Recognizing and Handling Calving Problems



Calving difficulty (dystocia) is a concern of every cattleman because it is a major cause of calf deaths and is second only to rebreeding failures in reducing calf crop percentages. Cows that have difficulty during calving have significantly lower fertility at rebreeding.

Prevention through good heifer management and proper bull selection is the best treatment for calving difficulties. Even with the best management, though, a certain percentage of young heifers will experience difficulty to some degree, and even older cows occasionally have difficulty. Watching a good heifer or cow go through the agonies of a problem birth is not an uncommon experience for anyone in the cattle business. Probably the most frustrating aspect is trying to decide when and how to assist and whether or not professional attention is needed.

Many cattlemen attempt to correct problems that they have neither the instruments nor the knowledge to handle, while others refuse to intervene in even the simplest dystocia problems. Neither approach is good. The rancher and veterinarian should cooperate to deal with problems.

All cattlemen should be able to recognize early signs of dystocia and determine when or if professional help is needed. Time lost waiting for help may jeopardize the calf’s life. The following guidelines can help cattlemen reduce calf losses when dystocia problems occur.

Veterinarians use a variety of instruments and drugs in handling severe calving problems, but certain basic supplies are needed by all cattlemen. Having the proper equipment may mean the difference between saving or losing a problem calf.

Use a maternity stall when available. This is an enclosed area approximately 4 x 8 feet, preferably with side and rear exits. It should be well bedded and sanitized thoroughly between calvings. Following delivery, move calves directly to clean pasture areas. If calves are allowed to stay in or near the delivery area, scour problems may develop. Also, move cows to clean pastures after calving since constant contact of the fetal membranes to contaminated premises may lead to serious uterine and general infections.

Other basic equipment includes obstetrical chains for use when traction is needed to extract the calf and obstetrical handles that attach to the chains to aid in applying traction. Mechanical calf pullers also can be used; they may be attached to the chains in forced extractions.

Obstetrical chains are preferred for applying traction because they are cleaned and sanitized more easily. Disinfect chains between uses by boiling in mineral oil. This prevents the spread of disease. After boiling, wrap the chains in a clean cloth until they are needed again.

Boiling chains in water or placing them in a pressure cooker is satisfactory, but causes rusting. Chains also may be disinfected by placing them in a brown paper bag in a 400º F oven for 30 minutes. Nylon obstetrical straps of varying lengths may be used in place of chains or in combination. Nylon straps may be easier to manipulate than chains; however, as with chains, clean and disinfect the straps after each use. Cotton rope is not recommended unless the rope is discarded after use. Used repeatedly, rope becomes contaminated and can be a source of infection to other cows.

When manipulations are necessary, heavily lubricate the fetus, birth canal and operator’s arms. Various obstetrical soaps are available, but a satisfactory lubricant can be made by dissolving a mild soap in warm water. The solution forms a gel when cool, but can be shaken and poured into a bucket for use. Keep a fresh supply of lubricant separate and uncontaminated. Use other lubricants such as mineral oil or mild soaps for a substitute; however, avoid detergents as they can cause severe irritations.

Keep some drugs on hand, including 1 to 3 grams of a broad-range antibiotic such as oxytetracycline or chlorotetracycline in a 200- to 500-milliliter solution of physiological saline. Or, furacin boluses may be used. Both preparations are used as intrauterine medications. Most authorities feel that sulfa drugs are of questionable value. Have tincture of iodine (2½ percent) available for treating the navel cord of the calf following delivery.

Keep surgical needles and suture material available, but cases requiring extensive surgical attention become quite complex and should be handled by a veterinarian.

Used with permission from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

Recognizing and Handling Calving Problems

 L.R. Sprott, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist

Click here to see the complete publication (including illustrations with sections on: Necessary Equipment, The Calving Process, Examining the Cow, Giving Assistance, Help the Calf, Caring for the Cow, & Making the Decision).

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