Spring calves have been hitting the ground all over the Ozarks lately and veterinarians stay busy this time of year assisting cows and heifers that are having difficulty. This provides a good opportunity to address the appropriate management of dystocia, or difficulty of birthing, the equipment to have on hand and when to call on professional assistance.
The first step in caring for your cow herd during the calving season is understanding the normal progression of the birthing process (parturition). In veterinary medicine, parturition is generally broken down into three stages. The first stage of labor is characterized by relaxation of the cervix. During this time a cow will often isolate herself from the herd and may show some signs of abdominal discomfort. This stage generally lasts about six hours but can last significantly longer, especially in heifers. The second stage of labor consists of the actual delivery of the fetus. During this stage forceful contractions by the uterus and abdominal muscles expel the fetus through the birth canal. This stage generally lasts anywhere from two to four hours in cows, with heifers, again, taking a little more time. If stage two begins approaching eight hours in length, then the viability of the fetus becomes at risk. The third stage of labor consists of the passing of the placenta and should occur within the first 12 hours post calving.
Under normal circumstances cows should be left undisturbed during the birthing process. However, if difficulty is observed or labor is taking an excessive amount of time, then intervention is recommended to protect the well-being of the fetus and dam. If you are uncomfortable in examining the cow and attempting to manipulate the fetus, then this is the time to call on your veterinarian.
There can be numerous reasons why a cow may have dystocia. The most common would be a calf that is too large for the pelvic canal of the dam or a fetus that is not presenting normally. If malpresentation is the cause, correcting the presentation and posture of the fetus often times will allow for extraction of the fetus. If the fetus is simply too large, controlled assistance may allow for extraction. Otherwise a fetotomy or caesarian section is needed to be performed by your veterinarian.
If the producer is comfortable applying controlled traction or correcting malpresentations, then it is good to have a few tools on hand to help. The first would be a set of obstetrical chains or straps and a set of handles. These allow the operator to apply traction to the fetus to aid in extraction, and may also come in handy when trying to manipulate limbs to correct presentation. Additionally, a head snare may prove useful when the head of the fetus is turned back. Lastly, a ‘calf jack’ can be useful in applying additional traction when needed for more difficult cases. I strongly encourage producers to acquire the appropriate instruction for the proper management of dystocia and the use of any of these tools, as improper use can easily result in damage to the dam and/or fetus. Significant force can be applied with a ‘calf jack’ in particular – enough to fracture the legs of calves and possibly even the pelvis of the cow, the long term consequences of which can be life-threatening. This further emphasizes the need for proper training.
Most often, if animals are observed frequently and examined in a timely manner, dystocia can be managed in a way to protect the well-being of the cow and generally the calf as well. Establish a relationship with your veterinarian and create a game plan for managing dystocia on your farm this and future calving seasons.
Darren Loula, DVM, is a large animal veterinarian at Fair Grove Vet Service in Fair Grove, Mo.