Beef 911: A vet’s guide to the proper use of calf pullers

The goal is to deliver a lively calf, not just one that’s alive, and have the cow in good shape to rebreed

a cow giving birth to a calf

Although calf pullers are not used today near as much as past years they still have an important place in the calving barn if used properly.

To me, every cow-calf producer, and some feedlot owners, need one — especially if they are often alone when calving. By using common guidelines when pulling, a calf puller can be a very valuable piece of equipment and save calves’ lives.

There are several makes on the market, each with their own unique features. The most important features are being able to release pressure easily and allowing the operator to work close to the back end of the cow when first jacking. Older block-and-tackle types necessitated having two people — one by the cow and one running the pulling mechanism. These are archaic and should be discarded or used for wire stretching and a new or new/used puller purchased. The cost is about $200, so it’s cheap insurance.

The puller should be well cleaned and disinfected after usage so infectious organisms are not transmitted between calvings. A lot of the pullers I see are rather grungy with fetal fluids, placenta or manure allowed to freeze or dry onto the puller. Keep them like you would a kitchen utensil and clean often. That includes the breech (part that goes over the cow) and strap. Often they are hung up in the calving shed and these days collect dust but before use hose them off and always know where they are in case you need them suddenly. Take a few minutes and go over them at the start of every calving season. There is no time to do a calf jack overhaul when the calf is stuck at the pelvis and bellowing for his life.

Any time I am going to use the pullers I ensure I have two wraps of the chains on each leg (above and below the fetlock joint). This will spread out the force to minimize damage to the legs and avoid the disastrous broken leg if the pull gets tighter than you would like.

It is easy for me being the veterinarian as I have the farmer to help pull. In this circumstance I will not put the pullers on unless two people can pull the front shoulders through in a front presentation. That is the rule of thumb that the rest of the calf should follow even with the help of pullers. By yourself you may put a puller on sooner to avoid fatigue from trying to pull by hand. Be wary — good pullers can put on forces approaching 2,000 pounds, so in inexperienced hands or when adrenaline kicks in, they can do considerable damage to calf and mother cow when care is not taken. I will periodically check the tension on the chains, always be patient, and try to time pulling with the cow’s contractions. Pulling too fast does damage and I believe results in the odd prolapsed uterus as the suction seems to have the uterus directly follow the calf.

If we absolutely know the calf is dead we can pull a bit harder, but remember it is now the cow we are concerned about. Use lots of lube as a dead calf is drier and the vaginal vault is dry as well and again, pull slowly. If still too tight know your limits and when to stop. A skilled veterinarian with using different techniques or a one-cut fetotomy can save the cow and many times have her breed back. A downer cow from too hard a pull is never a good thing. Some do get over obturator paralysis but many are gimped for life from the calving experience.

Where the puller is a lifesaver is when the calf appears stuck at the hips (farmers refer to this as hiplock) although seldom is this true as usually it is just tight, or in rare occasions it is the stifle that is locked. Relaxing and rotating the calf slightly may alleviate this issue.

By pulling by hand, all you will do is pull the cow around. The way a puller is designed means it pushes back against the cow’s pelvis and by being able to manipulate the angle of the pull you can extricate the calf easily most times. This one advantage will pay for the puller in one usage. The tighter the calf, increase the angle with the puller so eventually you are down between her back legs with your puller.

This steep angle can only be achieved with the cow down in lateral recumbency (lying preferably on her left side). A cow down in lateral also has her pelvis tip slightly which helps with delivery and I find their contractions are also more forceful, again helping with delivery. The cows that don’t force make for a very hard delivery. By keeping the puller firm, you can wait and hopefully she will start contracting.

Always be methodically slow and steady when pulling. We want to save the calf by delivering a lively calf, not just an alive calf, and have the cow in good shape to rebreed. Use a calving suit and obstetrical gloves when assisting, keep the cow clean, and have a happy calving season. Hopefully you don’t have to use the puller too often — and if that happens, evaluate both your breeding and feeding programs. Overly fat, out-of-shape cattle also have more difficulty calving. Know your limits and phone your veterinarian for help if not making progress after 20 minutes.

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