Calving Cows with Confidence

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Photo by Adobe Stock/Jackie Nix
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.

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.

The cow’s udder may fill up, in some cases looking uncomfortably full, and her teats may become distended. Udder development isn’t always the most reliable sign of early labor though — some cows fill up several days before giving birth, while others wait until the last minute. Each cow is different. She will likely have a mucous discharge, and her tailhead ligaments will relax in preparation for the birth.

As she moves into the second stage of labor, you may see a “waterbag” protruding from her vulva. This is part of the allantoic sac and fluid that surrounds both the placenta and the calf inside the cow’s uterus. This fluid can be clear or reddish, and will be watery.

Second stage laboris the process people normally envision when they think of calving.

On average, this stage takes about 70 minutes, but can range from 15 minutes to 4 hours. At this point, visible, hard uterine contractions will occur. The calf will be pushing its way through the cervix, feet first, with its nose on its knees. One foot should be slightly ahead of the other to allow the shoulders to slip through the pelvis without becoming stuck.

What you’ll see: The cow should be lying down at this point, and will have probably become so focused on what’s going on internally that she’ll ignore your presence.

Her contractions will be very forceful by now, and she’ll be actively straining to push the calf out. The allantoic sac should either be obviously visible now, or show evidence that it’s been there and has already ruptured. The allantoic sac can contain up to 5 gallons of fluid, so it’ll be pretty easy to tell if it’s made an appearance. Rupturing of the allantoic sac is what people refer to as their “water breaking.”

You should start to see the calf’s feet, or some indication that it’s trying to come out.

Third stage labor occurs after the calf has been expelled, and often after it’s up and nursing.

During this stage, the cow “cleans out,” and passes the placenta and everything else that went along with the calf.

What you’ll see: The cow may strain a bit during this stage, but the placenta will typically pass within a few hours of the delivery of the calf. It’ll be pretty unmistakable — a large, red, meaty-looking sac — and don’t be surprised if the cow tries to eat it. It seems completely disgusting to us, but for the cow, cleaning up any trace of her calf being born makes sense. The strong smell of the fluid and tissue is an irresistible beacon to predators. The placental tissues also contain small amounts of oxytocin, the hormone that causes contractions, and if eaten by the cow, may help with the uterus returning to its pre-calving shape. It’s also fine if she doesn’t eat the placenta.

Occasionally, a cow will retain her placenta for more than 36 hours post-calving. This is generally not a cause for alarm, but the cow should be watched carefully. In most cases, this only causes a localized infection, which the uterus is able to deal with adequately. More serious infections generally happen in the case of a difficult birth, in which case you should make sure to keep a close eye on the cow for a couple of weeks after the birth, as veterinary care and treatment may be necessary.

Normal Calving

A normal calving should proceed smoothly from the time the water breaks through the second stage of labor: feet first, then the nose, followed by the head. Once the calf’s feet emerge, there should be steady progress, although a slight pause may happen as the shoulders — the widest part of the calf — push through the pelvis and the cervix.

The calf may still be encased in the amniotic sac, which is a firm membrane filled with thick amniotic fluid. Most of the time, the feet will push through the sac as the calf moves through the birth canal. If they don’t, there’s no need to panic yet. As long as the umbilical cord is still attached to the placenta, the calf is getting oxygen from its mother. A reflex prevents the calf from trying to breathe until the umbilical cord is severed, keeping it from drowning or aspirating amniotic fluid during the birth. If the sac is still around the face, and you see the calf trying to breathe, go ahead and tear the membrane so the calf doesn’t aspirate any fluid.

After the shoulders pass through the birth canal, the rest of the calf is streamlined and will pass through quickly. This whole process is exhausting for both the cow and the calf, so it’s not uncommon for them both to lie there for a few minutes and catch their breath, sometimes even with the calf’s hind legs still in the birth canal.

Unless it’s been a difficult birth, the calf should be up, or attempting to get up, within about 10 minutes. The cow should also be on her feet within this time, and starting to clean her baby up. If possible, try not to disturb them during this part of the process. This is how the cow imprints the calf’s smell on her brain so she’ll recognize her own baby in a herd full of calves. The process also helps get the calf up and moving, dries it off, and stimulates its circulation.

Once the calf is on its feet, it should immediately start to look for its mother’s udder and begin nursing. At this point, the cow’s udder contains colostrum rather than milk. This first meal of colostrum contains immunoglobulins (antibodies) that are critical to the calf’s health. It’s also rich and high in energy.

While the cow will produce colostrum for a couple of days after calving, the calf’s digestive system can only absorb it for the first 8 to 12 hours. It cannot be stressed enough how vital it is for the calf to receive this first meal of colostrum. A calf that doesn’t get adequate colostrum is at high risk for illness. Without colostrum, the calf won’t have antibodies against normal environmental pathogens, and anything that causes it stress, such as bad weather, can create life-threatening problems.

When mama and baby are on their feet and the calf has nursed, congratulate yourself and go have a cup of coffee!

Potential Complications

Problems can occur during calving, but, fortunately, they’re not common. The most frequent problems that occur are a calf positioned incorrectly in the birth canal, or a calf that’s too large to pass easily through the cow’s pelvis no matter what position it’s in. Sometimes problems can be corrected easily by the herdsperson, and other times it takes veterinary intervention to save both the calf and the cow.

What you’ll see: If a cow has been in active labor for one hour with no progress, it’s time to intervene. The textbooks say an hour, but on our farm, with our easy-calving Pineywoods, if she hasn’t made any progress for 20 minutes, I’m grabbing an obstetrics (OB) sleeve and lube. As much as I love my vet, even if he dropped everything and drove straight to my farm, he’s still 30 to 45 minutes away. And I’ve never known a vet with the luxury of just sitting around waiting for my call. Checking early will let you know if you just need to relax, or, in the event of a serious situation, if you need to have help on the way. If nothing else, the vet can talk you through what you’re experiencing.

Signs of trouble include seeing feet up to the knee with no head, or hind feet presented first. Yellow-brown fluid in the amniotic sac is also a sign of trouble, because it means the calf defecated in utero, which is a clear indication of stress, and that means serious trouble.

Mama Needs a Helping Hand

Checking a cow isn’t difficult, and if done properly, it won’t harm either the cow or the calf. An OB sleeve and lube are essential, both for your safety and for the cow’s. Put on the OB sleeve, and apply OB lube generously. Squeeze your fingers together so that they form a small point, to allow them to pass into the cow’s vagina. There’ll be a lot going on in there, so work your hand in patiently and firmly. Feel around. If you feel a head with no legs, legs with no head, hind legs, legs that seem to be upside down, or no legs at all, these are all potentially very severe situations. Based on your level of experience with calving, this might be a good time to call the vet. Any of these situations can require serious expertise and muscle to correct.

If everything feels normal — front legs and head in the diving position — the cow may just need a little more time, especially in the case of first-time mothers. If the calf feels overly large, the cow may require a little help and traction to get the calf passed through the birth canal.

Calf “pulling” is a misleading term, because we’re not actually trying to forcefully pull the calf out of the cow’s uterus. What you’re really trying to do is to provide a little traction to help the cow push and keep the calf moving forward along with her contractions. If her cervix isn’t fully dilated, or if the calf is too big to pass through her pelvis, you’re going to cause more harm than good by just applying a lot of force. To be of the best assistance, when the cow pushes, pull with her, but don’t pull straight out from her body. Pull towards her hocks, to go with the natural curve of her birth canal.

When a Calf’s in a Bind, Throw Out a Line

Malpresentations can be simple to correct or they can require veterinary intervention. The vast majority of the time, these are simple cases where one foot isn’t being fully extended into the birth canal, and therefore into the diving position; or both feet are extended to the same level and the shoulders are unable to pass. Both of these can be simple to correct, and involve pushing the calf back into the birth canal and then correcting the leg presentation.

Presentation with the legs forward but with the calf’s head turned back is one of the most difficult to correct. It will take some effort to push the calf far enough back, and some strength and flexibility to reach in, grab the calf’s nose, and pull it around to the correct position. It doesn’t sound difficult in abstract, but trust me, it’s a tough one. You’ll need long, strong arms to get it corrected.

Breech presentation involves the rear of the calf coming first. Most of the time, in these presentations, the hind legs don’t extend into the birth canal, and the cow can’t make progress. The calf must again be pushed back into the uterus and the hind legs straightened out into the birth canal. The calf is also at risk for suffocating during this type of birth.

In the case of the most difficult malpresentations, it will be necessary to restrain the cow in some fashion. A headgate or chute will be a necessity, or in the case of a calmer cow, a halter, rope, and a barn corner where you can push her against a wall. And, if something is wrong, or you’re just unsure of your abilities, don’t hesitate to call for help, especially if you’re new to calving. Experience is a great teacher, but the lessons can be costly.

Hard Work and Patience Pay Off

So with all this in mind, is there a best time of year for calving season? The majority of cow-calf producers choose late winter or early spring for calving — January through March — which allows the calf to be heavier at weaning time in October. Insects won’t be a problem during late winter and early spring, but unpredictable weather can be.

A newborn calf can handle cold temperatures after it’s dried off and has nursed, but cold rain, sleet, and high winds are a different matter — especially when they occur together. Adequate shelter is vital. Still, calving during this time frame allows producers to focus on other things in the typically busier summer and fall months.

In summer, weather is less of a concern, and available forage is at its peak. However, insects abound, and extreme heat can be quite stressful for a new calf that hasn’t developed the ability to regulate its body temperature effectively and hasn’t learned to seek shade. Fall calving has gained popularity over the years for a few reasons, including such things as more stable temperatures, cows in good condition coming off of summer pasture, and higher spring calf prices due to lower supply. The disadvantage with fall calving is that the cows will need to be provided with good-quality nutrition all winter to keep them in good lactation and condition.

Of course, if you just plan on one or two calves for your own use, then you can time calving whenever works best on your farm.

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. With a little preparation and information on your side, you’ll have many happy calving seasons ahead of you.  

Author Bio:By day, Callene Rapp is a senior zookeeper at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, and by night she manages The Rare Hare Barn with her husband, Eric. Between the two places, she has learned to manage all sorts of livestock and livestock challenges.