There comes a time in cow-calf production to induce cows to calve for a number of reasons.
This may be because there is an abnormal pregnancy, the cow has a life-threatening condition, the pregnancy has gone on too long leading to health issues or other reasons. All require careful thought and examination as every case is unique and the ultimate goal is to have both the cow and calf survive.
If very close to the end of gestation, there are a few protocols. The use of prostaglandins and dexamethasone in combination will give induction generally within 30 to 36 hours. I like to use the regular dose of prostaglandin (two cc of Estrumate or an equivalent product) and about 25 mg of dexamethasone, but your vet should have a formula they like for these prescription products.
In every case where induction was contemplated, so too was an emergency C-section — it’s often a consideration of the time needed to induce and the gestational length with the odds of both the calf’s and dam’s survival. Sometimes the dam is in grave health and our main goal is trying to salvage the calf. Other times the pregnancy is abnormal, so one is trying to remove the calf to save the cow.
Conditions where I have induced cows or heard other veterinarians induce cows with success are fetal anasarca (collection of fluid in the fetus), hydrops (abnormal amount of fluid accumulation in the uterus making it life threatening), severe peritonitis, heart failure from hardware disease, severe pyelonephritis (kidney infection) and even severe pneumonia.
Cases where cows go down close to calving (perhaps from getting too thin when carrying twins) are other examples where inducing a bit early may get rid of the weight of the calves and uterine fluids allowing the cow to get up again.
Downers pose their own set of management headaches. Management of downers is a whole other topic to discuss and as far as induction goes may be a day-by-day collective decision as to if, when and how induction will happen.
Viability and closeness to due date for the calf’s sake is always a big factor. Do we have a breeding date (AI date or visualized breeding)? How is the udder fill? And what does your veterinarian think of palpation?
These are all very subjective calls and even if a breeding date is known, breeds have quite a range and variation in gestational length. Any earlier than two weeks ahead and the calf is usually not viable. It is much easier if one is simply bringing on cows a bit earlier to tighten the end of the breeding season or for other management reasons.
Here it is absolutely imperative to check that the cow has good-quality colostrum. The thick, yellow, sticky colostrum in all four teats indicates the cow/heifer is close enough to induce. If the colostrum looks like mucus, it is still too early and you must wait. If inducing, you know they should calve within about the 36-hour window, but they may have been going to calve within the next few hours naturally so watch them closely. In other words, the induction process was too late as calving was occurring naturally. Be warned, the sick, toxic, and thin cows usually do not produce much milk, so udder fill is not an appropriate indicator.
With all inductions, observe them closely. One must keep in mind the calf in utero is sort of mimicking what is going on with the cow. If the cow is short of breath because of pneumonia, the calf’s blood is not oxygenated normally. If she is toxic from bad mastitis or peritonitis, the calf will be suppressed.
There is a big risk and reward with inducing. I have seen on some occasions where both cow and calf are lost, but I have also seen live twins delivered from a downer cow and she subsequently got up, so all three were saved. One never knows.
If the cow is lost, do a BSE test as the autopsy may give more of a clue as to the diagnosis. Usually these are individual animal problems but sometimes as in the cases of hardware disease (heart failure) or thinness from lack of nutrition, herd issues may be detected.
When inducing cows for management reasons, they should always be very close to their due date and have good-quality colostrum. They should also not retain their placentas if done properly as we are only talking about bringing them on a few days early.
Here’s hoping calving goes well and we don’t run into many cows we need to induce. If there is the need, make sure and have your herd veterinarian help determine the most appropriate time.