3:00 a.m. February 15.  My wife pounds my chest to wake me up. My phone is ringing…again. I had become numb to the ringing as I had just fallen asleep. Earlier this night (or morning…I’d lost track at this point) I pushed a uterus back into an angry heifer tied to the hitch on the back of my pickup in a blizzard. 

Tis the season; there is another call. I finally find my phone and hoarsely say, “Hello? This is Dr. McCarty.”

“Doc!  I hope I didn’t wake you up!?!” 

“Nope, I set my alarm for 2:30, expecting your call! How can I help you?”

“Good deal. Glad I didn’t wake you. I have a heifer that isn’t making any progress and I can only find one foot. I think we are going to need to cut this one out.”

“Get her loaded and call me when you are 10 minutes away. We will see what we can do.”

Happy calving season! For the vast majority of you, it is that time of the year again — time to start checking heifers to make sure they calve and mother-up to their first calf. If you are used to calving this time of the year, you know all of the issues — unpredictable weather, not enough hours in the day, the kids are playing in basketball games every night of the week. But, it is still vital to check the heifers. Since each calf is worth a small fortune, it is more important now than ever to make sure everything goes right. 

A common question we receive as veterinarians is, “When do we need to intervene and assist heifers when they are calving?” This is a great question. If you intervene too late, you may lose the calf and maybe even the heifer. To simplify this process, I try to separate the act of calving into four different stages. Each of these stages should progress fairly quickly once the water bag appears. I tell producers to use the hour rule when going through each of these stages. In my opinion, the heifer should make some progress in a period of about an hour. Every time you check a heifer and see her at one of these stages, she should have made some progress and made it close, if not all the way, to the next stage when you come back and check her in an hour. 

Stage 1:  The heifer becomes restless and leaves the herd to start the process of labor. Usually the water bag, a large fluid-filled grayish/white structure, appears from the vulva. The water bag is usually very noticeable and varies in size from a grapefruit to a small cantaloupe.

Stage 2:  The water bag has broken and the front feet and nose start to show. This is the time when the heifer will be up and down, and she is pushing with great force. If the water bag has not broken, you should intervene. The most common reasons for a heifer not to progress in labor is the heifer doesn’t realize she is in labor and stops pushing, the calf is too big for the heifer, the heifer is too small for the calf, or the calf is malpresented (i.e., head back, leg back, backwards calf or true breech).

Stage 3:  The calf is born. The heifer should begin to lick the calf, and the calf should start to shake its head and even try to stand. If the calf hasn’t hit the ground yet, and its feet and nose have not made it any farther than they were the last time you saw her or you don’t see anything coming, you need to intervene.

This is also a good time to assess the heifer after the calf is born. If the heifer only had one calf inside of her and this was an easy calving process, she should stand up relatively quickly and begin licking the calf. Make sure the heifer can stand and hasn’t prolapsed her uterus. If she has prolapsed her uterus, call your veterinarian immediately as that is a life-threatening situation.

Stage 4:  The calf is up trying to nurse. The first milk, colostrum, is so important for each calf’s ability to survive and function for the rest of its life. We know timing of the colostrum delivery is extremely important. The sooner a calf nurses, the better the colostrum is absorbed. If a calf isn’t trying to nurse an hour after it is born, both the heifer and the calf should be brought in to assess the situation.

Good luck to you this calving season. This advice is by no means the official rules to calving-out heifers. Whether you are a seasoned veteran or a first-timer to the heifer-calving game, don’t hesitate to call your local veterinarian if you have any issues this calving season.  

Travis McCarty, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian at Ashland Veterinary Center, Inc., in southwest Kansas. McCarty specializes in cow-calf herd health and feedlot medicine. He also raises Red Angus cattle on his family’s ranch.