About 80% of all calves lost at birth are anatomically normal. Most deaths are due to injuries or suffocation resulting from calving or delayed calving. Knowing when and how to assist (or more importantly, when the situation calls for the timely attention of an experienced veterinarian) can make a big difference in the calf crop from year to year.

The first step to a successful calving season is recognizing a normal calving. As long as the calf is normally presented, the vast majority of animals will give birth without assistance. Recognizing a normal calving that doesn't require assistance can be as important as knowing when calving is abnormal and requires assistance.

The most likely candidates for problems are first-calf heifers. Less than 2% of calving difficulties occur in mature cows. Special attention should be given to young heifers, which are also more apt to tire quickly, especially if they are in sub-optimal body condition. See Table 1 for stages of normal delivery.

Table 1. Stages of Normal Delivery Stage and Time Event

  1. Preparatory (2-6 hours)
  2. Calf rotates to upright position
  3. Uterine contractions begin
  4. Water sac expelled
  1. Delivery (1 hour or less)
  2. Cow usually lying down
  3. Fetus enters birth canal
  4. Front feet and head protrude first
  5. Calf delivery complete
  1. Cleaning (2-8 hours)
  2. Button attachments on placenta relax
  3. Uterine contractions expel membranes
Here are some tips on when and how to assist the cow:
  • Rule of thumb: Assist after 30 minutes of no progress.
  • Cleanliness is a must. Introduction of bacteria by equipment or arms of the person assisting can reduce fertility by delaying return to estrus and lowering conception.
  • Wash and disinfect equipment, arms and perineal area (anus and vulva).
  • Do NOT use liquid soap as a lubricant. It breaks down the natural lubricant of the cow. Methylcellulose based lube is best. You can also use cooking oil, mineral oil or vaseline.
  • Calving area should be 12 sq. ft. minimum, covered, well lit and well bedded.
  • Assess the situation by asking these four questions - in order - each time during an assist: Has the cervix dilated? Is the water sac broken? Is the calf in the proper position? Can the calf pass through the pelvis?
  • You can tell if the cervix is dilated by sliding your palm along the vaginal wall toward the uterus. You should not feel cervix or any cervical ridges (should be continuous and smooth). Assisting prior to full dilation can damage the cow and injure the calf.
  • Once the water sac is broken, it's important to make good progress. First, because there is a loss of lubrication. Second, the calf's impetus to take the first breath is the pressure differential between an all-water environment and an all-air environment. If the calf has tried to begin breathing, you will see a frothy mouth and nostrils. NEVER try to rupture the sac (unlike in horses and humans where rupturing the sac can increase strength of contractions and speed delivery).
  • If the position of the fetus is abnormal, use your best judgment to determine if you can correct the situation or should call the veterinarian. About 5% of calving difficulties result from abnormal presentation, and most need the expertise of a veterinarian to assist.
  • Assess the size of the calf relative to the birth canal. Forcing a large calf through a small pelvic opening can result in injury and/or death of the cow and calf. If the head and front feet are still in the birth canal, a veterinarian can still deliver via caesarian.
  • Chains 60 in. long are suggested over 30-in. chains. Attach the chains below the dewclaw and above the hooves. Placement is important to avoid injuring the calf.
  • Pull alternately on each leg to "walk" the shoulders out. At this point, traction should be applied straight back toward the tail head. All traction should be applied gradually to prevent damage that will result in later infertility of the cow.
  • Once the head and shoulders are free, rotate the calf 90° to aid in passage of the hips. Apply traction downward.
  • If the calf becomes "hip locked," the umbilical can be pinched. If delivery is delayed, make sure the calf begins breathing normally and call for professional help.
  • All posterior (rear feet first) presentations are an emergency. Delivery must be made quickly and professional assistance is preferred.


Other tips: It's best for a cow to lay on her left side so the rumen lays under and not on top of the calf. Always set the cow back up after birth to avoid bloat.

Breach births and/or uterine fatigue are often characterized by a cow that acts like she wants to calve, then stops and grazes for a while, repeating this behavior several times. Call for assistance!

Finally, note that penicillin isn't a long-acting treatment. One dose of penicillin only lasts about 6 hours in the bloodstream. Longer acting, broad-spectrum antibiotics are available from your veterinarian and should be used with his/her guidance.

-- University of Missouri-Columbia