Most cows and heifers progress normally through the three stages of labour (early labour, active labour with abdominal straining, expulsion of the placenta after delivery of the calf). Uterine contractions in early labour get the calf aimed toward the birth canal, the cervix dilates and the calf starts through. The water sac and then the calf entering the birth canal stimulates abdominal straining and second stage labour begins — to push the calf on out. Sometimes, however, the calf does not start into the birth canal and the cow does not begin hard straining. You may think the cow is still in first stage labour. If you don’t check her and intervene, you’ve lost the calf (and perhaps the cow, if you don’t get the dead calf out of her). Knowing when to check a cow is crucial — and you have to be watching her to know how long she’s been in early labour.
Dr. Cody Creelman with Veterinary Agri-Health Services in Airdrie, Alta., says the first thing he tells producers is to be familiar with the stages of labour so they know what should happen with a normal birth.
“In stage one, the cow or heifer is restless, and we may see softening of the pelvic ligament (the tail-head drops and the cow’s back end is loose and jiggly). She usually separates herself from the herd and goes into nesting mode, circling, seeking a good place to lie down and calve,” he says.
She may pace the fence if she’s confined. She may get up and down a lot, or just seem more alert than usual. “Another clue that an old cowboy taught me is to look for the tail kink. The tail usually drops straight down, but when the cow is in early labour the tail is out a little and kinked off to the side,” says Creelman.
“Early labour usually lasts about one to four hours, but it’s still normal for it to last up to 24 hours,” and often longer in first calvers. “Stockmen who are in tune with their cattle will see the onset of labour,” he says.
“Stage two is when the calf is entering the cow’s pelvis. She’s had some uterine contractions and weak abdominal cramping up to that point, but once the calf starts into the pelvis, this stimulates strong abdominal contractions and you’ll usually see the water bag emerging from the vulva or the water rushing out as it breaks. By now she will be obviously straining,” says Creelman.
“Active labour usually lasts between 30 minutes and two hours, depending on the cow, and whether she is upset by your moving her into a calving pen or into the barn,” which may delay things a bit.
“Stage two ends with expulsion of the calf,” he says.
“The rule of thumb when monitoring the calving cow is to look for progression every hour. If a heifer or cow is actively straining for more than one hour with no progress, you need to check her,” he says.
If it’s an older cow that usually calves quickly, and nothing is happening, you definitely should check her. This is also true if she’s taking more time than usual in early labour as this can be an indication that something is wrong.
“On the other hand, the cow may be taking her full two hours, but if you are seeing progress, the water bag, then the feet, then the nose, you can give her a little more time. But if you see just the water bag (or perhaps the feet) and then she stalls and makes no more progress, it’s time to check,” he says. On rare occasions you may see placental tissue coming out (and no feet), which means the calf is detaching and can’t live much longer. This is an emergency and you need to restrain the cow and check to see what’s happening, and help deliver the calf.
“There are some other odd things that might happen, such as the calf coming breech — just a tail in the birth canal —or we see the calf’s intestines, or abnormal hemorrhaging from the cow. If we see something unusual we need to check her immediately,” says Creelman.
It’s important to be very clean. “Scrub her perineal area, and your arms, then go in clean using the long plastic gloves/sleeves, and apply sterile lube. Then you can reach in and take a feel to see what’s going on,” he says.
“If you decide you need to manipulate the calf to correct a problem, the rule of thumb is to take no longer than 30 minutes. If you’ve attempted a correction for more than 30 minutes, it’s time to call your veterinarian or your neighbour for assistance or load up the cow and take her to town, while you still have a chance for a live calf.”
If nothing enters the birth canal, as is the case when the calf is breech, or there’s a uterine torsion — with the uterus flipped over, creating a twist the calf cannot come through, the cow may not begin abdominal straining. You might think she is still in early labour and keep waiting for something to happen. If this goes on very long you need to check. If the cow goes too long, the placenta will detach from the uterus and the calf will die.
In many cases the producer knows the cow’s history and knows that she’s taking an abnormally long time. It’s better to check too soon, and find that everything is normal and she just needs more time, than to wait too long and have a dead calf.
“There is no harm in checking, as long as we handle the cow appropriately, with good facilities to restrain her, and going in clean. There is no harm to the calf by doing a vaginal exam,” says Creelman, yet sometimes a producer is afraid to do anything until it’s too late. Gentle handling, good restraint, and cleanliness are the key.
If the producer has never experienced a breech calf or a uterine torsion, and feels inside the cow and there are no feet, more assistance may be needed. “With a torsion, you can’t find the cervix. You can only feel a soft, fleshy mass between the calf’s head and the birth canal,” he explains.
If you find an unusual situation, call for assistance — the earlier the better.
“My best outcomes are with clients who checked the cow early and call me early. It never turns out very well if the producer has been trying for four hours and now I get the phone call,” he says. “Worst case scenario is when the cow was restless all day yesterday but the producer doesn’t call for help until today.
“If you’ve waited too long, the cow is tired. If you’ve tried for too long to correct a problem, my help is tired, and there’s more vaginal swelling. This narrows the birth canal, which makes everything more difficult. The chance of having a live calf decreases for every hour we don’t make the proper intervention.”
“The sac around the calf has been broken for too long, and the calf gets dry; there’s no lubrication left because all the fluids have now been expelled and the uterus starts contracting down around that calf. It becomes more difficult to manipulate the calf to correct a problem. I have to make a decision whether to pump the uterus full of lubrication and try to extract the calf vaginally, or go ahead with a C-section. I don’t want to put fluid in there if I have to do a C-section. Filling the uterus with lube — especially J-Lube — can cause a lot of problems if I have to do surgery,” says Creelman. If any of that lube leaks out into the abdomen during the surgery, it can be fatal to the cow.
Sometimes the calf isn’t progressing through the birth canal because it’s too large. In this situation, when you check the cow you need to determine whether the calf is too large to be pulled and you need to call your veterinarian in case you need a C-section.
“There are two things I go by, to determine if the calf is too large for vaginal delivery. One clue is the feet crossing. If it’s a normal presentation where the calf is in diving position, if those legs are crossing over each other, it’s usually because the shoulders and elbows are too large coming through the pelvis. When I see those legs crossed, very rarely will I be able to do a forced extraction through the birth canal,” he says.
“My other rule of thumb, when I reach in to assess the situation, is to make sure there’s room over the top of the calf’s head. If you put your hand over the head and can’t get your fingers between the calf’s forehead and the cow’s pelvis, he’s too large to come through. If I can’t get my hand into that space, I usually need to do a C-section.
“When the producer checks a cow that’s taking too long and nothing is showing at the vulva, the first thing to do is see if you can find two feet and a head or two feet and a tail.
“The other thing to know is if these are front feet or hind feet is a flexion test. In the front leg, the fetlock and the knee both flex the same direction; both joints bend down. In the hind leg, the fetlock flexes one direction and the hock flexes the opposite direction,” he says.
Sometimes when there are twins, there may be extra legs trying to come into the birth canal, or possibly a leg from each calf. “Even if we have two front legs, we want to make sure they belong to the same calf before we attach chains and start pulling. It’s important to know exactly what you are pulling on,” Creelman says.
With a breech calf, you have to push it back enough to have space to manipulate each hind leg very carefully into the birth canal.
“We cup a hand over the top of the foot to make sure it doesn’t tear the cow’s uterus as we flex the hock and bring it around. It’s crucial to position the limb at a diagonal, to come through the widest space in the pelvis,” he explains. It takes a long arm to reach the feet of a breech calf if it’s a long-legged calf and the feet are positioned toward the front of the calf.
“As long as you know which legs you have, you can make the decision on what to do and whether you can assist the birth. If you have two front legs but no head, you have to find that head and get it coming into the birth canal. If you know you have two back legs and it’s not breech, you can pull that calf out backward, as long as you think there is enough space for the calf’s hips to come through. Reach into the birth canal and try to place your hand over the hips, and also make sure the tail is not pointing forward,” says Creelman. If the tail is up over the calf’s back, it makes the space just that much smaller, and may also injure the cow as you pull the calf out.
“As long as you have a hand’s thickness width between the cow’s pelvis and the calf’s hips, you should be able to pull that calf out.” It will usually require the effort of two people or a calf puller to pull a backward calf out quickly enough so it can start breathing, since the umbilical cord will be pinched off or pulled apart as the calf comes on out. You don’t want the calf’s front end still inside the cow for very long, or it will suffocate.
“Sometimes we see calves with fused joints that won’t bend or straighten, and are completely immobile — and you can’t get the legs into the birth canal. There are other abnormalities like two-headed calves, or an inside-out calf (schistosoma reflexus) with intestines on the outside. Sometimes those are extremely difficult to remove vaginally. In many cases we have to do a fetotomy (bringing the calf out in pieces) or a C-section because the calf’s spine is fused backward and there is limited room to move it around,” says Creelman.
“With these abnormalities, the veterinarian will have tricks for manipulating or extracting them. If the producer comes across something uncommon, it’s usually best to have some help.” When in doubt, get professional help; your veterinarian probably has some experience on handling these unusual situations. c