Calving: When does she need assistance?

Spring is an exciting time on the farm. The grass is getting green, flowers are starting to bloom, the mud is drying up (at least somewhat), and calves are starting to be born. This can be a stressful time for some farmers with the anticipation of cows, and especially heifers, calving. We are going to try to clarify a few things to make the calving process less stressful. We’re here to help you determine when your cow needs assistance and when you need to give us a call.

To best understand when a cow needs assistance calving and when you need to call a veterinarian, we need to fully understand the stages of labor in the cow. There are three stages of labor in cattle. The first stage of labor involves softening or relaxation of the cervix. This stage of labor must be complete prior to delivery of the calf, especially assisted delivery (i.e. pulling the calf). Stage one of labor takes 2 to 24 hours (with 2 to 6 hours being normal in cows and up to 24 hours in heifers). Stage one of labor is likely to go unnoticed. The cow may isolate herself from the herd but is unlikely to show any other clinical signs. Stage two of labor is defined as the delivery of the calf. This stage begins with the presentation of the “water bag” and ends with the delivery of the calf. The cow is likely to show signs of discomfort during this stage, will likely have her tail out, and will lay down and push. This stage should be relatively short (less than 2 hours).  Stage three of labor is the passing of the placenta. The placenta should be passed within 12 hours of delivery of the calf.

Determining when we should intervene can be difficult. However, it’s crucial that we intervene early in the birthing process to ensure delivery of a live calf and maintaining the health of the dam. Cows are prey animals and are inherently herd-bound animals. They do not isolate themselves from the herd except on rare occasion, with calving being a common cause of this behavior. If an animal is seen isolating herself from the herd and does not appear to be progressing through the labor process, she should be checked the same day.  Signs that typically indicate active labor and an animal that should be checked quickly (within the hour):  a cow that is keeping her tail raised in an abnormal manner, lying down and straining/pushing, the presence of a “water bag” protruding from the vulva and no feet present within an hour,  or feet protruding from the vulva and the calf is not delivered within an hour. Overt distress, extreme discomfort or manic behavior in a heavy bred animal is also abnormal behavior that warrants further examination of an individual animal. A cow with a retained placenta (placenta not passed within 24 hours of calving), should also be further examined. When to call your veterinarian? It’s the dilemma between calling too soon and calling too late. Very seldom does anyone call too soon. By the time you have identified a problem, moved the animal to a pen or working facility, and we have arrived on the farm it’s almost guaranteed to not be too soon. Bottom line:  we all want the delivery of a live calf. The longer we wait, the less likely this is to happen. If a cow or heifer is not progressing normally through the labor process, the first thing to do is to move her to a pen or preferably to a head chute. Once you have her safely corralled, you can do a vaginal examination. Be clean! Wear a palpation sleeve and use lube. If at any point you are unsure what you are feeling, or do not feel confident in what you are doing then stop and call your veterinarian. If you work on delivering a calf for 30 minutes and are not making significant progress, stop and call your veterinarian. We would rather you call and consult with us than to cause undue harm to any of your animals. We are here to help and are just a phone call away!