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In most cases of dystocia, the calf can be pulled by hand. There are some instances, however, when a mechanical calf puller is needed during calving.
Producers should have three goals when providing calving assistance, says Matt Miesner, Kansas State University DVM:
- A live, viable beef calf,
- The welfare of the cow,
- Preservation of the dam’s reproductive soundness and her ability to breed back.
In most cases of dystocia during calving, the calf can be pulled by hand after correcting any abnormality of position. There are some instances, however, when a mechanical calf puller, or calf jack, is needed to pull a calf. Once it’s determined that a calf can be safely pulled, Mark Alley, DVM, a clinical assistant instructor in the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, says a calf jack is an excellent tool when used appropriately.
Most experts say you should not apply more force than that of two strong men pulling by hand. But, if you’re alone in assisting a difficult birth, a calf jack can help generate the necessary force.
The criteria Alley uses for predicting ease of birth during calving is if he can get the calf’s head and front legs into the pelvis without traction and can get his hand between the calf’s forehead and the cow.
“This usually means it can be a vaginal delivery,” Alley says. If the calf’s head is hitting the cow’s pelvis, it may not come through and delivery by C-section may be necessary.
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“If the forelegs are crossed, this usually means it’s a big calf and the shoulders are wedged in the cow’s pelvis. This may or may not be one the calf jack can be used on.”
Pulling a calf properly
When assisting a delivery, never continuously pull at full strength. Only pull when the cow strains, and rest while she rests.
“A calf jack is the best tool for holding the calf at the point it is in the birth process. I use it to hold (and not lose ground). A calf jack can be detrimental if you just continue to crank,” Miesner says.
He adds that research shows a calf jack can exert 2,000 lbs. of pull, while two men typically exert about 400 lbs. “If I can get a calf out with hand pulling, it’s a lot easier on the calf,” he says.
Correct placement of the chains is critical to prevent injury to the calf. “Put one loop above the fetlock joint and a second loop (half-hitch) below it, for two points of pull. This spreads the pressure so it doesn’t all come in one place,” Meisner says.
Make sure the cow is properly dilated before pulling; if not, move slowly and pull gradually while using plenty of lubrication. “If you’re making progress and the calf’s legs are coming through to help the cervix dilate, it will probably be all right,” Miesner says.
“If you feel you’re putting too much pressure on the calf, stop and reassess the situation. This is just a feel, rather than something you can measure or see,” Alley says. The amount of pressure you can safely apply during calving assistance will vary with each cow or heifer and size of the calf.