You see hooves. Should you intervene?

When you see a cow calving off to the side in your pasture, with only hooves emerged, how long do you let her go before doing anything?

One of the common reasons for calf loss in the beef industry is difficult calving. These tips for intervention may help you mitigate losses.

To be sure, it’s not easy to tell if intervention is necessary, especially with cows out on pasture. It pays to start keeping your eye on them for labor progress at least every three hours when they are close up. As she gets closer to calving, watch her even more frequently.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has documented these guidelines on when to step in:

  1. The water sac is available for two or more hours and the cow is not trying
  2. The cow has been trying for more than 30 minutes and is making no progress
  3. The cow has quit trying for a 15–20-minute period of time after progress
  4. The cow or calf is showing signs of stress or excessive fatigue (bleeding from cows rectum, swollen tongue in calf)
  5. You observationally determine the calving to be abnormal

The basic rule of thumb for a normal calving is within 30 minutes of her water sac breaking, though first-calf heifers may take longer. If you see the cow off to the side trying to push, observe from a distance and watch for any signs of stress that she or the calf may be experiencing.

Giving things an initial look.

Once her water sac breaks, she will generally begin abdominal straining and lie down so that she can push harder – and the calf will be born after a series of hard pushes that move him along, little by little.

If the cow continues to get up and down or pace around without progressing to hard straining, this is a sign that something is wrong. If she is lying down straining for more than 30 minutes and the calf doesn’t appear, she may need help.

If the amnion sac appears (the fluid-filled membrane that surrounds the calf) and is filled with yellow-brown fluid instead of clear fluid, this is a sign that the calf is stressed.

There has been too much pressure on his body for too long, which stimulated him to pass some meconium (the dark-colored contents of the intestine that comprise his first bowel movements) turning the amnion fluid brownish. He is running out of time and needs assistance so he can be born quicker.

If you see anything that you think is abnormal, it pays to check the cow or assist the birth.

Common signs and what to do.

If a cow is in labor, she should make progress every 15 minutes.

Intervene if she pauses for 15 minutes or longer after making progress or if you notice that the calf’s positioning seems abnormal.

For instance, if the cow has been making progress (amnion sac appears at the vulva, and then the front feet appear within it) and then no more progress, the calf may be too large for the head to come through the pelvis.

If only one foot appears, the other leg may be turned back. If both front feet appear and come out several inches and do not progress farther – and no nose appears – the head is probably turned back.

If the nose appears but no feet, both legs are turned back. If feet appear and you can see that the toes are pointing up (bottoms of the feet on top) instead of down, the calf is probably backward (though it might be upside down or a bit sideways instead, so you need to check).

If nothing shows (no progress at all after the cow breaks her water), the calf may be breech (coming backward, but the hind legs not entering the birth canal), and you need to glove up, reach in and check.

Thirty minutes of trying, now what?

If you observe that she has been expending effort for 30 minutes without making progress, glove up and see whether something needs to be done to help move her calf along.

If everything is normal (calf positioned properly but not moving readily through the birth canal because he is a little too large) check to see if his head will fit through the cow’s pelvis.

If you think he can be born normally, attach a chain to each leg, using a double half hitch with one loop above and one loop below the fetlock joint. Hook handles into the chains and start pulling, one leg at a time, to ease the calf’s shoulders though the cow’s pelvis one at a time.

Call for assistance.

If when you reach into the cow you discover that the calf is not coming properly, determine what must be done to reposition the legs or head into proper position before you start pulling. If it’s something you can’t correct, call your veterinarian.

While cows tend to move along quickly, don’t be surprised if it takes a heifer over an hour to calve in. Heifers usually need a little more time than cows to get dilated and also take more time to get comfortable in their surroundings.

Although it’s good to have a timeline in mind, if you notice everything is presenting normally, there’s no need to rush a heifer or cow to fit your ideal timeline. Early intervention can have detrimental effects.

According to Dr. Kendra Wells at Valley Veterinary Clinic in Seymour, Wis., intervening too early could lead to tearing the dam, as she might not be dilated enough.

When it comes to calving difficulty, in all cases the calf’s most deadly enemy is time. As a general rule, you can assume that a calf has roughly 3 to 4 hours of oxygen supply after the cow’s water breaks (or whenever she actually starts second stage labor). After that length of time, the placenta will usually start to detach from the uterine lining. If this time limit is approaching and the cow does not start hard straining, or has been straining for an hour and no visible progress is being made, she needs assistance.

Consequences of difficult births.

Difficult calvings can result in negative long-term effects on calves. Calves that had difficult parturitions have a higher risk of scours or respiratory disease. Additionally, after a difficult calving, it’s harder for a calf to maintain its body temperature. And because they’re stressed, they tend to have lower antibody absorption rates through colostrum.

For the cow, calving difficulties can lead to infertility or a delay in returning to her estrus cycle.

Talk with your veterinarian if you haven’t already. Planning ahead will give you more confidence in the moment. And your veterinarian can give you specific guidelines for when you should call versus wait and see or put the gloves on and help the calving along yourself.

Odds are, there will come a day when you have to help with calving.

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