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Go easy, don’t be in a rush

This article will describe ways to pull a calf either by hand or by calf jack. Different malpresentations are dealt with slightly differently.

When pulling one must be very cognizant of the stress this puts on both the calf and cow. With the ease of calving bred into most of today’s herds pulling is a skill less needed but one still worth perfecting. It can mean the difference between a live calf versus a dead or stressed calf or a cow which breeds back on time versus one which retains her placenta, has vaginal tears and never rebreeds.

The very first decision comes with when to intervene and vaginally check out a cow and when to provide a helping hand. The rule of thumb is one hour in cows and 1-1/2 hours in heifers giving strong uterine contractions with no progress. Exceptions to this rule are when cows or heifers are uneasy, bawling, or nesting for an extraordinary period of time. This is how some malpresentations, torsions and breech births present themselves.

If you have a maternity pen it is easy to simply run them in and check them out. You can avert a disaster and often save both calf and cow. With a higher percentage of twins born in today’s modern herds malpresentations are more common than one might think. By now all farmers should have a commercially made maternity pen, calving chute or homemade device which accomplishes the same thing.

The principle when pulling is you must be able to restrain the cow to clean her and check her out plus keeping her head caught while having her lay out lateral with enough room behind to fully manipulate the puller. A squeeze chute or choked down at the end of a rope is not the place to pull a calf.

Regarding normal pulling procedures, cleanliness is of paramount importance. Before examining the vagina make sure the whole perineal area is washed with warm water and surgical soap such as Endure, Betadine, Hibitane or other surgical soaps designed to not irritate sensitive mucosal surfaces like those inside the vagina. You can purchase a small container from your veterinarian. They are not costly and will last a long time.

Ordinary soaps irritate these tissues leading to infections and potentially scarring and possible delays in rebreeding or an open cow. Keep clean yourself by wearing a calving suit or at a minimum putting on obstetrical gloves. Hold them up on your arms with a towel clamp or wide elastics, which is what I use. This will keep you clean and dry and the cow protected. Take the few minutes needed to do these procedures. It calms the cow down and you are then prepared when pulling is needed.

Explore the position of the calf first before you do anything. Make sure it is presented properly. You always want three things in the pelvis: two front legs and a head for a forwards presentation, or two back legs and a tail in a backwards presentation.

Attaching the chains properly helps avoid damaging the calf’s legs and feet. This is especially true when a routine pull turns into a hard pull. Again take time to double loop the chains above and below the fetlock. Make sure the links are laying flat and the pull should come off the bottom of the leg. I personally like one long chain, which can be double looped on both feet. The only time I single loop is with a small malpresented calf or with twins where I absolutely know it will be a light hand pull.

Calving straps are an alternative. My only issue with straps is they are harder to keep clean.

Always keep the calf jack clean, well serviced and close by. It is a good idea at the start of calving season to go over it as it may be rusted stiff or worn out. This is one place where sterility practices on some farms fall down. I have seen some pretty grungy calf pullers over the years.

Take a few seconds after each pull to quickly wash the jack, especially the breech which goes around the cow’s back end and hang it up to dry. The breech straps should keep the puller just nicely below the bottom of the vagina when pulling. Keep the calving area and maternity pen clean and periodically disinfect with Virkon disinfectant.

During the pull advance only with the cow’s contractions. You have a bit of time here so don’t get in a rush. The cow’s contractions will greatly reduce the force you need to use. Apply lots of sterile lubricant. This is a cheap product, which can be purchased at the veterinary clinic. It is especially useful when applied over the head in a tight pull, minimizing friction in the vagina. This is where tears occur.

With long births or when the cow has been examined frequently the vaginal vault dries out so don’t hesitate to use lots of lubricant in these circumstances. You will be amazed at how much easier the pulling becomes. Apply lots of lubricant over the o. b. sleeves as well to minimize friction. This will ease the fatigue in your arms when manipulating the calves or applying the chains.

Pull in a slightly downward motion following the natural curvature of the calf. This is easier if the cow is down. On a standing cow you can only get about a 45-degree angle on the puller. Always keep an eye on the tension of the chains. It is very easy in the heat of the moment to overpull, or pull way too fast and injure the calf or cow. Remember calf pullers can exert 2,000 pounds of pulling power which can cause real damage in the wrong hands. With today’s labour shortages on farms producers are often by themselves and the use of a puller greatly reduces fatigue by allowing a slow pull timed with the cow’s contractions.

Two good-size people should be able to pull a calf by hand. Otherwise it is too big and a caesarean section may be needed.

Backward calves are pulled pretty much straight back. Again you can take your time making sure the tail is down between the legs and pulling slow until the tail and hips are presented out the back end. It is at this point that the calf’s umbilical cord breaks so the calf must be extracted fairly fast once the hips are out. This is the only time you will ever see me pulling a calf fast. Keep in mind cows cannot deliver as big a calf backwards as they can forwards. If you see the dewclaws pointing skywards the calf should be assisted immediately as many stillbirths are the result of taking too long to deliver a backwards calf.

Hopefully this article will help new producers and be a good review for experienced ones. We don’t need to intervene very often anymore but every time you do and save a calf it is a worthwhile enterprise.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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