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Calf pulling needed less often, but be prepared

There are different ways and means to pull a calf either by hand or the use of the calf jack, and different malpresentations are dealt with slightly differently.

When pulling, you need to be very aware of the stress this puts on both the calf and cow. Pulling is a skill less needed these days because of easier-calving animals, but one that’s still worth perfecting as it can mean the difference between a live calf versus a dead or stressed calf. It can also mean the difference between a cow that breeds back on time versus one that retains her placenta, has vaginal tears and never rebreeds.

The very first decision comes with knowing when to intervene by vaginally checking out a cow and providing a helping hand. The rule of thumb is one hour in cows, and 1-1/2 hours in heifers that are giving strong uterine contractions but making no progress. Exceptions to this rule are when cows or heifers are uneasy, bawling, or nesting for an extraordinary period of time. This is how some malpresentations, torsions and breech births present themselves. If you have a maternity pen, it is easy to simply run them in and check them out. You can avert a disaster and often save both calf and cow.

With a higher percentage of twins born in today’s modern herds, malpresentations are more common than one might think.


All farmers should have either a commercially made maternity pen calving chute or homemade device that accomplishes the same thing. You must be able to restrain the cow to clean her and check her out. As well, you need to keep her head caught and have her lay out in lateral recumbency with enough room behind to fully manipulate the puller. Choked down at the end of a rope is not the place to pull a calf.

Cleanliness is critical. Before examining the vagina make sure the whole perineal area is washed with warm water with surgical soap such as Endure, Betadine, or Hibitane, which are not irritating to the sensitive mucosal surfaces in the inside of the vagina. You can purchase a small container from your veterinarian. They are not costly and will last a long time. Ordinary soaps irritate and can lead to infections, potentially scarring and possibly a delay in rebreeding or an open cow.

You should keep clean yourself by wearing (hopefully) a calving suit or at the very least, putting on obstetrical gloves. Hold them up on your arms with a towel clamp or wide elastics. This keeps you clean and dry, and the cow protected. During the few minutes it takes for these procedures, the cow often calms down and you are then prepared when pulling ensues.


Explore the positioning of the calf first and make sure it is presented properly. You always want three things in the pelvis. Two front legs and a head for a forwards presentation or two back legs and a tail in a backwards presentation. Attaching the chains properly can avert damage to the calf’s legs and feet. This is especially true when a routine pull turns into a hard pull. Again take time and double loop above and below the fetlock. Make sure the links are laying flat and the pull of each wrap should be lined up. I prefer the pull to come off the bottom of the leg. I personally like one long chain, which can be double looped on both feet. The only time I single loop is with a small malpresented calf or with twins where I absolutely know it will be a light hand pull.

Calving straps are an alternative. My only issue here is they are harder to keep clean. Always keep the calf jack close by. It needs to be clean and well serviced. It is a good idea at the start of calving season to go over it as it may be rusted stiff or worn out. This is again where some farmers’ sterility falls down. I have seen some pretty grungy calf pullers over the years. Take a few seconds to quickly wash it, especially the breech (part which goes around the cows back end) and hang it back to dry. The breech straps should keep the puller just nicely below the bottom of the vagina when pulling. Keep the calving area and maternity pen clean and periodically disinfect with Virkon disinfectant to keep bacterial and viral contamination low.


With the actual pull, only advance with the cow’s contractions. You have a bit of time here, so don’t get in a rush. The cow’s contractions will greatly reduce the force you need to use. Apply lots of sterile lubricant. This is a cheap product, which can be purchased at the veterinary clinic, and when applied over the head in a tight pull, minimizes friction in the vagina, which is where tears result. With long calvings or when the cow has been examined frequently the vaginal vault dries out so don’t hesitate to use lots of lubricant in these circumstances. You will be amazed at how much easier the pulling becomes. Apply lots of lubricant over the o.b. sleeves as well to minimize friction as this keeps your arms from fatiguing when doing manipulations or applying the chains.

Pull in a slightly downward motion following the natural curvature of the calf. This is easier if the cow is down as in a standing cow you can only get about a 45-degree angle on the puller. Always keep an eye on the tension of the chains. It is very easy in the heat of the moment to overpull, pull way too fast and injure the calf or cow. Remember calf pullers can exert 2,000 pounds of pulling power, which can cause great damage in the wrong hands. Two good-size people should be able to pull a calf by hand. Otherwise it is too big and a caesarean section may be needed. With today’s labour shortages on farms producers are often by themselves and the use of a puller greatly reduces fatigue by allowing a slow pull timed with the cow’s contractions.

Backward calves are pulled pretty much straight back. Again, take your time, ensure the tail is down between the legs, and pull slowly until the tails and hips are presented out the back end.

It is about this time that the calf’s umbilical cord breaks and the calf must be extracted fairly fast. This is the only time you will ever see me pulling a calf fast. Keep in mind cows cannot deliver as big a calf backwards as they can forwards. If you see the dewclaws pointing skywards the calf should be assisted immediately as many found stillborn calves are the result of too long a delivery with a backwards calf.

Hopefully this article will help new producers and be a good review for experienced ones. We don’t need to intervene very often anymore but every time you do and save a calf it is a very worthwhile enterprise.

About the author


Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.



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