Every farmer hopes for a problem-free calving period.

But, unfortunately, there will be times when cows need assistance.

When problems do occur, you need to know what you are dealing with, how to intervene safely and when to involve the vet.

Outlined are some tips on dealing with the more common issues that arise when a cow goes into labour.

1 Know the signs of calving problems:

If a cow requires assistance during calving, there will be tell-tale signs to identify the problem. The most obvious will be the calf’s presentation. But there are other signs to look for.

These start with the water bag not being presented. When the water bag is presented, check that the fluids are clear.

Reddish, brown or cloudy fluids means the calf is in difficulty and intervention is required immediately.

Check if the calf’s front legs are crossing when positioned in the birth canal. This is a sign of a big calf, or broad shoulders, and the vet may be required at this point. A calf with a swollen tongue or head should be a cause of alarm.

2 The two-inch rule:

A good way to gauge if the cow will deliver a correctly presented calf on her own is to attach the leg ropes and give a good pull by hand.

If the legs and head can move forward by at least two inches, the cow should be properly dilated and is likely to deliver the calf without assistance.

3 Correcting the front legs:

Malpresentation is a common reason for the lack of progress during calving.

The two front legs should be in a forward position, just below the calf’s head. If legs are not positioned correctly, this needs to be rectified.

The calf may need pushing backwards to give room for your arm to locate the trailing limb. Work the hand along the calf, locate the trailing limb and cup the hoof. Lift the leg upwards and bring forward gently.

In the case of one leg forward and one leg back, attach calving ropes to the leg correctly positioned before you push the calf back into the womb.

This keeps this leg facing forward when you are ready to pull the calf back into the birth canal.

4 Repositioning the head:

If the head is not in a forward position, attach both leg ropes and push the calf back inside the cow. Again, feel for the head. Once located, lift into position between the front legs. Pull on the leg ropes to bring the calf forward into the birth canal again.

5 Dealing with a calf coming backwards:

If the calf is presented backwards, there are two things to keep in mind should you decide to deliver the calf through the birth canal.

Firstly, make sure the cow has fully dilated. Trying to pull a calf backwards when the cow has not fully opened will create further problems.

Secondly, when you do start to pull, speed is the key. The calf’s chord will break before the head emerges from the cow. Once the chord breaks, the calf cannot breathe and is at risk of drowning.

Calves coming backwards will be delivered using the jack. Rest the ratchet bar of the jack on your shoulder, as an incline helps the trajectory of calf hips move through the cow’s pelvis.

Once the hips are out, use the jack as normal. If you have any doubts, ring the vet before you start to pull the calf.

6 Calf upside down:

It is rare, but every now and then a calf is positioned upside down. Veterinary intervention is recommended at all times in this situation.

7 The cow is pressing but does not pass the water bag:

On occasion, the cow will show the classic signs of labour with restlessness, a raised tail and contractions without passing the water bag.

Restrain the cow and investigate. When you place your arm inside the cow, if your hand is being rotated as you probe forwards, this is an indication the animal has a twisted uterus. Veterinary intervention will be required at this point.

8 Let the calf breathe:

When assisting the cow in labour, once the head and shoulders are released, you are passed the point of no return. Once the head is out, the calf will be able to breathe on its own.

As you pull forward, the force on the calf’s legs will stretch the animal out. This constricts the calf’s lungs, limiting its ability to breathe.

This is particularly important when using the jack. If progress is slow, or the calf is stuck, release the tension on the ropes regularly. This takes the pressure off the calf and allows it to breathe.

All too often, when a calf is stuck, the person on the jack panics and applies excessive force. With the calf stretched out and unable to breathe, it will die within a couple of minutes.

9 Calf stuck at the hips:

If the calf becomes stuck at the hips, the cow is most likely down. The use of the jack changes at this point.

Keep re-applying lubricant and lever the jack sideways in one direction. The aim should be to release one hip at a time. If the calf can be rotated 90 degrees, this can also help release the hips.

10 Aftercare:

After a hard calving, the natural reaction is tending to the calf. Don’t forget about the cow. Give pain relief to help the cow get up and lick the calf.

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