Practical tips on assisting backward calves to cut calving losses.
Most calves are born head first, front feet extended. But, a few are positioned backward (posterior presentation) and may not survive birth without help.
While the fetus is growing in the uterus, it's quite active and can change positions, especially while still relatively small. The position of a fetus when a cow is preg-checked isn't necessarily the position it will be in when the birth process begins.
For instance, one fall (after a calving season with five backward deliveries in our herd of 170 cows), we asked our vet (Dr. Robert Cope, Salmon, ID) to check which way each calf was lying when he preg-tested the cows.
He says at that stage of pregnancy (5-6 months), many calves are positioned backward but shift to proper position by birth. We took note of the dozen backward at that time. None were born backward, but three others were (calves that weren't backward during the preg-test).
A number of factors may influence whether a calf ends up in a posterior or anterior (frontward) presentation at birth, but the most influential factor is heredity, says Duane Mickelsen, bovine reproductive specialist at Washington State University in Pullman.
Mickelsen cites the work of G.H. Arthur, an English veterinarian who found that almost all fetuses are carried backward and upside down during the first 6-611/42 months of gestation and then rotate to anterior position. Only 5% or less remain in posterior position. But, this average 5% figure may increase when certain bulls are used.
Bull Choices May Be A Problem Mickelsen says several ranchers he's worked with had higher instances of backward calves some years and began to suspect the sires. Certain bulls sired more backward-birth calves. When those sires were no longer used, incidence of backward births dropped.
More studies need to be done to confirm this, but Mickelsen has heard and read of many similar situations - enough to suspect that heredity plays a major role. It may be that calves sired by some bulls grow too large by that stage of gestation when the fetus is rotating.
Mickelsen also says size itself doesn't mean a calf will be backward, since many huge calves are properly positioned. But, he adds, there may be a correlation between fetal growth stages - which might be influenced by heredity - and whether the fetus shifts its position by the time it is 6-611/42 months along.
He says, "If a rancher has a sudden increase in backward calves over what has been the usual herd average, suspect heredity. Take a look at the bull being used."
Dealing With Backward Births Our veterinarian once told us a person is lucky to save one out of 10 backward calves. This is true when cows are not being checked frequently. But with closer observation - and assistance at the proper time - those odds can be beaten.
In the 1960s, when our cows calved on pasture in late spring, we averaged a 4% death loss. Since 1969 we've calved in winter, putting cows into pens or barns to calve and we're there for every birth. As a result, our birth losses dropped under 1% with no losses at all most years. Of a total of 55 backward and breech calves in the past 28 years, we've lost only four.
Most posterior or breech presentations can be safely delivered, Cope says. A backward calf is an emergency. If hind legs don't enter the birth canal, or the calf is in breech position (rump first, legs forward in sitting position), the calf can't be born. The legs must be brought into the birth canal before the birth can continue.
Even if the legs do enter the canal, birth is generally so slow and difficult the calf suffocates when the umbilical cord breaks or pinches off since head and shoulders are still inside the cow. If a posterior or breech presentation is recognized early, there's a better chance of saving the calf by helping the cow and speeding the birth process - pull the calf.
During early labor the calf moves a lot. If it extends its hind legs and they enter the birth canal, it can usually be born successfully with assistance. Most backward calves don't survive birth unless you pull them out and hasten the process. If a calf doesn't get its legs extended to enter the birth canal, it can't be born until the hind legs are brought into the canal. If this proves impossible, the calf has to be delivered by C-section.
If the calf is breech (legs not entering the birth canal), the cow is in early labor a long time and may not start straining at all. Abdominal contractions (second stage labor) don't begin until some part of the calf enters the birth canal, stimulating her to strain. If a cow does start to strain on a breech calf, she's jamming hocks or hips into the birth canal, but the calf can't come through.
Look For Signs If a cow is in early labor a long time or doesn't progress to hard straining when you think she should, check her, Cope says. A delay usually means the calf is positioned wrong. The problem must be corrected before the cow is in labor too long and the calf is dead.
If it is a "normal" posterior presentation (legs entering the birth canal), the feet often protrude from the vulva and you can tell they are hind feet; hooves, heels and dewclaws are up rather than down.
But before you assume the calf is backward, check. Occasionally, a frontward calf will be upside down or sideways with legs twisted. When feet first appear they are pointed upward. Always be sure which part of the calf is presented before you start to pull.
If they are front feet instead of hinds, be sure the head is there and not turned back, then rotate the calf into a more proper position before you assist the birth. Don't just assume the calf is backward and start pulling.
When helping a backward calf, go gently until the hips are free and ribcage is safely through the cow's pelvis, Cope cautions. Once hips are clear of the vulva, hurry the calf out. If you rush at first, you may injure the cow and kill the calf. He says it's not uncommon for a calf's ribcage to be crushed if you pull too forcefully, too soon, he says.
Calf Pullers If the calf is large, you can't deliver fast enough without a mechanical puller or the help of several people. A puller with cable and winch can put a lot of traction on a calf, and care must be taken not to pull too fast, especially when first easing the hips through, Cope says.
When using a puller, stop after the hocks appear and reposition the chains from the lower legs to above the calf's hocks. Otherwise, Cope adds, if the calf is long-legged you may run out of cable just when you need to pull fastest.
In breech presentation, where you must bring the legs into the birth canal, it's easier to work the legs if the cow is standing rather than lying, he says. It's easier to get both arms into the birth canal.
Push the calf back into the uterus as far as possible, Cope says. Hold him forward with one hand and grasp a leg with the other, bend the hock and lift it upward, rotating it as you lift. Draw the foot backward in an arc, keeping the hock joint flexed tightly and the calf pushed as far forward as possible. Cup your hand around the calf's foot (so it won't tear the uterus) and lift it over the cow's pelvis. Do the same with the other leg. Once both are in the birth canal, you can attach chains and pull the calf.
Get The Calf Breathing Once the calf is out, get it breathing, Cope says. Some backward calves will seem dead at birth, limp and blue, eyes glassy. A quick feel of the chest (behind the front leg, left side) will reveal a heartbeat.
Stimulate coughing by sticking a clean piece of straw up one of the calf's nostrils. If it's unconscious and blue and won't cough, close his mouth and cover one nostril with your hand, and blow gently into the other nostril.
Giving a calf artificial respiration can keep him alive and put enough oxygen into his system to revive him, Cope says. Clear any mucus from the calf's nostrils and lay the calf on its side with the head and neck outstretched. The outstretched neck will allow the air blown into the calf to enter the windpipe instead of the esophagus.
Hold the calf's mouth closed, cover one nostril, and gently, but steadily, blow a full breath into the other nostril until the chest wall rises. Then, let the air escape on its own before blowing in another breath. Keep breathing for the calf until it can breathe for itself.
Know when to seek professional help, says Robert Mortimer, DVM. The Colorado State associate professor says producers should seek help if they don't know what problem they're dealing with, or if they know the problem and solution but are unable to handle it. Or, if they know the problem and solution, but have tried and made no progress in a 30-minute period. Delaying simply jeopardizes the calf, he says.