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March 7, 2005

Cows May Need Help When Giving Birth

Calves may need some human help as they are being born, says Greg Lardy, a North Dakota State University Extension Service beef cattle specialist.

“Watch cattle closely during the calving season,” he says. “If signs of calving difficulty appear, quietly assist the cow or heifer.”

He recommends that producers also should disinfect all obstetrical chains and other equipment properly after each use. Finally, knowing when to seek veterinary assistance will result in more live calves and less stress on the cows in the long run, he says.

Here are some steps he recommends for helping cows give birth:

  • If delivery is delayed, do a pelvic exam to determine if the cervix has dilated. Be sure to use an obstetrical glove and proper disinfectant.
  • Determine the fetus’s position. If it’s abnormal, decide whether veterinary assistance is necessary.
  • Assess the size of the calf relative to the cow’s pelvic area. The calf and cow may suffer serious injury or death if someone tries to mechanically extract a calf that is too large for the birth canal.
  • Attach obstetrical chains to the calf’s front feet. Place one chain on each leg approximately 2 to 3 inches above the ankle joint and dew claw. Be sure the chains are pulling from the top (opposite the dew claw) side of the leg.
  • Pull the calf gently. Pull one leg and then the other alternately to “walk the calf out.”
  • After exposing the head and shoulders, pull downward at a 45-degree angle. This lessens the chance of hip lock.
  • If the calf becomes hip locked, try to push it back in the birth canal a few inches and then rotate it half a turn. Veterinary assistance may be required in difficult cases.
  • A breech presentation (calf coming out backward) occurs in less than 5 percent of all births. This position is difficult because the calf’s rear legs do not stimulate dilation of the cervix as well as the front feet and head, and because the umbilical cord generally breaks before the calf is delivered, increasing the likelihood of the calf dying during birth.
  • Mechanical calf pullers exert considerable force as they extract the calf. When using these instruments, be sure to determine that presentation is normal, then apply gentle, gradual pressure. Excessive force can maim or kill the calf and traumatize the cow.

Following delivery, remove any mucous from the calf’s nostrils. If the calf is unresponsive, rub it briskly to stimulate it, or use a piece of straw or hay to tickle its nostrils to stimulate its breathing. Using artificial respiration also may help the calf start breathing, Lardy says.

Other options include buying a commercial respirator or placing a small piece of soft garden hose in one nostril. Cover the calf’s mouth and remaining nostril and blow gently into the hose at five- to seven-second intervals until the calf begins to breathe.

“Calving is always an exciting time,” Lardy says. “With adequate preparation, you can avoid some calving problems and be ready to deal with the others as they come up.”


Source: Greg Lardy, (701) 231-7660,
Editor: Ellen Crawford, (701) 231-5391,



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