The most common reason we are called out to see cattle is for calving problems,
especially in first calf heifers. Calving problems can happen in good seasons
(when cows are too fat and/or calves are too big) or in poor seasons (when cows don’t
have enough energy to push the calf out).
The “normal” stages of the birth process are set out below. If you see any deviation
from this please contact us immediately. A cow that is having any difficulty calving can
quickly become an emergency.
The earlier we are called the better the chance of getting a live calf and live cow which
is the result we all want to see.
Stage One of the birth process begins with the first contractions and ends when the
calf enters the birth canal. This stage normally lasts for less than 6 hours. Signs to
watch for include the cow becoming restless (getting up and down a lot), going off on
their own and the mucous “plug” being dislodged from the birth canal. If this stage
lasts for more than 8 hours or if you see meconium (thick orange fluid) being released,
it is time to call for veterinary help.
Stage Two begins when you see the water sac or bag and ends with delivery of the calf. Contractions start to come more quickly and the cow will usually lie down. There will be several big pushes interspersed with rests – first to deliver the head then the shoulders then the hips (when the cow may stand up again). This stage should not last for more than 4 hours. Please call for veterinary help if the calf appears to be coming in an odd position, if delivery is not progressing despite the cow straining, if you see blood from the rectum, if the presented head appears swollen or if there is meconium.
These are the stages when veterinary help is most likely to be required. The vast majority of delivery problems (90%) come down to oversized calves, so first time mothers are most at risk. Another 5% of problems are due to abnormal positioning of the calf.
Some calvings may require us to reposition the calf and deliver it with traction (such as a calf puller – not a ute or tractor!). Sometimes this repositioning is only possible with the assistance of drugs to relax the cow (such as epidural anaesthesia and muscle relaxants). If the calf is too big to deliver by traction, we may need to perform a caesarean section and deliver the calf that way. If the calf is already dead and we are unable to deliver it by traction, we may have to cut it into smaller pieces (foetotomy) and deliver it that way. Caesareans and foetotomies are hard physical work and can be quite time consuming.
Stage Three starts with the delivery of the calf and ends when the foetal membranes (placenta) are passed, usually within 12 hours. If the membranes have not passed after three days or if the cow appears systemically ill, antibiotics or other treatment may be required.
Once the calf is delivered, make sure it is breathing well by sitting it up on its chest and poking some straw up its nose if necessary to stimulate breathing. Ensure that the calf gets a drink from the mother (within the first 12 hours) to get the all-important colostrum which primes their immune system. This may mean milking out the mother and bottle feeding the calf.
Other problems that we see around calving time are vaginal and uterine prolapses. Vaginal prolapses occur late in gestation (so not long before the calf is due). A large ball of pink tissue (rockmelon to basketball size) is seen poking out of the cow’s vulva. Uterine prolapses occur not long after the cow has given birth and are more common if the calf has been pulled or was a difficult delivery. Uterine prolapses are much more serious and spectacular with the entire reproductive tract hanging out of the cow and possibly even dragging on the ground. Treatment for both involves replacing the prolapsed tissue and securing it in place with a large suture. Time is of the essence in treating both these conditions.
If your cattle are calving, please keep a close eye on them. Check them in the morning and again mid-afternoon (so we have a chance to help them during daylight rather than in the dark!). Our veterinarians can help you with any calving problems so please contact us if you have any concerns.