The Farm Profit Programme recently hosted a calving demo with vet Andrew Smith from Donview Veterinary, outlining some practical tips for farmers this calving season.

Panic, patience and progress

Andrew’s first piece of advice was not to panic – we need to remember that calving is a natural thing that the majority of our herd should calve without any human intervention. Ideally, we should be intervening with less than 10% of calvings each year. Maintaining a simple, yet detailed, calving diary at the end of each day throughout the calving season will allow you to look back and assess how your herd is performing once the busy period has passed. Where assistance is required it is essential that we are patient and not going in too early. Calving takes time and while there are guidelines for how long each phase should take, every case will be different. This is why progress is key. If you are seeing no progress, typically after two hours, then it may be time to go in and investigate.

Time to intervene?

If you handle the cow and the calf is presented correctly and the water bag is clear, this is a sign that time is on your side. The cow may just need more time to dilate and move to the next stage of calving.

Calving a cow too soon, without sufficient time for her to open up correctly, can cause damage and tearing. This will leave her more prone to post-calving infection and will also delay the onset of cyclic activity, meaning she will take longer to go back in calf again.

Where the contents of the water bag are bloodied or a dark colour, this suggests the calf is under pressure and it may be time to intervene. However, in all cases Andrew stressed the need for farmers to monitor progress for some time prior to intervention. This should be done by camera, where possible, to minimise disturbing the cow during calving. If there is no progress, it’s time to step in.

Making the call

Unfortunately, this comes with experience. Knowing if a calf is small enough to be born normally is a skill that comes from handling cows for years. If in doubt, call for help. What you need to feel here is the space around the calf in at the pelvis. If the head and front feet are through but the shoulders are not, you need to feel to see if there is sufficient space around the calf.

Lubrication is very important and you should never handle a cow without using it. Lubrication can also aid getting a calf out, but remember if the calf is too big no amount of lube will change that.

Jacking a calf

A calving jack is a useful tool when used properly on cows that need assistance. Farmers need to remember the power of a calving jack. A cow forcing is the equivalent of 75kg of pressure at calving. If two people were to pull a calf with ropes, this brings the force to around 160kg. When using a calving jack, the force can be anywhere up to 250kg on the calf and back end of the cow. This is nearly three and a half times the force of the cow calving alone. Used incorrectly, it can cause serious damage to both cow and calf.


Straw costs are inflated greatly on farms this spring, however, the calving shed is not the place to skimp on bedding. Calving into an environment that is as clean as possible will dramatically reduce the amount of disease and infection encountered by both the newborn calf and its mother.

Treating navels should also be done on all newborn calves. At birth the navel has not formed a boundary to the outside environment and so is an open source for disease to enter the calf.

Navel dipping rather than spraying is better at covering all sides of the navel. However, make sure whatever you are dipping navels with, that the dip itself is clean.

Also farmers should never be handling a cow without clean, disposable, calving gloves on. There is a much greater risk to infection for the cow when farmers are not wearing gloves. Where the cow is handled a number of times and assisted with calving, you need to think about antibiotic treatment. Speak to your vet if you are in any doubt.

Colostrum, colostrum, colostrum

No amount of hygiene, navel dipping or scour vaccines will compensate for poor-quality or low quantity of colostrum for a newborn calf. This was a point that Andrew could not stress enough – the importance of getting sufficient levels of quality colostrum into a calf in the first few hours of life is essential for calf survival.

Colostrum provides antibodies to the calf for all the diseases that the cow has been exposed to on your farm. This will be the only immunity the calf will have for the first few weeks of life.

The calf’s stomach can only absorb these antibodies in the first few hours of life. Even at six-hours-old the calf’s ability to absorb antibodies from colostrum is greatly reduced. This is why it is so important to get the calf to feed as soon as possible after calving.

While a generally accepted level of colostrum in the first feed is 3l, Andrew says this will very much depend on the size of the calf. Smaller calves or twins will not be able to take such a large volume, especially in one feed. A more accurate way to calculate the correct feed level is 8% of birth weight.

Colostrum quality can be improved by feeding a high protein diet in the final few weeks of pregnancy. Feeding a low level of true protein, such as soya bean meal to cows will boost colostrum quality and quantity.


The Farm Profit Programme event was held at Thainstone Mart last Thursday. With well over a hundred people in attendance and nearly 500 viewers to the online live stream of the event, it’s was clear to see that farmers were keen to hear practical calving tips ahead of the busy spring season.