“I have a nightmare, doc.” I hear those words on the other end of the line as I turn around and see the clock shows 2am. As I ask questions – more to wake me up than to gather information – I realize I’m going to have to leave the comfort of my warm blankets. I tell the farmer I’m on my way, as I start to put on layers to venture out into the cold. The reader is groggy, trying to stay awake between sips of cold, stale coffee left in the truck from the night before. As I pull up, the farmer comes out of the house to meet me and we gather all my supplies and walk into the barn. I’m grateful to be out of the wind, but it’s still cold enough inside the barn to feel my breath crystallize in my nose. Lying in the corner is a docile heifer with only one of the calf’s feet sticking out. We put her in the crush, and I confirm that the calf has one leg back. It’s a big calf, but I’m able to pull the other leg in and deliver the calf safely.”
As livestock producers, I know you have all had similar experiences. You should never hesitate to contact your vet if necessary, but I’ll pass on some things I’ve learned to help you feel more comfortable with calving assistance.
When to intervene during calving
You must provide immediate assistance if you notice abnormal calf presentation (rear feet, single leg, etc.) or when there is no progress after 30 minutes for a cow or 60 minutes for a heifer.
Performing an obstetric examination
After determining that it is time to intervene, the obstetrical examination is the next step. Proper restraint during the examination is crucial. I’ve done my fair share of rope-end calving assistance, and there’s a much higher likelihood of injury or calf loss without proper restraint. Imagine this: take the calf out halfway and the heifer decides to jump and turn from side to side as fast as she can. A commercial calving crush or pen is well worth the investment.
During the exam, use plenty of lubricant and stay as clean as possible. You check for full dilation of the cervix and presentation of the calf. If the cervix is not dilated, you will feel a tight ring of tissue around the wrist to the middle of the forearm.
The normal presentation of the calf corresponds to the two front legs with the head between them. If you don’t know which legs are coming, check the joints. The first two joints of the front legs flex the same way, but the first two joints of the hind legs flex in the opposite direction.
Navigate common misrepresentations
Malpresentations of the calf will require manipulations to allow delivery. If you get nothing else from this article, remember this: don’t be afraid to push back the calf! If there is too much volume in the birth canal, it is nearly impossible to safely manipulate and raise the legs.
Leg back: Push the calf deeper into the uterus to push the head out of the birth canal. When the cow leans against you, the calf’s head will want to come right back into the pelvis, so I often turn my head to the side. Find the leg that is behind and pull on the knee joint so you can reach the hoof. You need to cut the hoof with your hand when pulling the leg into the pelvis, so that the foot does not enter the uterus. With larger calves, you often have to push the shoulder or knee back with one arm while the hand holding the hoof pulls it into the birth canal. When both legs are in the pelvis, raise your head and release the calf.
Step back: If the shoulders are engaged in the birth canal, push the calf back to rotate the head. The easiest way to grab the head is by the nostrils or hooking the cheek. In my experience a good percentage of calves that turn up this way are too big to deliver safely, so if you can’t keep your head engaged in the pelvis when you start pulling, the calf has to probably be delivered by Caesarean section.
Backward: An upside-down calf is one that is presented with the back feet sticking out. You can pull the calves this way, but you need to pull them quickly so they don’t inhale liquid or suffocate. I always use a mechanical calf puller for the back calves to ensure as fast a delivery as possible. Make sure the tail is tucked between the hind legs before shooting.
Cylinder head: A breech presentation occurs when the calf reaches tail first and both hind legs are down. These can be exceptionally difficult to get the back legs up; I advise you to seek the help of your veterinarian for these. If you must try this for yourself, you must push the calf forward out of the birth canal. Then, with one hand, you should push the hock or croup forward while your other hand picks up the foot and flexes the leg in the pelvis. The fun part is having to do it again for the other leg.
Once the calf arrives the right way, it’s time for delivery! Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll discuss shooting and delivering a calf safely. Refer to my last article, “3 Tips to Keep in Mind This Calving Season,” for best practices to consider. Keep learning and preparing for calving season at ValleyVet.com.
About the Author: Valley Vet Supply Technical Service Veterinarian Tony Hawkins, DVM, attended Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where he focused on mixed practice. Prior to joining Valley Vet Supply’s team of technical service veterinarians, Dr. Hawkins practiced veterinary medicine in Marysville, Kansas where he was extensively involved in livestock health including processing, midwifery and maintenance of the local sales barn. He is also cherished by the community for his care of horses and pets, through wellness appointments and surgery.
About Valley Vet Supply
Valley Vet Supply was founded in 1985 by veterinarians to provide customers with the best animal health solutions. Backed by over half a century of experience in veterinary medicine, Valley Vet Supply serves horse, pet and livestock owners with thousands of veterinarian hand-picked products and medications Valley Vet Supply’s technical service and team of industry professionals. With an in-house pharmacy licensed in all 50 states and verified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), Valley Vet Supply is the dedicated source for all things equine, livestock and pets. For more information, please visit ValleyVet.com.