Assisting the posterior presentation (backwards calf)

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Although officially winter has just begun, the spring calving season in the Southern Plains is only 4 to 6 weeks away. Any cow calf producer that has spent several years in the cattle business has had the experience of assisting a cow or heifer deliver a calf that was coming backwards. Understanding the physiology and anatomy of the calf and mother will improve the likelihood of a successful outcome. Study the diagram of the “posterior presentation” shown below. 

click image to zoom

Note the relative positions of the tailhead of the baby calf and the umbilical cord that connects the calf to the mother’s blood supply. As the calf’s hips are pulled through the pelvic opening, the baby calf’s tail will reach the outer areas of the mother’s vaginal opening. Once a person can see the baby calf’s tailhead, the umbilical vessels are being compressed against the rim of the mother’s pelvic bone. The blood flow, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide, between calf and mother is greatly impaired, if not completely clamped off. 

Research, many years ago, conducted in Europe illustrates how little time it takes to compromise the calf’s survivability when the umbilical cord is clamped. These scientists studied the impact of clamping the umbilical cord for 0, 4, 6 or 8 minutes. 

click image to zoom

Certainly, if a producer does not feel confident in their abilities to deliver the backward calf, call your veterinarian immediately. Time is of the essence. As producers examine heifers or cows at calving and find a situation where the calf is coming backward, they need to keep this European data in mind. If the calf’s hips are not yet through the pelvic opening, they have a little time to locate help and have someone else to aid in the assistance process. Once the cow and the producer in concert have pushed and pulled the calf’s hips through the pelvic opening and the tailhead is apparent, the calf needs to be completely delivered as quickly as possible. The remainder of the delivery should go with less resistance as the hips are usually the toughest part to get through the pelvic opening. The shoulders may provide some resistance. However, some calf rotation and traction being applied as the cow strains will usually produce significant progress. Remember, the completion of the delivery is to be accomplished in about 4 minutes or less. The calf’s head and nostrils are in the uterine fluids and cannot breathe until completely delivered. The calf must get oxygen rapidly to offset the hypoxia that it is been subjected to during the delivery. After the calf is delivered, tickle it’s nostrils with a straw to cause snorting and inhalation of air to get it started to breathing.

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Ofallon mo  |  December, 29, 2012 at 07:20 AM

Have had a couple breech births saved both calves but didn't know the timing was so critical just got lucky I guess REALLYappreciated the picture and the general knowledge /discussion. One of the pulls this year the cow had a utterane prolapse -vet called , cow stitched, want to keep her. Assume it's related to the pull. Any advise?

Andy Meadows, DVM    
Wytheville, VA  |  December, 29, 2012 at 09:59 AM

Neil, The risk of a repeat uterine prolapse at the next calving is no greater than the risk of any random cow experiencing uterine prolapse. Her risk of failing to re-breed, however, IS higher than that of a cow that did not experience calving difficulty. The bottom line is that if she is a good cow and breeds back, there is no reason not to keep her. Also, Ken gives good advice in his post below. Good luck.

south dakota  |  December, 29, 2012 at 08:04 AM

Many times a uterine prolapse is caused by too aggressively pulling the calf. Always try to work WITH the cow, pull aggressively when the cow is straining and ease up when she is not, also a slight rotation (only a couple of degrees) helps.

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