Farm Profit Programme: calving the cow part 2 – time to intervene?
In part two of the series, programme advisors Declan Marren and Robert Gilchrist speak to vet Andrew Smith about the correct time to intervene, jacking the calf and dealing with mal-presentations.

Andrew’s first piece of advice is not to panic – we need to remember that calving is a natural thing and 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.


Typically, a mal-presented calf is for a reason. Most mal-presentations occur with multiple births, ie twins or with oversized calves that are going to have difficulty calving normally.

Knowing what you are dealing with is important.

Having a good feel and being able to picture what way the calf is coming will help you decide what way is best to proceed.

A twisted uterus is one such case that can catch out even the most seasoned of campaigners.

A twist can cause the cow to begin the calving process, but without making any progress or showing much signs of calving can then 'go off' the calving procedure.

It is in this case that you are more likely to miss this cow calving and you may only become aware after 24 to 48 hours when the calf is long dead and the cow has an infection.

Untwisting the uterus can be difficult and usually the best option here is to call your vet.

Price cuts and oversupply hit milk sector
Graham’s The Family Dairy was with a 10% increase in milk supply; and First Milk cut price paid in June.

Falling prices and increased volumes are challenging the dairy sector. First Milk has cut its price to producers due to “downward pressure on dairy markets”, and UK production has been hitting a 20-year high every month this year. Meanwhile, Graham’s The Family Dairy has struggled to cope.

“Our milk production was up by 10% this year, compared with last year. This is a real challenge for us as an independent family dairy business, as milk volumes must be in line with our customers’ needs,” said Robert Graham, managing director.

“We are having positive conversations with our dairy partners and colleagues to address these ongoing challenges, working together on the best way to understand what the milk supply needs to be, and deliver on it.”

As processing capacity is outstripped by supply, excess milk will be put on the market, having a downward effect on prices. Average UK price is 29p/l, slightly above the five-year average of 27.5p/l.

The UK milk future projections are also indicating an encouraging upward trend

First Milk has announced that its price will reduce by 0.3p/l from 1 June to 27.45p/l for liquid milk and 28.37p/l for manufacturing milk.

Jim Baird, First Milk vice-chair and farmer director, said: “Unfortunately, we now need to make this adjustment in light of the downward pressure on UK dairy markets. Looking forward, global dairy markets are looking more positive and, with peak largely behind us, the UK milk future projections are also indicating an encouraging upward trend.”

Market for dairy calves

Finding a market for male dairy calves was the subject of conversation at the Exiles dairy discussion group meeting in Dumfries last Tuesday.

Up until now, the only real market for these low beef-merit Holstein Friesian and Jersey-cross calves was for pet food production

The discussion group – primarily made up of spring-calving, grass-based dairy farmers in southwest Scotland and northwest England, are trying to find alternatives to slaughter for male dairy-bred calves.

Up until now, the only real market for these low beef-merit Holstein Friesian and Jersey-cross calves was for pet food production. But milk buyers, responding to concerns from the public, are beginning to enforce rules around minimum age for slaughter.

The dairy farmers say that finding an alternative market for these calves is difficult and that an industry-wide initiative needs to be put in place to reduce the number of low beef-merit calves, but also to find a market for beef calves from the dairy herd.

One farmer said it cost him £12/head to transport three-week-old Hereford-cross calves from his dairy herd near Dumfries to a market at Carlisle, only for the calves to make an average of £28 in the ring – below the cost of feed and transport.

Scottish beef and lamb markets experience a dip in price
Farmers Journal Scotland editor John Sleigh has his take on the week's lamb and beef sectors.

Cattle prices slipped a little this week as abattoirs took advantage of decent supply, with prices paid closer to £3.60/kg compared with £3.65/kg last week for an R4L steer.

The official AHDB reported price dropped 1p/kg to £3.67/kg for an R4L steer.

This maintained a premium over the northern English price of 9p/kg for the same grade cattle.

Heifers are reported by the AHDB as a good trade at £3.70/kg for an R4L.

Deadweight cow prices rose 5p/kg to £2.73/kg for an O-4L carcase, which is 8p/kg more than northern England.

Lamb market

The live market for lambs tumbled by 19p/kg to £1.88/kg for medium-weight lambs.

Heavier lambs also fell by 18p/kg to £1.76/kg live weight.

Numbers of old-season lambs sold through the live ring fell back again as the season is drawing to a close, with 1,300 fewer lambs sold, with 8,941 head through the live ring.

Meanwhile, 5,211 store lambs were sold through Scottish marts, with a big sale at United Auctions.

The AHDB is reporting a UK price of £5.04/kg for an R3L carcase, with a kill of over 16,000, which is up 7,000/head.

Numbers of new-season lambs sold through the live ring rose again by 700 head to 1,565 lambs.

Ayr, Lanark, St Boswells, UA Stirling and Thainstone marts sold over 100 new lambs each.

The average price for medium-weight lambs was £2.28/kg liveweight. Cast ewes through the ring fell nearly 1,000 head on the week to 2,668 head, as the average price dropped £5/head to £63/head.

Beef wobble worry
Farmers Journal Scotland editor John Sleigh has his take on the week's big news.

It’s worrying that a few abattoirs cut their beef price this week to just over £3.60/kg for an R4L steer. It would seem increased beef supply and weak consumption are allowing processors to claw the price back a couple pence.

Retail sales have been struggling, sliding by around 4% on the year

After a sharp fall in supply from mid-March to April, we have seen a recovery in the last three weeks. While our beef kill is unchanged on the year, when you factor in a higher average carcase weight there is 0.6% more volume on the market.

Meanwhile, retail sales have been struggling, sliding by around 4% on the year, with roasts taking a significant hit.

The good news is the current supply peak usually finishes just after the Highland Show, and barbecue season should kick in soon, helping to increase consumer demand.

No cars at future shows

Having no cars at the Highland Show was one of the recommendations by a transport expert to chief executive officer Alan Laidlaw.

Alan found it hard to imagine how thousands of farmers could descend on Ingliston without using motor vehicles.

But future planners are serious about the combustion engine’s demise, and felt that not much parking will be needed for the double centenary year in 2040.

If this comes to bare, then we better widen doors on the trains from Mallaig if we want a Highland cattle class.