Heifers On Pasture

Animal Reproductive Technologies


Animal Reproductive Technologies

VACCINATIONS, TREATMENTS & MANAGEMENT PROGRAMS                               September, 2005



Calving difficulty (Dystocia)


The symptoms of dystocia are obvious in most cases.  The fetal membranes or the calf is seen in vulva or the cow is laying on her side and straining.  Sometimes though, the signs of dystocia are not as obvious.  For instance, a breech (pelvic or tail) presentation, a twisted uterus, or a lateral (calf turned sideways) presentation may cause the heifer or cow to show very few signs of calving.  In these cases you must observe and act when subtle signs are seen.  These subtle signs may include nervousness, walking, lying down and rising again quickly, mild straining, a persistently elevated tail, isolation from the herd, a discharge from the vulva that is bloody or even clear with a low viscosity.


How long should I wait? 

Generally 2 hours from the time that the cow’s water bag is showing or breaks is long enough to wait and she should have assistance at that time.  Sometimes a cow will only show subtle sign of trying to calf (Breech presentations for instance).  These signs include and tail elevation.


Heifers should be allowed a maximum of 2 hours from the time that the "water bag" is exposed to have her calf.  After that she should be assisted.  During the waiting period though, leave her alone and stay out of her sight, as disturbances may delay calving.  Plan to have her at the calving barn within 2 hours if she makes no progress.  If in doubt about when she started to calve (i.e. water already broken and a foot exposed) when you first find her, check for progress in 30 to 40 minutes.  If no progress has been made, take her to the calving barn and give her assistance.  If only subtle signs of impending parturition are seen it is sometimes difficult to decide whether to wait or help.   If these signs persist for 2 hours and no progress is made, the cow should probably be examined.  You may just be too early, but it is better to be safe than sorry.



When giving assistance there are several procedures that should be followed in all cases.  These include:

1.         Wash vulva and your hands and arms with a disinfectant soap prior to exam

2.         Use a sleeve to examine the heifer

3.         Use lots of water-soluble, clean lubricant in examination and delivery, especially if the birth canal is dry when examined.

4.         Double loop the chains on the calf’s pastern and above the fetlock before applying traction.  A single loop may cause a broken leg.

5.         If it is necessary to repel the calf back into the uterus in order to straighten a leg or the head, take your time.  Rapid forceful repulsion will damage or rupture the uterus.  Use lots of lube.  If it requires a lot of force to repel the calf an epidural may be required.


Calving supplies:

1.            Disinfectant solution (Nolvasan or Betadine) for washing the vulva; one ounce per gallon of clean water is an effective wash solution.

2.         Soap,  Ivory soap or other detergent

3.            Obstetrical lubricant;  always use a lot of lubricant in delivering a calf especially if the cow has been trying to calf for a while and the tract is dry.

4.            Obstetrical chains, 2 - 30” chains and 2 - 60” chains

5.         3- handles for chains

6.         Calf puller or a come-along

7.         Calf supplies: iodine, C&D antitoxin, C&D toxoid, Calfgaurd, BoSe, B-vitamins, iron tattoo pliers, tattoo letters and numbers, tattoo ink, ear tagger, ear tags, tag marking pen,

8.         Dopram injectable

9.         Oxygen

10.            Endotracheal tube





The calf is too big:

The best indicator of whether a large calf is pullable or not, is whether the calf’s head and legs are through the cows pelvis and presented at the vulva.  If the feet and nose are visible in the vulva, palpate the birth canal to check for additional room and if the pelvis seems as if it will accommodate the calf go ahead and pull it.  If the calf’s head has not entering the cow’s pelvis in spite of adequate dilation of the cow’s birth canal, an attempt can be made to straighten the head.  You can use a loop of chain around the poll and into the mouth to attempt to straighten the head.  Once the chain is on the head, moderate traction on the head can be applied to pull it into the birth canal.  Use lots of lube.  Do not apply heavy traction to the head during a difficult pull, use the loop of chain around its head only to straighten the head.  Once the head is in the birth canal traction should only be placed on the feet.  If the head will not enter the birth canal in spite of direct traction, it is likely that the heifer requires a C-section. 


The calf is backwards,

If no legs are present but the tail and pelvis are found, it is a breech presentation.  It is easiest to work with a cow that has a breech presentation by first giving her an epidural anesthetic with 5 to 12 cc of 2% Lidocaine.  After the epidural takes effect you can gently push the calf’s rump back into the womb and reach for the hock of the first rear leg.  Once the hock is found place one end of a 60” chain in front of and around the calf’s hock and pull it back out of the vulva so that both ends of the chain are outside the vulva.  Place one end of the chain through the loop on the other end and tighten the chain around the area of the leg below the hock (cannon).  Then push the loop in the chain down the leg until it is around the calf’s pastern (between the dew claws and the foot).  Next you need to push the hock up and forward while gently applying traction to the calf’s pastern (foot), in order to deliver the foot into the birth canal.  If the foot is hard to pull it is necessary to protect the uterus and vagina from bruising or laceration caused by the calves hoof.  Use your hand around the calf’s hoof to protect the cow’s uterus as you apply traction on the chain.  It will sometimes take several attempts at first pushing the hock forward and alternately applying traction on the foot to succeed and not damage to the uterus or vagina.   Once you get the first foot delivered; repeat the process on the second leg.  A similar procedure will work for the front legs that are back.  After both legs are delivered proceed as outlined below under “backward with the feet presented”.


The calf’s feet are upside down:

There are two common situations where you may find feet upside down in the vulva (sole facing upward toward the cow’s tail)

1.            Backwards with the feet presented.  Usually it is OK to pull these calves if the rump and tail will enter the cows pelvis easily.  If it is difficult to get the calf’s hips into the cow’s pelvic canal due to large calf size, the calf may also hang up when it’s ribs are pulled through the cow’s pelvis.  It takes good judgment and experience to decide when to pull these calves and when to call the veterinarian for a cesarean section operation.  It is frequently better to do a cesarean section if the calf is large.

2.            Forwards but upside down:  Usually the head is back also.  As you straighten the head and bring it into the birth canal, the calf will begin to twist into an upright position with assistance.  Be aware that the uterus may also be twisted.


Twisted uterus: 

As you enter the birth canal, if the vagina narrows down drastically before you can reach the calf or cervical area consider the possibility that the cow has a twisted uterus.  If this has occurred you may be able to identify longitudinal spiral folding in the wall of the vagina.  It may be difficult to reach the calf, but if the cervix is dilated this is usually possible.  This condition needs to be differentiated from a simple non-dilated cervix preventing access to the calf, but the characteristic feel of the twist in the vagina is diagnostic.  The calf is probably lying upside down or sideways unless the twist is almost 360 degrees.  Swinging the calf in the opposite direction of the torsion or rolling the cow in the same direction as the torsion while stabilizing the calf can sometimes correct a twisted uterus.  It is always necessary to un-twist the uterus before you can deliver the calf through the vagina.  If attempts at un-twisting the uterus fail a C-Section is required.


A leg is back: 

After delivering both legs into the birth canal make sure that you have a matching pair of front feet or back feet.  Occasionally there will only be one leg showing and the nearest foot inside the uterus is not the mate to the one showing.  Also verify the two legs you are pulling on belong to the same calf.  When twins are present they will sometimes each have a leg in the birth canal.


The head is back: 

Unless the head can be easily straightened and brought into the cow’s pelvis; you must consider this to be a sign that the calf is too big for vaginal delivery.  If you attempt to straighten the head use a 60” chain and place a large loop around the calf’s poll (behind the ears) and through the mouth.  gentle traction can thus be applied to the head.  Be careful!  Any manipulation of the calf’s head is dangerous.


Sideways calf: 

This is a rare condition and may be seen when the calf is a mal-formed “fetal monster”, dead, or paralyzed (arthrogryposis).  Use an epidural of 5 to 10 ml of Lidocaine before manipulating the calf.  It manipulations are difficult or impossible a cesarean section is required.   


The heifer isn’t dilated yet

You can bring the calf’s feet and head into the birth canal, but you should proceed slowly, allowing time for the birth canal to dilate further.  You can also wait for 30 minutes to see if she dilates better.  Occasionally the cervix will not adequately dilate.  This condition is referred to as “ring womb”.  If not severely restricted, gentle but persistent traction applied to the calf will allow delivery with minimal trauma to the cervix or vagina.  If severe a C-Section is required.  Sometimes a heifer will require an episiotomy in order to deliver a calf vaginally.


Some other common procedures



An episiotomy is an incision in the dorsal lateral wall of the exterior vulva.   An episiotomy can be used to increase the vulvar area when a calf is progressing through the pelvis, but birth is impeded by small vulvar area.  The episiotomy should begin at 10:00 o’clock or 2:00 o’clock positions on the outside of the vulva and extend into the vulva only as far as is necessary to allow exteriorization of the crown of the head.  Usually birth will proceed easily thereafter.  The incision should be sutured immediately after delivery.  Usually the area is numb and little if any local anesthetic is required for suturing.



This procedure involves cutting a calf into multiple sections for easy delivery.  Fetotomy procedures are usually only done on a dead and decomposing calf (puke!), that are too large to deliver.  Since C-section is not a good option when the calf is decomposing, it is better to dissect the calf in-utero.  Do yourself a favor and call the veterinarian.


Post delivery care:

1.            Administer 2 or 3 ml. of oxytocin to the cow after a difficult delivery.  You can use this opportunity to easily obtain some colostrum from the cow, as oxytocin will do two things: cause involution of the uterus and cause let down of her milk.

2.         If the calf is weak or stressed; milk the heifer for colostrum before releasing her.  Wait a few minutes after administering the oxytocin, as this will cause her to "let down" her milk.

3.         If a heifer's vulva is torn; take the time to clean the area, dry the vulva and suture the laceration or use Super-Glue to glue only the skin of the laceration so that the vulva looks as normal as possibly (don’t glue the placenta to the vulva).  If the heifer is excessively "stretched out" place a purse string suture around the entire circumference of the vulva using a Buhner needle and umbilical tape.  Don't forget to untie and remove the purse string in 2 to 4 days.



This outline is presented only as a basis for discussion.  A final plan can be developed based on herd requirements and new products that become available.   


Patrick J. Hemming DVM




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