One of the beef producer's biggest dilemmas during calving season is when to call for assistance for a cow or heifer that is calving. As a producer, the obvious goal is to get a live calf, but there's always that worry of “calling too soon.”

Talk to veterinarians who do a lot of beef work and you'll quickly discover “calling too soon” is something that seldom happens. “If I was only called a few hours earlier,” is a typical response from the veterinarian who delivers a dead calf.

As veterinarians, we have the same goal as the producer — to get a live calf. So, when is it time for you to give the calving cow or heifer help, and when is it time to call for assistance?

Our most current knowledge is that Stage 2 labor (delivery of the calf) occurs more quickly than previously thought. A cow should make significant progress every 30 minutes, while a heifer should do the same in 30-60 minutes. Extended time during delivery without significant progress puts undue stress on the calf and the cow.

It can be difficult to tell Stage 1 from Stage 2 labor in some cows (see Table 1). The fact that “typical” Stage 1 labor can take as much as six hours doesn't mean one should allow every female to labor for six hours before checking her. Every cow will progress differently and it is the “eye of the master” that generally determines the fate of the calf.

So, if a cow or heifer isn't making progress, the first order of business is for you to get her in and do a vaginal exam to assess the situation. Be sure to be very clean — clean the cow's vulva and wear a plastic obstetrical glove — so you prevent a potential infection.

Many situations you encounter can be corrected and the calf can be delivered. Some examples include:

  • The calf is slightly large and the vagina isn't dilated, so you manually dilate the vagina.

  • The calf has one foot slightly retained, so you reach in and gently extend it. Just be sure that anytime you move a calf's leg you protect the foot from contacting the uterine wall. Cover the hoof with your hand to prevent puncturing the uterus.

Other times, however, you will reach in and say, “Whoa, I have no idea what's going on in here.” That's an obvious indication to call.

We've all had calls where the owner says something like, “I reached in and I felt feet everywhere!” Don't proceed if it's something totally new to you. That is rule No. 1.

A second reason to call for help is when the problem is discovered (like a breech or tail-first delivery), but you're unable to fix it. These cases are truly emergencies and the quicker the problem is corrected the more likely you are to get a viable calf. Waiting any amount of time will only decrease the chances of attaining our goal of getting a live calf.

The third reason to call for assistance is when you know both the problem and the solution, but are unable to make significant progress in a timely manner. Our rule is: “If you haven't made tremendous progress in 30 minutes, it's time to call for help.” These situations are generally a case of fetal-dam disparity (or “big calf-small heifer syndrome” as a former client would say). Pulling harder is never a good option.

Often, these difficult cases can be resolved by a team consisting of the owner, the veterinarian and a calf jack. But others are resolved with a surgery pack instead of the fetal extractor.

A cesarean should not be thought of as a last-ditch option, but rather as a tool for the most difficult dystocias. If we have a live calf at the start of the surgery, we generally have a live calf and a live cow to show for our work. Rebreeding rate can be as low as 50% on cows that have a cesarean (in a 65-day breeding season), but keeping problem cows is not the goal for most herds.

We as veterinarians are very happy to have clients approach us to say that all their calves born the previous calving season came unassisted and all are alive. But, we are also glad to assist you on those more difficult cases, and the sooner the better.

Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, is an associate professor of beef production medicine at Iowa State University in Ames. W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical assistant professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.

Table 1. Stages of Labor

Stage 1 — Most noticeable in heifers. Few or none of these signs may be seen in an adult cow.

  • Female may isolate herself from the herd
  • Uneasiness +/- pain
  • Restless
  • May get up and down frequently
  • Generally lasts 2-6 hours

Stage 2 — Begins with dilatation of the cervix and vagina and the water sac (amniotic sac) protruding through the vulva.

  • Female is in active labor
  • Cows — progress every 30 minutes
  • Heifers — progress every 60 minutes

Stage 3 — Expulsion of the fetal membranes.

  • Should occur within 12 hours after calf is delivered.