Beef 911: Calving problems are decreasing, but stay vigilant

Vets aren't called out during calving as often as they used to be, but producers need to know when to call for backup

With genetic selection of lower birth weights and easy calving bulls, calving problems due to fetal oversize are becoming rarer and rarer.

But there are still common problems, which are worth reviewing to help producers recognize and assist these deliveries to save more calves as calving season is upon us.

Fetal malpresentations today are the most common calving difficulties we see. The simple front leg(s) back are often corrected by the producer. Gently repelling the body and head back will give enough room to bring the leg around. This places the calf in the normal position to be pulled. Occasionally a cow can deliver a calf with one foot back depending on the size of her pelvic opening versus the size of the calf. Always try and assist a backwards calving.

Twinning is in the range of up to five to six per cent in some herds and this poses a much greater risk of malpresentation because of the eight legs and two heads. The various combinations these body parts can be presented in can really be a puzzle to sort out. Most common one is backwards (usually the first one) and one is forwards. They can both be trying to come together.

A few tricks producers can do to sort things out is to first remember the top calf must be the one to come out first. Secondly, follow the leg back to the body and make sure you are pulling on two legs from the same calf. To determine between back and front legs there are one of two things, which must be felt. If you can follow the legs back the neck and head should be found if front legs or the tail found if back legs. That is the obvious. If you can’t reach that far if you check the first two joints they bend the same way in the front legs and the opposite way if the back legs. If both calves are coming forward, four front legs need to be sorted out. If a cow had twins in the previous year or two, watch her extra closely as they often repeat.

My rule of thumb for any of these malpresentations is if no progress is being made after 20 minutes, call your veterinarian. The vaginal vault will be drying out and time running out as well. Keep in mind you are generally behind with malpresentations since the uterine contractions may be delayed or the water bag or feet showing may not happen as with normal calvings. As a result there is an increased percentage of stillborn.

The most common malpresentation veterinarians are called to are complete breech births where the calf is presented tail first into the birth chamber. It takes skill and experience to bring the back legs around without damaging the cow’s uterus. Again, there is a higher incidence of this with twin births. And with just the butt end presented, often the cow delays pushing. Whether this is because nothing is presented into the pelvis one can only speculate. I do know over half of these presented to us are stillborn. The cow will often look uneasy and start making a bed but won’t get down to the act of calving. With many, the entire placenta is presented when the calf is delivered. The navel cord may be wrapped around the legs and veterinarians must be careful to not rip this during the delivery.

Torsion of the uterus is rare, but it is important for the producer to recognize this situation right away and call for help. Upon doing your vaginal exam, you get the impression your hand and arm are going through a corkscrew with apparent tight tissue crossing your path. When you do reach the calf, it may appear upside down and the opening is not uniform like a partially dilated cervix.

Call for help right away, as a few options are available. The calf may be able to be rolled by an experienced veterinarian, the cow rolled and the calf held or if both these are unsuccessful a caesarean section performed.

Veterinarians generally become involved when there are fetal monsters, fetal hydrops (excessive fluid in the calf’s abdomen), schistosomas reflexus (an inside-out calf), and other rare conditions. The calves are usually non-viable and are delivered by C-section or, in many cases, a fetotomy. This is where the veterinarian will cut the fetus apart using obstetrical wire and an instrument called a fetotome. All are undesirable options, but the life of the cow is spared.

We also see the cases where there is something wrong with the pelvis of the cow. The tail head and spine may have dropped down making the pelvic opening very small or there may be a mass or some obstruction in the pelvis. The solution is again a caesarean section even though the calf is normal size. These cows are obviously culled out in subsequent years.

The days of lots of C-sections and hard pulls are over. With good bull and female selection, calving problems from fetal oversize are very rare. Another problem worth mentioning is our heifers are maturing early and the older calves can be bred at only a few months of age. These of course commonly have dystocias (calving problems) due to small pelvic openings but by pulling bulls or pregnancy checking our yearling heifers, we can eliminate these unwanted pregnancies in young heifers.

Overall, veterinarians are called a lot less than they formerly were — which is a good thing. The important thing is still being diligent at calving and to recognize when there is a problem and act on it quickly. If you don’t make progress yourself in 20 minutes, call in backup. If a calving isn’t proceeding in the normal time, intervene as most often you may detect a malpresentation or torsion early in time to save the calf. Here’s to a fruitful and problem-free calving season.

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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