Calving cows – what’s normal, and when to intervene?

It is important to understand the normal calving process in order to know when to intervene.

The normal calving process is divided into 3 stages of labour, as follows:

Stage 1 – Soft tissues of the birth canal, including cervix and vulva, dilate in preparation for calving. Signs typically seen when a cow enters stage 1 include frequent sniffing of the ground, licking at the hind end, increased vocalisation, raised tail, softening of the vulva and restlessness. Appearance of the amniotic sac (water bag) outside of the vulva signals the end of stage 1 and the start of stage 2.

Stage 2 – The calf is expelled out of the cow. In this stage the cow will lie down and abdominal contractions can be seen as the calf is delivered. This stage takes an average of 70 minutes in a normal calving (measured from first appearance of the water bag/amniotic sac). Progress of calf coming out should be observable every 15 – 20 minutes.

Stage 3 – Expulsion of the placenta. Normally this should be completed within 24 hours of calving.

Watch for the following signs of difficulty calving – this is when you should intervene:

  • Slow progress of expelling the calf in stage 2 i.e. no further progress after 20 minutes

  • Two hours of labour have passed without complete delivery

  • Presence of the water bag or feet without any further progress of calving

  • It can be seen that the calf is not in the correct position. Examples of this include if only one leg can be seen outside the vulva, or if the bottom of the feet are facing up.

  • If there is meconium (yellow discharge) from the vulva – this indicates a very stressed calf!

Assistance to help finish the calving should be given to all heifers once you see the feet or nose of the calf outside the vulva.

Here are some tips for assisting a cow that is having trouble calving:

  • Ensure the vulva and perineum are thoroughly cleaned with a disinfectant (such as chlorhexidine or iodine) before having a feel inside

  • Use plenty of lube – no such thing as too much!

  • Do not try to pull the calf out unless you are sure it is in the correct position

  • When using mechanical calf pullers, force should never be excessive – the calf will come with steady traction providing it is not too big and is in the correct position.

When is it time to call the vet?

  • If you have tried for 30 minutes and the calf is not out

  • If you can feel that the calf is not in the correct position and you are unable to correct it

  • If the calf is not progressing out despite using steady pulling/traction with the calf in correct position – this likely indicates that the calf is too big to come out without veterinary intervention.