Calving Cows with Confidence

Understand what happens to your cow during labor, and learn how to secure her smooth moo-ve into motherhood.

  • Calving season is one of the most joyful times of the year, whenever it comes. Nothing beats watching a group of calves playing in the pasture.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Jackie Nix
  • There are three stages of labor, each characterized by different parts of the birthing process, including preparation, delivery, and after birth.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Anna
  • Moving into the second stage of labor, you may see a “waterbag” protruding from your cow’s vulva.
    Photo by Callene Rapp
  • The calf slips through the birth canal, encased in the amniotic sac.
    Photo by Callene Rapp
  • The amniotic sac has broken and the cow continues to push the calf’s torso out of the birth canal.
    Photo by Callene Rapp
  • The cow turns and begins tending to her newly born calf.
    Photo by Callene Rapp
  • Following third stage labor, after the successful conclusion of a normal birthing, calves should be up or attempting to get up within 10 minutes. The cow should also be up in this time and begin cleaning her calf to establish a solid bond.
    Photo by Callene Rapp
  • Eating the placenta tissue may help the uterus return to its precalving shape.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Marcel
  • For first-time cow-calf producers, pay close attention to your breeds of choice, as this will affect development (calf size) and labor time.
    Photo by Brad Anderson Illustration
  • Always use an OB sleeve and lube when assessing problems with your cow.
    Photo by Getty Images/N_u_T
  • Once the calf is on its feet, it should immediately start to look for its mother’s udder and begin nursing.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Adam Gryko

Whether you have one cow or a thousand, calving season is one of the most anticipated times of the year. Watching your cows round out, developing huge bellies as the time gets closer, is exciting. Like that proverbial watched pot, it seems the event itself will never actually happen.

But what exactly goes on when a cow has a calf? The visible part is what most people think of when they think of calving, but there are several stages to the entire calving process.

Stages of Labor

There are three stages of labor, each characterized by different parts of the birthing process, including preparation, delivery, and afterbirth. There are a lot of things going on all at once, some easily seen, and some more subtle. But careful observation and knowing the events of each stage can help you understand what’s happening, and know when to step in during the unlikely event of a problem.

First stage labor consists of the early events and processes that prepare the cow’s body for the strain involved during the second stage of labor. The length of the first stage varies, ranging from an hour or two up to several hours.

During the first stage, contractions will start, and the calf will begin moving into position in the birth canal. Its legs, which have been folded up in utero, will extend into the birth canal, and it will assume the “diving” position of a normal birth (front hooves and face first). The cow’s cervix will relax and begin to soften as it dilates in preparation for birthing.

What you’ll see: At this stage, sometimes you won’t see much. The cow may be restless, getting up and lying down frequently, and she may seek seclusion away from the rest of her herdmates. She may also urinate and defecate frequently as she makes room for the calf to move into the birth canal. Contractions may be present at this point, but they won’t be frequent or regular, and it’s possible that you won’t even know she’s having them.

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