Updated: May 17, 2022
Calving complications can be detrimental to an operation's success. However, with proper procedures and protocol, the fatality rate due to complications can be significantly decreased. Dystocia is the largest complication of a cow herd and refers to difficulty giving birth.
These problems arise when the cow has a small pelvic area or if a calf is too large for the animal. These type of problems are common in heifers, due to their small size and inexperience giving birth. These type of size complications are often caused by poor breeding management, poor nutritional management, or if cows are overfed during gestation. When managing breeding, consideration needs to be taken on the genetic cross of breeds to ensure that a small framed cow is not being bred with a large framed bull. This will likely create a larger calf and the cow may not have a large enough pelvic area for the calf. It is also important to note the size and strength different between a cow and a heifer. Therefore, heifers should be bred to a bull with low birth weights for calving ease. Nutritional management is important because when cattle are undernourished, their body cannot meat the nutrient requirement of the muscles to be able to push the calf out of the birthing canal. However, when an animal is over-nourished, there will often be fat building up on the rear end of the animal which will crowd the birthing canal and restrict the elasticity of the birthing canal. These overfed cattle will also have more nutrients being allocated to the calf, as the cow requirements have already been met, that it will often result in a very large fetus. Which, as stated above, can result in dystocia due to the calving being too large for the pelvic area.
The other common complication is mal-presentation of the fetus. This occurs when the fetus fails to turn in-utero. In normal circumstances, the calf will rotate in-utero to present the two front hooves followed by the nose, with the top of the calfs head upward. If the calf is unable to rotate, due to calf size, cow pelvic area size, or malnourished or over-nourished cows, the calf can present in other ways that will likely need assistance for birth. If a calf does not rotate at all and is backwards, they can present with both back legs stretched out towards the cows tail. If they present like this, the cow can often still brith the calf with little or no assistance. If the calf is backwards and the back legs are tucked under the calfs stomach, a cesarean section will likely need to be performed. It is very difficult to maneuver the back legs to be able to pull the calf out vaginally. Sometimes the calf will flip but will not get both legs up. When this occurs, the calf will present head first and sometimes one or both legs are tucked under the calf's stomach. Depending on the location of the leg, sometimes the rancher is able to reach in push the calf back and pull the second leg up to the correct position. Another presentation that can be seen is where the calfs head is tucked into its chest but the front legs are presented normal. In some cases, there is enough space to reach in and maneuver the head up to the correct position.
It is important to understand the difference between a cow giving birth with or without complications. If the cow has not had the calf within 4 to 6 hours after the start of the preparatory stage, she is in need of assistance. Assistance starts will reaching in to feel if there are mal-presentations or if the problem is the size difference of the calf and pelvic area. If the calf is presenting properly, chains, hooks, and mechanical pullers can be utilized to assist the cow expel the calf. When putting chains on a calf, ensure there are two half hitch wraps, one above the dew claws and once below to reduce the pressure being put on one area of the leg. If the chain is not wrapped correctly, this can lead to broken legged calves. When using pulling assists, ensure that you have both hooves wrapped with the chain, in the correct position, and that they are pulling at the same rate to keep the calf straight as it moved through the birthing canal. It is also important to note that if the calf is not moving with a mechanical puller, to not overdue it. This can cause the cow to hip lock and can cause significant damage the cow and the calf. There are many good videos online to illustrate how to wrap the chains and proper techniques when using mechanical calf pullers.
Take home messages from this post is to always assist within 4-6 hours from the start of the preparatory stage. This quick response time will increase the likelihood of having a live, healthy calf and cow. It is important to understand normal presentation of a calf and how to respond when it is not being presented normally. Hopefully this summarizes some of the calving complications that can occur and will help to decrease death loss on your ranch.