Determining if the Cow/Heifer Needs Your Help

Four decisions dramatically affect the outcome of delivery.
They are:

  1. Frequency of observation
    Recommended frequency of observation is every 1-2 hours. The ability to perform this is based on staffing at your dairy.
    Once a cow/heifer in stage 2 of labor the frequency of observation should increase to every 30 minutes. It is important to see if the dam is making progress in that time or not.

  2. Knowing when to intervene
    To make decisions about when to intervene it is important to know the normal range of time it takes for each stage of labor. All personnel should know the guidelines for intervention and understand why those guidelines are in place.

    The guidelines below are based on the stage of labor.

    Stage 1 -
    Usually lasts 2-6 hours
    If you do not notice any progression to stage 2 after 4 hours the cow/heifer should be examined to determine if there is a problem. Low blood calcium (milk fever), uterine torsion, or a calf in breech presentation can prevent the cow from going into Stage 2 of labor. (See the glossary for an explination of these terms.)

    Stage 2 -
    Intervention is needed if any of the following occur:

    1. If the water sac has been visible for 2 hours and you have not seen any progression (the cow is not trying).
    2. If the cow has been trying for over 30 minutes and making no progress.
    3. If the cow has quit trying for more than a 15-20 minute period of time after a period of progress. Rest periods normally should not last longer that 5-10 minutes.
    4. If the cow or calf is showing signs of stress or fatigue -- like a swollen tongue in the calf, yellow staining (meconium) of the fetus, or severe bleeding from the rectum of the cow.

    5. If you suspect that the calf is in an abnormal presentation, position, or posture.


    Stage 3 -
    If the fetal membranes have not been passed within 12 hours after calving, intervention may be necessary. If they are retained, treatment may be indicated. In no instance should the membranes be manually removed. This may be detrimental to the cow's future reproductive performance.
    It may be beneficial to cut the membranes close to the vulva in order to decrease the opportunity for contaminants (dirt, bacteria) to obtain entrance into the reproductive tract of the cow.
    Be sure to consult with your veterinarian about proper treatment of retained fetal membranes in your dairy cows.

    It is important to realize that early intervention provides the greatest benefit for calf survivability and future reproductive performance of the cow.

  3. Determine if the calf can be delivered by forced extraction (pulling).
    Once you have decided to intervene you should palpate the calf and the birth canal: 1) to determine if the calf is alive or not and 2) to see if it can be delivered through the birth canal of the cow.
    • If the birth canal is abnormal it is time to call for professional help.
    • If the cervix is not fully dilated the cow should be given more time for dilation or checked for other signs of milk fever.
    • If the calf's head is too large to fit through the birth canal forced extraction should not be performed.
    • Studies have shown that calves delivered by c-section after forced extraction has failed have a decreased chance of survival compared to calves delivered by c-section alone. Therefore the decision to perform a c-section should be made a early as possible and the decision to pull the calf should be based on a realistic assessment of the likelihood of success.
    • If the decision is made to pull the calf, you should know when to keep pulling and when to quit.
    • Be sure to always correct any malpositions prior to forced extraction.
    • For a forwards (anterior) presented calf, the head and shoulders must be able to pass the pelvic canal or the calf cannot be delivered. The shoulders of the calf are through the pelvis of the cow when the knees (carpi) of the calf are at the vulva. If you cannot get both knees to the vulva, the calf cannot be pulled without damage to the calf or cow.
    • For a backwards (posterior) calf, if the hocks are one hand width beyond (outside) the vulva, the hips should be through the birth canal and you should be able to deliver the calf.

  4. When to call for professional assistance.
    Professional assistance may not always mean a veterinarian, it may just be someone with more experience then yourself.
    Call for assistance if:
    1. You cannot assess the problem.
    2. You know what you are dealing with but you do not know how to correct it.
    3. You have been trying to correct the problem for 30 minutes and have not made any progress
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