Calving season is a wonderful time of year! New born calves are a magnificent miracle, as is the process of parturition. We have previously discussed parturition, the normal cow birthing process. Today, we are going to discuss dystocia. Dystocia is difficulty with parturition, to the point of needing human intervention.
Dystocia has significant economic impact on the beef industry. Approximately 60% of calves that die shortly after birth had a difficult or prolonged calving. Conception in the cow afterwards is decreased by 15-20% and cows have a higher risk of retained placentas along with uterine infections.
The most common cause of dystocia is maternal to fetal disproportion. A large birth weight is a much more common cause of the disproportion than an unusually small pelvis. Genetics and environmental factors influence maternal to fetal disproportion. Examples of genetic influences include breed, size of dam, and sex of calf. Environmental factors include nutrition, season, and age.
The second most common cause of dystocia is inappropriate presentation of the calf. Calves can present backwards, in breech position, with a leg down, or a head back. The third cause of dystocia is illness to the cow or calf, or possibly because the calf is not alive.
It is imperative that as cattle producers, we understand when to intervene during a calving. There are a few rules of thumb to consider. #1: If stage 1 of labor (she is separated from herd, has abdominal discomfort, she is pacing) has gone on for more than six hours, the cow should be examined. This is typical of cows that have a breech or a twisted uterus. #2: We need to intervene if stage 2 (starts with appearance of water bag or fetal membranes) has gone on for more than 2 hours without calf delivery. #3: More than 90 minutes since the onset of stage 2 without part of the calf showing. In these cases, the cow may be sick or weak and therefore unable to push. #4: The cow has been straining for 30-45 minutes after a foot has showed without further progress. This could indicate a head back or leg in the wrong place. Prompt intervention is important for calf survival. If calving goes on too long, the calf will be weak, tongue may be swollen, and the mother, especially heifers, will tire out.
Once one of the four rules of thumb has been broken, the cow should be moved to a calving pen for an exam. First, decide if she is exhausted or weak. If this is the case, you may be able to pull the calf. Once the cow is properly restrained, perform a vaginal exam. This exam will help to determine if the uterus is twisted, the cervix is open and if the calf is presented properly. If all is normal or can be moved into a normal position, pulling may begin by hand. Chains should be properly placed so as not to injure the calf’s legs. If both shoulders and the head can be engaged into the dam’s pelvis, a calf puller is then safe to use. Backwards calves should ONLY be pulled straight back. NOT down! If so, the cow may or may not need treatment, but most likely, the calf will need colostrum given either by bottle (preferred) or stomach tube. If at any point, help is needed, please call your local veterinarian.
If you have any questions regarding the above information or any questions/concerns in general, please contact Twin Valley VHS at 745-6642.
Dr. Justin Noble DVM
Twin Valley Veterinary Health Services