Calving - What is normal?

By Antonius Hatmodjo, Putaruru

To start with, let’s remind ourselves about what normal calving is like. Generally, there are three stages involved and these can be summarised as follows: 

Stage 1 - Dilation of the Birth Canal

Dams may experience discomfort during the process and may exhibit signs such as: restlessness, kicking at its belly, frequent urination and defecation, vocalisation, engorged and leaky udder, separating themselves from the mob, and mucus discharge. These signs become more imminent as calf delivery is about 4 hours away.

Stage 2 - Delivery of the Calf

Indicated by the appearance of the membranes ('water bag') due to increased uterine contractions, followed by evident abdominal pushing. Cows usually deliver their calf within 1 to 2 hours, while heifers may take up to 4 hours. 

Stage 3 - Delivery of the Afterbirth

Normally occurs 8 to 12 hours post-delivery of the calf. 

When should I intervene? 

By knowing what is normal, we can then use the information to infer whether or not dams are having trouble and require assistance. The following are a few circumstances where intervention is needed:

  • Dams are restless for more than 4 hours but neither 'Water bag' nor abdominal contractions are seen
  • 'Water bag' has been visible for 2 hours but no part of the calf is showing
  • Abdominal pushing is evident, feet and/or nose is showing, but calf is not delivered after 2 hours

If dams have stopped trying to calve for longer than 20 minutes

Firstly, is the birth canal well dilated? Are you able to feel the calf?

If you are:

Is the calf coming out forward or backward? If forward, can you feel both front legs and the head?

Or, if calf is backward, can you feel both back legs? Are they extended?

If you are unable to reach the calf, or if  you think the calf is not in a normal presentation

Are you able to determine what the problem is? As well as how to correct it?

Lastly, is the calf going to fit through the birth canal?

What should I do next?

Firstly dams need to be drafted, and then assessed (i.e. is she down, is she wobbling/staggering when walking, is she looking dull) and given extra support (i.e. oral energy drench, metabolic bags, and/or pain relief), particularly if calving has been going on for quite some time.

Once dams are looked after, palpate the birth canal and the calf as best as possible. Try being systematic in your approach and look for the following.

Ultimately, you need to be able to answer yes to all of the above before deciding to deliver calf by forced extraction (pulling). Always check the birth canal for an extra calf and tears after extraction. Also, you should never try pulling on the calf without knowing what you are actually dealing with!

Feeling unsure?

Seek help. See if someone with more experience is able to help you solve the issue. In a situation where: you are not able to assess the problem, or you know what the problem is but are unsure on how to correct it, or have been trying for 20 minutes but unable to make progress, it is best to call for assistance from your veterinarian.


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