Regardless of whether producers are ready for the calving season, calves are being born.

Being prepared is one of the best ways to ensure that the season goes smoothly, say Carl Dahlen, North Dakota State University Extension Service beef cattle specialist, and Gerald Stokka, NDSU Extension veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist. Here is what they say should be in every producer’s calving tool kit:

  • Clean calving-assistance area, with head catch, swing-out gate and rope halter
  • Clean bucket, disinfectant, obstetrical chains or straps and handles
  • Calf puller, although it should be used sparingly
  • Colostrum replacement/supplement

“Fresh colostrum is preferred when available from healthy, disease-free cows,” Dahlen says.

Difficult Births

A large percentage of dystocia, or calving difficulty in cattle having a single calf, is due to the calf simply being too large to pass easily through the birth canal.

“Intervention in these cases may be a matter of attaching chains or straps to the legs of the calf and making sure that the head and shoulders can come through the birth canal,” Stokka says. “If the head will not enter the pelvis along with the legs, stop at this point and call your veterinarian.”

Breech births, where the calf is coming out butt first, with the rear legs under the calf, need skilled help. Calves cannot be turned around in the uterus, and in a breech birth, the rear legs must be manipulated carefully to allow for the backward delivery.

“Backward calves need to breathe once the umbilical cord breaks; thus, these calves must be delivered quickly,” Dahlen says.

A major cause of dystocia in twin births is malpresentation. In these cases, the body or body parts of one calf are preventing the body of the second calf from passing through the birth canal.

Cow factors also contribute to birthing problems. Heifers are more likely to have problems than older cows, and thin cows are more likely to have problems than cows in moderate body condition, Dahlen says. In either case, cows that have been in labor for an excessive amount of time can become tired and stop active labor. Once a cow has stopped actively laboring, she will need assistance to deliver the calf.

Delivery Assistance

The uterus is a sterile environment, and any bacteria you put in the uterus has the potential to cause an infection, which may lead to difficulty with rebreeding. So when you decide to go into the cow, remember to be as clean as possible, Dahlen says. Clean the area around the birth canal, disinfect calving chains or straps before using them, and make sure you are wearing plastic artificial insemination sleeves.

“Before applying any force on the calf, take a bit of time to relax and concentrate on what you feel,” Stokka advises. “Go through the following mental checklist: Which direction is the calf facing? Is the head properly presented between the legs, or is it facing away from the rest of the body? Do the two legs you feel belong to the same calf?”

If you find a cow that has been calving for a while, the calf may feel slightly dry when you enter the cow. In this case, use plenty of lubricant to make the calf come out more easily; you never can use too much.

“Getting malpresented calves sorted out can be a chore, but rushing may do more harm than good,” Dahlen says.

When using calving chains, place a single loop on the legs of the calf well above the ankle joint, then make an additional loop between the ankle and hoof. Making two loops will spread the force placed on the legs over a greater surface area, resulting in less overall force at a single point on the legs. This reduces the likelihood of damaging the leg bones or growth plates in the legs during the extraction process.

When assisting in the delivery, work with the cow’s contractions. Also remember that any trauma caused during the delivery will result in the calf taking longer to recover from delivery and more time before the cow starts to cycle again.

A mechanical calf puller can be a useful tool, but use the same principles of working with the cow’s contractions and not applying too much force, Stokka says.

In some instances, the calf’s hips may become stuck. If the shoulders and chest have cleared the cow’s vulva, do not continue to exert pressure on the calf. Release the pressure to allow the calf to breathe, and use the calf puller like fulcrum (a pivot around which a lever turns), bringing the end of the puller toward the cow’s feet, which often pops the calf loose.

A way to reduce the chances of a calf’s hips becoming stuck is to rotate the calf’s body a half turn once the chest has cleared the cow’s vulva.

Once delivery is complete, the calf may seem to have difficulty breathing. Gently using a piece of straw or hay in the nostril may be enough to stimulate the breathing process. Do not hang the calf upside down or swing it back and forth to remove fluid in the lungs because this will not work and actually can make breathing more difficult for the calf.

“If you find yourself in a situation that is beyond your capabilities, do not hesitate to call your veterinarian or a neighbor with more calving experience,” Dahlen says.