Troubleshooting Problems During Calving

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

Here are some tips for common issues that occur during calving:


Do you feel only two hooves when reaching in? If the bottom of the hooves are facing down, you are probably feeling the front ones; the bottoms of back hooves usually face upwards towards the sky. If you feel front legs and no head, don’t pull without first knowing where the head is. Never, ever pull out a frontwards facing calf without knowing and/or guiding the head to come straight out along with the legs. Always, always, always make sure the head is coming through the cervix while pulling on the legs. I rely quite often on my head snare/loop to make sure the head isn’t turning back. If the head is still in the uterus and the legs are being pulled, the head often will turn if the nose is not directed into the cervical tunnel. This is especially true if the calf is dead already.

If you feel the tail with the two hooves, the calf is backward and you can go ahead and pull. Backwards calves are technically normal except that the umbilical cord tends to snap earlier while the calf ’s head is still in the uterus, which leads to the calf drowning in the uterine fluids. If you only feel the tail, it is a breech birth and needs veterinary attention. A cow will never be able to calve-in a breech birth on her own, never. If you feel one leg “turned back” (with the hoof going towards the cow’s head, carefully cup your hand over the hoof and bend the leg the way it naturally wants to bend. Bring the hoof close in towards the calf ’s belly and then bring the hoof toward you. Always cup the hoof in the palm of your hand to avoid unnecessary rips to the uterus. A rip in the uterus is generally fatal, even with antibiotics. Always have the cow standing (if you can) when you go to rearrange limbs—it is much easier to rear­range limbs with the cow standing. If the cow is lying down, the floor is blocking a potential area of movement. Standing up while working on a standing cow is also nicer than kneeling in damp bedding.

It is not too difficult to rearrange a leg that is turned back, but you have to reach in the cow first to find the problem. If you do not reach in, you will not know what is happening and be unable to make a rational decision about the situation at hand. Never hesitate to call a veterinarian when it comes to calving questions. I have helped many farmers with calving questions over the phone when they call and de­scribe what they are feeling inside the cow. While not always success­ful in helping them out over the phone, it has reduced some driving out to farms late at night, much to the appreciation of the farmer.

Once the calf ’s head and front legs are out of the cow to the “armpits” of the calf, stop everything for a moment. Cross the front legs of the calf and turn the calf slightly so that it will be delivered with its back­bone eleven o’clock or one o’clock to the cow’s backbone. Doing this is incredibly important in preventing hip lock. Hip lock is when the calf ’s hips become stuck during calving and only a very forceful extraction can free it up to come fully out. Cross the front legs of a few calves be­ing born for a few calvings and you’ll agree that the calvings go easier. The pelvic outlet is shaped like an upside-down egg, and the calf ’s hook bones will pass out much easier if the calf is slightly turned. It will save many a cow from a pinched nerve and being down, especially first-calf heifers which are naturally smaller animals than more mature cows.

A calf and cow after birth in a farmer’s barn.

Once delivered, take the calf by the back legs and swing it around 360 degrees a few times (until you get dizzy). Or lay the calf on the cow’s back with the calf ’s nose low to the ground. These two methods allow any fluids that it might have sucked in while still inside the cow to drain out of the calf’s windpipe or throat.

Always check for a twin, especially if the calf is somewhat small or the cow is early by a week or two.

After you give the cow five to ten gallons of lukewarm water, which a normal cow will suck right down, get the cow to stand up. This is to check to see if she can indeed stand up (as she should be able to) and can help prevent a prolapsed uterus as the uterus will hang down in­side the belly better when she is standing rather than possibly flopping out of a lying down cow—especially if her rump is facing downhill.

If a cow looks like she is straining to calf and is not advancing at all for about two to three hours, she may have a twisted uterus/ uterine torsion. Uterine torsions are extremely common—especially in the Holstein breed. There might be trouble if you notice that the cow has its tail out, not resting upon itself like normal, and the cow shows some pushing but no progress. Wash her up and reach in with an OB sleeve and lube. If you feel a turning or auger-like feeling as you reach through the cervix for the calf, there is a good chance there is a torsion present. By carefully feeling with your fingertips along the floor and walls of the birth canal and into the cervix, you will notice a turning, corkscrew-like effect as the birth canal tightens down. Usually farmers will say that the calf feels like it is really “far in” before they can reach it. Call for assistance, as a cow will never be able to calve on her own with a twisted uterus. The longer you wait, the lower your chance of having a live calf. Do not wait and see. Live calves are a very com­mon ending to a corrected uterine torsion. If the calf is alive prior to correction of the uterine torsion, it will likely be born alive once the torsion is corrected. If it is already dead before correcting the uterine torsion, it will need to be extracted right after the correction as the cervix will start to close down.

If you reach in the first moment you suspect a problem and call for help in time there will be a better outcome. Correcting a uterine torsion is actually kind of fun for me as a veterinarian. There are a few ways to correct a uterine torsion, and all are very manual. The first step is to determine which direction the torsion is going. You don’t need to know “left or right” or “clockwise or counterclockwise”; simply reach your hand and arm inside the birth canal and literally feel which way the auger-like corkscrew turning is going. Once you do, you will need to “cast the cow” down onto the ground and roll her the direc­tion the twist is going (the direction you felt when reaching in her). Roll her over her back in that di­rection. You will need two people minimum—one person rolling her front half and the second person rolling her back legs (be careful, but they often give up once being rolled). It is ideal to have a third person, usually the veterinarian, sit on the cow’s belly just in front of the udder to keep the calf in place while the cow is rolled to correct the torsion. Once rolled, stand the cow back up, clean her vulva up as needed and reach in. Often times, with just one roll, the auger-like feel will be gone and there is a direct open path for the calf to come out. Sometimes the rolling needs to be done a few times. It is important to stand the cow up after each roll and reach in to check if the torsion has been corrected. If only two people are rolling the cow, the rolling itself should be done in a quick motion for the best results. Granted, my preferred method is when I can flip the calf over with my forearm inside the uterus of a standing cow and thereby correct the torsion. But this takes some practice at becoming proficient, whereas rolling a cow is a tried and true method.

Source: Four-Seasons Cattle Care