Economic losses from difficult calvings are associated with several factors: an increased risk of calf and cow mortality, longer calving intervals, decreased conception rates, reduced weaning weight and increased veterinary and pharmaceutical costs.

Through proper planning and management, you can help prevent these problems before they occur. The following 10 tips for proper breeding and feeding management will help you to produce a healthy and strong calf crop.

1. Choose the right bull for your herd
Proper bull selection is one of the major keys for preventing calving difficulties. To avoid any problems, use first-calf heifers for a bull with an expected progeny difference (EPD) for low birthweights.

That bull should have a breed average or lower birthweight EPDs. If you are using a young unproven bull, use his EPDs and compare it against the breed average for bulls in his own birth-year group.

Even if it’s too late for this year’s calf crop, you can choose the right bull for the next breeding season.


2. Shorten the calving season
The shorter the calving season, the easier (and less labor-intensive) it is to manage. The calving season should be 60 to 90 days.

This time frame will reduce costs associated with hired labor and the time you have to observe your cattle. Calve your heifers four weeks earlier than your cows.

This management procedure gives you time to focus only on the heifers. Furthermore, the heifers might need two heat cycles to breed back but will be in synch with the cows when the bull will be turned out.

3. Observe body condition
The desired body condition score in the last trimester should be 4.5 to 5.5 for cows and 6 for heifers. Remember, heifers not only need to have adequate nutrition for the fetus, but they are still growing themselves.

A reduced feed intake can have a negative impact on the overall health of the animal and the calf. A higher body condition score ensures easier calving and better quality colostrum, leading to a healthier newborn calf that has better protection from diseases.

Reducing feeding prior to calving is not an effective or advised method for reducing calving difficulties.

4. Feeding management
The time of day the herd is getting fed can influence the time calves are born. Feeding your heifers in the late evening will result in a decrease of births overnight.

Start four weeks prior to calving season with this regimen. The likelihood of an observed daytime calving is increased, which makes earlier intervention more likely.

New calf taking to the heifer

5. Frequency of observations
It is recommended to check on cows and heifers every three hours during calving season. Large cow-calf operations often provide full-time observation; however, in smaller operations the level of monitoring must be modified to be economically feasible and practical.

In smaller operations, check your heifers as often as possible to come close to the recommendation. The more you observe your herd, the fewer your losses will be.

6. Be prepared for trouble
Check your calving box ahead of time to ensure you have all the necessary equipment to assist a calving and to take care of the calf if necessary.

Make sure all of your equipment has been cleaned appropriately since the last use. Also, ensure that your pens, chutes and calving stalls are in good shape and functioning properly.

There is nothing worse than trying to work in a dysfunctional chute in the middle of the night.

The following essentials should be in your calving box:

  • Obstetrical sleeves
  • One 60-inch or two 30-inch obstetrical chains
  • Two obstetrical handles
  • Obstetrical lube – if not available, use soap and water
  • Pail
  • Non-irritating disinfectant, such as chlorhexidine (Nolvasan)
  • Antibiotics – Check with your veterinarian which antibiotic would be appropriate for your setting.

Other helpful supplies include:

  • Towels
  • Paper towels
  • Functioning flashlight and batteries

For the calf:

  • 7 percent iodine tincture, for navel treatment – if not available, use chlorhexidine (Nolvasan) solution (1 part chlorhexidine to 3 parts water)
  • Colostrum replacer, in case you lose the dam or you have a weak calf with a decreased suckle reflex

7. Take your time
Generally, first-calf heifers need more assistance than cows. However, cows can occasionally run into calving difficulties and should also be frequently observed.

Providing timely assistance to a heifer or cow that has a difficult calving is crucial for survival of the calf and dam. If assistance is provided early, you will be able to decrease your losses and improve rebreeding performance.

The challenging aspect is to know when to intervene. Signs of early labor can include restlessness and separation from the herd. Once the animal is in active labor, you will see her straining and you may observe breaking of the water bag.

After the water bag breaks, a cow should be delivering her calf within 30 minutes. A heifer may take up to an hour. If you do not see any progression after 30 minutes (cow) or 60 minutes (heifer), you should examine the animal to see if assistance is necessary.

Prolonged labor can produce weaker calves and a greater risk of losing the calf. If you are unable to deliver the calf safely yourself, call your veterinarian immediately.

8. Be clean, be gentle – use lots of lube
Take time to thoroughly wash off the cow or heifer’s anus, vulva and surrounding skin with warm water and soap. If you have an assistant, ask that person to hold the tail to the side.

If you are by yourself, tie the tail with a long rope around the neck of the cow. Never tie the tail to the chute. If you forget to remove the rope and you release the animal, it can cause severe injury to the tail.

Use your obstetrical, shoulder-length sleeves to cover your hands and arms or wash your bare hands and arms with water and soap before you place them into the birth canal.

By wearing disposable obstetrical sleeves, you help protect yourself from zoonotic diseases (diseases that can spread from animals to humans) such as brucellosis.

Remember that the cleaner you work, the less likely it is that the dam will develop a uterine infection. Generously apply obstetrical lubricant to make entrance easier and more comfortable for the animal.

Enter the lubricated hand slowly into the vagina. Do not break the water bag if it’s still intact and the cervix is not completely dilated.

9. Pull carefully
In order to successfully pull a calf, it needs to be in anterior (forward) presentation and normal position – meaning that the head comes first with both forelimbs extended into the pelvic canal. The spine of the calf should be up against the dam’s spine.

Any other position, such as leg or head being back, is abnormal and needs to be corrected before pulling the calf out.

If the calf is backwards or sideways (or the calf is very large or the heifer’s hips are too small for the calf to pass through), it is best to call your veterinarian for help.

If you were able to correct any abnormal position yourself, place the obstetrical chains around the feet. Proper placement of the obstetrical chains is very important and will avoid injuries to the calf’s legs, such as fractures, that can have devastating consequences.

The first loop of the chain should be above the fetlock joint, then make a half hitch below the joint above the foot.

Once you are ready to pull the calf, remember that no more than the force of two adult men should be necessary or allowed to extract a calf. Excessive force will injure the dam and calf.

Always pull with the contractions of the dam. Use plenty of lubricant – it will make the assisted calving process much easier. Apply tension to the chains to pull on the calf.

Once the chest of the calf is through the birth canal, change the angle of pull to be more downward toward the hind legs of the dam. While pulling, re-check multiple times that you have enough space and that the calf is coming through the pelvis easily. Any intervention requires skill and patience.

10. Know your limits
Before assisting a calving, ask yourself how much experience you or your assistant has, and with what type of calving situations you are comfortable. Establish calving protocols that define when to call a veterinarian for assistance.

Contact your veterinarian prior to calving season to help with the establishment of these protocols. Place your veterinarian’s phone number somewhere accessible to everyone in your family. Remember that even the best veterinarian cannot correct mistakes you have made while assisting a cow.

One of the most common problems veterinarians see is that a decision to call for help was delayed, which, in return, resulted in a negative outcome for both the calf and cow. It is advised to call your veterinarian earlier than later.

Call your veterinarian if you encounter the following situations:

  • You know the problem and how to solve it but are unable to handle it.
  • You know the problem and how to solve it, but have not made any progress in a 30-minute period. Manipulation for a longer period of time and waiting too long can place the calf in a dangerous situation.
  • You are unfamiliar with what you feel.

Examples of when you need veterinary help include (but are not limited to):

  • The calf is too large to pass through the pelvic canal.
  • The heifer is too small to allow the calf to pass.
  • The calf is in an upside down, forward or backward presentation (the abdomen of the calf faces the spine of the dam). These can be difficult to manage if you have never experienced this problem.
  • The cervix has not dilated enough.
  • True breech (you only feel the tail).
  • The dam has a uterine torsion – do not pull the calf.

While there is no magic solution to trouble-free calving, following these 10 tips will help your cows and heifers to have the most ideal birth possible.

Remember, you’re not alone in this process. Don’t hesitate to call your veterinarian if any situation with which you are not comfortable arises. Best of luck with your calving season.  end mark

This originally appeared in the California Cattleman, and is reused with permission.

PHOTO 1: Make sure to observe if the calf shows proper suckle reflex, or you may need a colostrum replacer.

PHOTO 2: Smaller operations may have fewer opportunities to monitor calves before they take to their mother. Photos by Paul Marchant.

Anita Varga Anita Varga
Gold Coast Veterinary Service and Consulting