Sometimes a calf cannot be born because he’s not in a position that allows him to enter the birth canal. In other situations he may not be able to progress through the birth canal because he’s too large, or a limb is caught on the pelvic brim, or the head is turned back. Knowing what’s wrong and how to correct it can make a difference in whether you end up with a live calf.
Dr. James England (University of Idaho, Caine Center) says probably less than two per cent of births are actual malpresentations. “A calf coming back feet first is not a malpresentation, because it can be born,” he says. Roughly five per cent of calves come backward.
“These backward calves can be born, unless the tail is cocked up (and catching on the cow’s pelvis),” he says. A breech calf, with buttocks aimed toward the birth canal and the hind feet up toward the front of the cow, cannot be born unless you can reach in and flex those legs and bring them into the birth canal.
“There are many combinations of improper positioning, such as legs back, head turned back, etc. What it boils down to is trying to determine what you can reach and what you can straighten out. One of the hardest things to deal with is twins,” he says. This is especially challenging if they are trying to come through the birth canal at the same time and it’s difficult to sort out which leg belongs to which twin.
“My general recommendation is that if you can’t get something straightened out and coming properly within an hour’s time, you need to call your veterinarian for help or a C-section. Fortunately, proper selection of calving-ease bulls for heifers has minimized calving problems on many ranches. Many of the problems that do occur can be readily straightened out. I have not personally run into problems like schistosoma reflexus, where the intestines are outside the body of the fetus. Those usually have to be delivered by C-section or a fetotomy. They are all twisted up, with legs coming off in wrong places, and they can’t come through the birth canal,” says England. Other impossibilities for normal delivery include lupine calves that have deformed, fused joints — the legs cannot straighten nor flex.
“One thing I’ve discovered with dystocia, and what I tell students and ranchers, is that if you have a calf coming through the pelvis and you think it’s hung up, is that as long as you can push your hand between the calf’s head (or shoulder, or hips) and the cow’s pelvis (without tearing your knuckle off), he will fit through,” he says. If you can put your hand over the calf’s head, he’ll come through the pelvis.
“It’s also a good idea to feel all the way around the calf (not just the top of the head) to make sure there’s nothing abnormal with the pelvis — no protrusions the calf might hang up on. I’ve seen cases where backward calves were pulled and the bottom of the brim of the pelvis catches on the calf’s ribcage and peels the breastplate back. Another rule of thumb is to never put two men on a chain or more than two women, or you may injure the calf. The main thing with a difficult birth is just taking your time and trying to straighten the calf to where it can be pulled,” he says. It also helps, once you have the calf coming properly, to try to turn him so his pelvis is coming through the cow’s pelvis at a 45-degree angle. There’s more room for the calf to come through that way, without his hips catching on the cow’s pelvis.
It helps to put lots of fluid/lubricant around the calf. “This makes it easier to get the calf to move and roll so you can reposition him, or pull a large calf. For delivering calves, whether it’s a normal or abnormal position, apply a lot of lubricant to your arms, and also to the calf if things are tight inside the cow,” he says. You can get a good obstetrical lubricant from your veterinarian.
“Most of the bovine products that you can buy by the gallon work well. The lubrication gels are generally water-soluble and I just dilute some of this with water so I can pump it in or pour it into the uterus with a stomach tube. I want to get it all around the fetus, and I sometimes put in as much as 15 gallons,” he says. A regular stomach pump works well for this, but you can also just put it in by gravity flow, with a funnel on the end of your tube, holding it high enough to allow the fluid to go into the uterus.
“One of the things I use, especially if I have a calf with a turned-back neck, is a tool I’ve made that’s a rod with a U on one end of it. The way it’s curved, I can put that end in the corner of the mouth and hold the head up while I reach down with the other hand.” It’s like putting your fingers in the corner of the mouth to hold the head, but you don’t need to have your hand there, especially if it’s difficult for you to get two arms in the cow at the same time.
“A lot of these calves with a head back are hard to get because even when you pull the head up it just goes right back down again,” he says. You get the head and start pulling the calf, then discover the head is no longer entering the birth canal; it has slipped back down below the pelvic brim again.
“This tool also works for trying to correct a breech calf when you have to push him back into the uterus far enough to straighten each hind leg and get it into the birth canal. I can place the straight end of it at the calf’s rectum and push the calf forward enough to get in there and straighten the legs out,” England says.
“With some calves, the first important thing is to figure out whether you’ve got front or back legs. That’s basically just determining which way the joints flex — whether you have hocks or knees,” England says.
“The most common problem we see is that the calf is just too big. This is more common than a calf that simply needs to be straightened,” he says. The latter situation can range from simple (one front leg turned back at the fetlock joint or knee) to complex (such as both front legs back, a leg turned back at the shoulder, head back, or breech).
“This is where it helps if you have a way to push that calf back while you manipulate the leg or head.”
It also helps if the cow is standing up, giving you more room to maneuver the calf and to have gravity in your favor when pushing him back down into the uterus. If the cow is lying down, all the pressure of her rumen and abdominal contents are against the calf and uterus and you don’t have as much room to manipulate the calf — especially if the head is turned back.
“If I have a calf with legs back or a breech, it helps if you approach the leg from the opposite side and reach across under the calf and grab and pull the leg crossways underneath. Then you can routinely turn it around safely. If you just go down the leg and double it back, you almost always get a toe hung up under the brim of the pelvis. If you have a calf with a front leg back, do the same thing. Go in on the opposite side and reach across and twist it. There’s a lot more flex that way. You have to also make sure you don’t catch the umbilicus and pull it up, too, especially with a calf coming backward,” he says. If one of the legs brings the cord with it as it straightens out, the cord will be pulled apart as the calf comes through the birth canal, disrupting his lifeline before he can breathe.