Your Reading List

Dealing With Dystocia

Calving problems, especially with first-calf heifers, can usually be minimized by selecting bulls that sire lowbirthweight calves. Even with the best planning, however, some calves need assistance at birth.

Dr. Matt Miesner, assistant professor, clinical agricultural practices at Kansas State University veterinary teaching hospital, tells producers they should have three goals. “First is a live, viable calf. You don’t want to break the calf’s legs or suffocate him while getting him out. Second is welfare of the cow. You can pull her calf with a tractor, but this may severely injure or kill the cow. Your third goal is to preserve her ability to breed back,” he says.

“Economics is also a factor. We recognize that ranchers don’t want to be calling the vet out to their place all the time. But I also tell them that it’s always better to call sooner than later,” says Miesner.

“Maybe it’s a heifer with a big calf, maybe it’s a breech calf, or sometimes you feel inside the cow and can’t figure out what the problem is. Most of our clients are well educated in calving situations and have outstanding skills. But I still tell them to look at their watch when they start assisting a dystocia. I do this myself, because when you are working in the cow you don’t realize how much time has elapsed. I give myself a half-hour, and if I haven’t made significant progress by then, it’s time to go to plan B.” Time your efforts, and after 30 minutes realize it’s time to call the vet and go from there. The cow may need a C-section or some other type of assistance the veterinarian can help with.

“A C-section is not fun, but the outcome for both cow and calf is always better if it’s done sooner than later,” says Miesner. You can have a live calf and a cow that will not only survive but may have a better chance of rebreeding.

When checking a cow, you determine which legs of the calf you are feeling — whether front or back. You can usually tell by feeling the joints, to know whether it’s knees or hocks. The first two joints in the front leg flex the same direction, whereas in the hind leg the hock bends the opposite direction than the fetlock joint.

“In some instances you may find that the joints are not bending. It might be a calf with arthrogryposis (fused joints) from a genetic defect (such as curly calf in Angus cattle) or toxic plants (such as lupine or hemlock),” says Miesner. Some of these calves are very difficult to deliver through the birth canal and must be removed by fetotomy (cutting the calf apart) or C-section.

It also helps if you can determine whether you’re feeling the shoulder or the neck and no legs. “If it’s twins, often one will come backward and the other frontward, and you have a front leg and a back leg. If you are pulling two legs, make sure they connect to the same body,” he says.

The veterinarian has the ability to use drugs that may help make the calving easier. “This may be sedation for the cow, or to numb the birth canal and stop the pushing while you reposition the calf. If we can keep her from straining, and make one quick adjustment with the calf, we can then quickly get the calf out,” he says. This can save a lot of time and minimize stress on the cow and the calf, and the person doing it.

In some instances a breech calf (with hind legs up by the calf’s head) or a head turned back can be difficult to correct. “We can relax the uterus with epinephrine. This may give us a little more room. If everything is too tight around that calf, it’s amazing how much you can accomplish by using a little epinephrine,” he says. This might be a way to get things straightened out, or the calf moving, and not need a C-section.

“The sooner you can do these things, the better. If you’ve waited too long and the calf is dead or decaying, the outcome is usually not as good for the cow if you have to do a C-section,” he says.

Occasionally a cow will develop a uterine torsion, in which the uterus has rotated — with a twist at the cervix — and the calf can’t come through. “If you haven’t encountered this problem before you might think the cow is just not dilated yet. This is one of those situations where if you call early, the vet could suggest that it might be twisted.”


Sometimes after pulling a calf he’ll be flat out and slow to get started. “There are some things we can do within that first few minutes to help the calf start breathing and get going,” says Miesner.

“We can use a little bicarbonate given by IV, and some epinephrine or some other drugs. Dexamethasone, and breathing stimulants like doxapram are very effective within that first five minutes after pulling the calf. Many ranchers do an outstanding job of getting the calf out, in a very safe and effective way, but sometimes the calf needs a little boost and the veterinarian may be able to help with this,” he says.

In the past, all you could do was give artificial respiration, blowing into one nostril as you hold the other shut. Sometimes that works, but in other instances it’s a struggle to try to revive a comatose calf that’s not breathing. These drugs can make a difference, as when trying to revive a backward calf. “As with any drugs, remember that side-effects may occur; these drugs should not be used without discretion,” he says.

“Get the fluid cleared out of the airways. I try to have the calf upright, resting on his sternum (breastbone) rather than lying flat. When I was a kid and we had a backward calf that wasn’t breathing, we’d hang the calf up by the hind legs for a moment to drain the fluid out of his airways. People don’t do that so much anymore, because we’ve learned that most of the fluid that comes out when we hang them up is from the stomach. When that calf is hanging like that, the weight of the intestines presses on the diaphragm and it’s harder for him to take a breath,” explains Miesner. Hanging a calf by the hind legs inhibits breathing, rather than helping it.

“It’s better to lie him on his sternum, tap him on the chest, and tickle his nostril with a piece of straw to get him to sneeze/cough and take a breath.” If his airways are full of mucus, a squeeze/suction bulb can be handy to suck that out. Even a turkey baster works well for this, to get the mucus out of his nose and throat so he can take a breath.

“If the calf is comatose and won’t start breathing, an oxygen mask works, but I often put a breathing tube into the trachea (windpipe) and give them some good breaths that way, to expand the lungs,” says Miesner.

“Even if all you can do is breathe into the nostril, it helps to position the calf so the air you blow will actually go into the lungs rather than into the stomach. It’s like CPR in people; we position the head so the esophagus is closed off and the airway is open. It’s harder to do in a calf, but if we can extend the head upward as we breathe into his nostril, hopefully this will close off the throat and open the airway — similar to the CPR position in people. The air will always follow the path of least resistance, and you don’t want to be blowing it into the stomach,” he explains.


Never utilize a steady maximum pull when helping with birth. It’s best to pull when the cow strains, and rest (or stop cranking on a calf puller) while she rests. “A calf jack is one of the best tools we have for holding the calf, keeping it at the point where you’ve got it. I use it to hold (and not lose ground) and then reposition the calf with my arms if needed, and this can save some strain. A calf jack can be detrimental, however, if you just continue to crank,” says Miesner.

“One study showed that a calf jack can give a couple thousand pounds of pull, whereas three men can give about 500 pounds of pull. If I can get a calf out with hand pulling, it’s a lot easier on the calf,” he says.

Chain placement is crucial, to make sure you don’t break the calf’s legs while pulling. This is especially important if using a calf puller rather than pulling by hand. The mechanical puller puts enough force on the leg to pull joints apart or fracture the leg bones. “It’s best to put one loop above the fetlock joint and a second loop (half-hitch) below it, to give two points of pull on the leg, spreading the pressure so it doesn’t come in one place. I’ve also seen cases where blood flow was completely cut off because there was too much pressure, rather than spreading it with two points of pressure,” he says.

Give the cervix time to dilate before you start pulling the calf. Usually by the time you check a cow that’s in trouble, it is fully dilated, but sometimes it may not be. It is important to pull gradually, pulling as the cow strains, and resting when she rests, rather than a steady pull. “If you are making progress and the calf’s legs/ head coming through are helping the cervix dilate, and everything is still coming, it will probably be all right,” says Miesner.

Some heifers take awhile to dilate, and your inclination might be to hurry too much. There are other times you need to hurry, as when a calf is coming backward. His umbilicus ruptures before his shoulders and head come out, and he needs to start breathing. It may be impossible to pull him out quickly enough by hand and this is one instance in which you are more likely to save the calf if you use a calf puller.

“If you’re using a calf jack, make sure the calf’s hips are nearly out before you pull downward on the calf. I’ve seen femurs (bone between hock and stifle) broken, or damage to the femoral nerves just because of all the pressure on those leg bones when pulling at a bad angle — before the upper leg is free of the cow’s pelvis. It’s like breaking a stick over your knee,” he explains.

“When making adjustments and repositioning the calf inside the uterus, cup the foot with your hand, so the calf won’t put the foot through the uterine wall. The same goes for the nose and jaw when you try to turn the head around. You can also hook a finger into the corner of the mouth to get hold of the jaw,” he says.

“If head and neck are turned around, this may mean that the calf is too big to come out, but not always. If I can get the head and front legs into the cow’s pelvis, most of the time the calf can come through,” says Miesner. If you can get your fingers over the top of the calf’s head and the forehead isn’t hitting the cow’s pelvis, it will usually fit. If you can’t get both legs and the head to fit all at the same time, it’s too tight, and time to call your vet.

You may need to try to push the calf back in a little and hold him there in the uterus (where there’s more room to manipulate limbs and head). It helps if you can get both arms into the cow — so you can push the calf forward with one hand while using the other to reposition a limb.

“The diagonal of the cow’s pelvis is the widest point. As you start pulling the calf, rotate him so his hips will be hitting the pelvis on that diagonal. I try to turn him about 90 degrees, so he is sliding through sideways,” says Miesner.

“At the front end, work the shoulders through the pelvis one at a time. You can pull one front leg and then the other, to ‘belly crawl’ the calf through the pelvis, rather than having both elbows jamming against it at the same time,” he says. These little things make a big difference, and you can keep making progress.

Clean the cow and your arms with soap and water, and use generous amounts of lubrication before you start. “If the calf is unable to be pulled and a C-section is needed, we don’t want contamination of the uterine fluids that may lead to infection after the surgery. Clean, water-soluble lubricants are safe and effective. Some other lubricants are effective but may be toxic to the cow if they remain within the uterus and come in contact with the cow’s abdomen — as might happen during a C-section or with uterine tears,” says Miesner.

About the author



Stories from our other publications