age of cow.

With only 16% of all calving problems occuring in mature cows, it’s apparent that the greatest concern is in younger cows, especially the 2-year-old heifers. Size of calf is largely controlled by genetics.

Stages of parturition
A review of the stages of parturition and the calving process will help you make wise decisions 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 to know exactly when the cow will deliver, so you should use the following indicators: relaxation of the ligaments around the genitalia, swelling of the vulva and udder, and dripping of colostrum from the teats.

Stage 2: Parturition

Early in the parturition stage, the liquid cervical seal or water bag will extrude from the vulva, and the membrane walls will break. The cow will become restless and leave the main herd. Contractions continue, and the calf is pushed against and through the cervix.

As this stage continues, usually for 30 minutes to 1 hour, the calf’s feet should be the first thing you see. The nose and head should soon follow.

The position of the feet as they become visible will give you an indication of the calf’s position. In a normal, forward-position delivery (feet and head first), the soles of the front feet are pointed down, and the joint of the leg bends down (figure 1).

In a backward delivery, the soles of the feet are up, and the first joint of the leg (pastern) bends upward.

As the process continues, a cow may lay down or stand and move around in a nervous, restless fashion. Many times, she will lay back down and continue with the delivery. As the normal delivery continues, you can see the nose of the calf.

With the presentation of the calf, delivery moves quickly to completion. Sometimes, a cow will stand during this phase. Standing as the calf’s shoulders pass through the pelvic canal assists in postioning the calf for delivery:

this arches the calf’s hips high through the wider part of the pelvis; and
the use of gravity helps in completing the delivery.

Figure 1.–A normal anterior presentation

In most cases after delivery, the cow will clean and dry the calf off by licking the hair coat. This helps remove the membranes from the 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-calf heifers, you should determine possible causes for delay after an hour. You’ll need to determine the position of the calf, whether or not it’s still alive, and what’s causing the delay in delivery.

If all calves were presented in the normal position, there wouldn’t be any problems except in the heifers with calves that are too large to pass through the birth canal.

Stage 3: Cleaning after calving

In this stage, the placenta (afterbirth) is passed. This normally occurs within an hour or two, but it can be retained for several hours. Cases of retention involving normal delivery are often the result of fatigue.

If your herd has high rates of retained placentas, you should check diet ration for protein and energy values. Any of several mineral deficiencies–selenium, for example–may also cause this problem.

Figure 2.–A typical pelvic opening of the bovine female
Forefeet back

One of the most common calving problems–and the easiest to correct–occurs when one or both of the forefeet are back and the head is presented in a normal position (figure 3).

Figure 3.-Calf presented with its head in the birth canal but with one or both forelegs retained  Figure 4.-Two front legs presented with calf’s head down between legs

Some presentations are more difficult to solve. For example, a calf that has his nose down, and the bridge of the nose is butting up against the brim of the pelvis, may be harder to correct (figure 4). If not corrected, the calf’s head can fall down between the forelegs, which will prevent the delivery from continuing.

Backwards calf

This is another problem that’s sometimes seen (figure 5).

Calf upside down

Sometimes, you may find a calf that’s not backwards but coming forward and upside down in the birth canal. An upside-down calf will, of course, have a knee joint there, and it will bend upward only.

Figure 5.–A normal posterior position  Figure 6.–Calf presented in a breech position
Breech calf

This differs from a backwards calf–the calf is backward, and the legs are down (figure 6). In other words, the calf’s back is being presented at the entrance to the birth canal with no feet visible.

Caesarean sections

There may be times when a C-section is the only solution. A C-section may be the only means of saving the life of the cow and, therefore, protect the investment in the cow or heifer.

A C-section is major surgery, which means that you’ll probably sell the cow, and you won’t keep her around in the breeding herd for another year. If the calf is lost, you can still protect your dollar investment in the cow by selling her.
Post partum care–the calf
Helping the calf after it’s on the ground is important, especially if the cow doesn’t get up to clean the calf. Make sure the calf can breathe and that its mouth and nose are free of mucus and phlegm. By tickling the inside of a nostril, a reflex action or sneeze helps to clear out the mucus.

Sometimes, if you’re strong and tall enough, it helps to clear the air passageway by holding the calf upside down and swinging it back and forth. Often, you’ll need a dry rag or glove to keep a tight grip-the legs may be very slippery.


There are several types of respirators available commercially. The least expensive method of reviving a calf is to place your hand around the mouth, close off one nostril, and blow into the other nostril at about 6- or 7-second intervals.

This is very effective in getting the calf to breathe after a difficult birth. As you continue this attempt, someone else should be drying the calf or rubbing its body vigorously to stimulate circulation.

Use iodine

Treat the navel with an iodine solution–especially calves born in a muddy or wet environment.

Colostrum milk

Make sure the calf gets it within the first 2 to 3 hours after birth. Colostrum is the calf’s only source of protection from many infectious agents. Research indicates that newborn calves are only able to absorb the immunoglobulins in colostrum within the first 24 to 36 hours.

A rapid decrease of the immunoglobulins in colostrum is also noted within the first 12 hours after calving. The antibody concentration in the first milking is twice that present in the second, five times that in the third milking, and ten times that in the fourth milking.

A calf should receive 10% of its body weight in colostrum in its first 24 hours of life. This is about a gallon of colostrum for an 85 lb calf. You could freeze and store colostrum for situations when none is available.

To ensure a high quality and concentration of immunoglobulins, you should consider using a colostrometer to test colostrum obtained from other sources. Superior-rated colostrum will contain greater than 50 mg/ml of total immunoglobulins.

Post partum care–the cow
Many times, problems associated with birth can create additional challenges. As a precaution against infection, you should give an antibiotic to any cow that has needed assistance at birth, especially when assistance was prolonged or when you were required to place your hands inside the vagina or uterus.
Retained placenta

Treatment is indicated if the placenta doesn’t fall out after 24 hours.


Two types of prolapse can occur, vaginal or uterine. Vaginal prolapses occur most often before calving.

Uterine prolapse can pose an emergency situation.

Try to keep the cow as quiet as possible to avoid bleeding. Cean the tissue with a warm saline solution and wrap in a wet sheet until help arrives.

The tendency to prolapse can be associated with specific cows or blood lines. Therefore, it’s recommended that you identify heifers and cows that have prolapsed and cull them to help alleviate the problem.

A high percentage of uterine prolapses can be avoided:

Synchronized pulling with the cows’ own contractions will minimize uterine exhaustion and injury.
After difficult births, cows are prone to prolapse unless they’re encouraged to stand–which allows gravity to pull the 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 the frequency of prolapse.

Remember. . .
We’re concerned about the welfare of both the cow and the calf. When assistance at birth is needed, it should be given by trained individuals. Excessive force should never be used.

Proper facilities and equipment, and applying practical skills, can help minimize many calving problems.

Give consideration, too, to management practices that allow for the proper development of replacement heifers and the selection of bulls that sire lower-birth-weight calves.

“Calving difficulties in beef cattle”
EC 1370
Prepared by Michael E. Howell, Extension agent (livestock), Malheur County; William A. Zollinger, Extension beef specialist; and Donald E. Hansen, Extension veterinarian; Oregon State University.
Reprinted November 1992.


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