In general, our cows in the U.S. are low-maintenance creatures that take care of themselves. They calve unassisted and the calf nurses within an hour. But there are times when a cow needs help.
Use the rule “progress every hour” when deciding when it’s time for a vaginal exam. If you see a heifer with her water sac out and an hour later the tips of the calf’s feet are showing, leave her alone. However, if there’s no progress an hour later, it’s time to do an exam.
Always have disinfectant, lubricant and plastic OB sleeves on hand during calving season. Clean the cow’s vulva, and with plenty of lube, gently advance your OB-gloved arm forward until you can feel the calf. I will base all my following comments on a calf with normal presentation and posture, which is frontwards with its head resting on its extended front legs.
Next, put an OB sleeve on both arms and go back in vaginally. Clasp your hands together and move your arms out laterally. This stretching action helps dilate the vagina and vulva. I do this on every dystocia I encounter and have not caused a laceration since adopting this technique. The dilatation takes ½-2 minutes and the calf’s legs should be protruding 4-6 in. further than when you began.
Apply the OB chains next. Loop one around the narrowest part of the leg – high and tight. Many pictures show this loop a bit too close to the foot; if it’s not tight enough, it can slip and damage the dewclaws. Next, make a half-hitch and place that loop just below the dewclaws. Keep tension on this chain and repeat on the other leg.
The next thing I always do is lay the cow down, which is the natural position for a cow to deliver. It usually takes the owner and me about a minute to do this. For a demonstration of this technique by the Purdue Beef Team, watch this video on www.youtube.com.
In this video, three students are involved, but only 1-2 people are generally needed. If I do have two people, one pulls on the OB chain while the other pulls on the rope. Pulling on the chain causes the cow to have a contraction and she naturally wants to lie down.
Once on her side, the cow really starts pushing. You can pull by hand or use a calf jack, but only exert the force of two men pulling. Only pull when the cow pushes; you’re much more likely to injure the cow or calf if you rush the process. Nature does not “launch” calves out of the cow and neither should you.
When the calf is halfway out, the cow generally takes a break. This is completely natural. The calf starts breathing and, as the cow rests, the calf’s hips are nearing the cow’s pelvis. If you rush, you can jam the calf’s hips into the cow’s pelvis. If you relax and wait, the cow generally turns the calf and out it slides. Remember the cow is widest vertically and the calf is widest horizontally. Having the calf turn makes delivery easier on both dam and calf.
A final note: If your vaginal exam determines the calf is in the wrong presentation or posture, you have two choices – fix it or call your herd health veterinarian for assistance. If the calf is coming backwards, you can follow the above instructions with one major exception. As the hips pass through the cow’s pelvis, you want to quickly pull the calf. If the calf starts breathing with its head still inside the cow, it will breathe in fetal fluids which must then be expelled.
Here’s to a successful calving season.