Calving Difficulties

Calving is one of the most critical times of a cow’s life. A smooth calving is the first step towards a successful and profitable lactation as well as providing the best possible start for the newborn calf. Normally only 3-8% of animals will require assistance at calving, however, for breeds such as Belgian Blues, up to 80% of animals will require some form assistance at calving.

Whilst the majority of cows will calve quite easily without assistance it is important to be able to recognise when you need to provide additional help. A general understanding of the normal birth process will help you determine when assistance is required.

Normal calving can be divided into three general stages:-

Stage 1: - Preparation.


Stage 2: - Delivery of the calf.

Stage 3: - Expulsion of the afterbirth

In stage 1 we see the animal preparing to calve; uterine contractions begin and the cervix starts to dilate. Animals will become restless and separate themselves from the rest of the group. This stage will last approximately 2-6 hours, although it might be slightly longer in heifers. Any unusual disturbance or stress during this period, such as excitement, may inhibit the contractions and delay calving.

Stage 2 begins when the calf enters the birth canal which stimulates abdominal contractions. The water bag will be seen appearing from the vulva at the start of this stage. Delivery of the calf should then occur within 1-2 hours of the water bag being seen.

The final part of the calving process is stage 3, the expulsion of the after-birth and this will generally occur 6-12 hours after the delivery of the calf. However, in some cases (especially after difficult calvings), the cow may not cleanse straight away. As long as the animal is bright, alert and still eating and drinking, then the cleansing can be left untouched for up to 7 days. If, after this period (or if the cow appears ill or off her food at any point), the afterbirth has not come away, then please contact the practice as she may well require veterinary attention.

Cows should be examined if they have been in Stage 1 for longer than 6 hours and no further signs of calving have been observed. Any animals which show signs of abdominal contractions or a water bag for over 2 hours without showing any parts of the calf should also be examined. When you start seeing the calf’s feet it is important to continue to monitor the cow at regular intervals. If no progress is made within an hour, or the nose of the calf protrudes further than its feet, assistance should be provided.




When examining a calving cow, ensure the animal is properly restrained, that you use plenty of lubricant and that you are as clean as possible. If you find upon inserting your hand into the vagina that the cervix will admit only two or three fingers, the case is probably one of non-dilation of the cervix or a possible uterine torsion. If the animal is showing signs of distress or has been calving for a long time, we would recommend you call the practice.

If the cervix is fully dilated and three essential parts of the calf (two front feet and head) can be felt in proper position, traction may be applied. Calving ropes should be looped above the calf’s fetlock (first joint) and then gradual traction can be applied. A calving aid may be used at this point to slowly pull the calf, but care must be taken not to apply too much force. Always ensure you use large amounts of lubricant (no calf has ever died from using too much lubricant, but plenty of cows have suffered from not using enough!).



In 95% of calvings the calf will be presented with its 2 front feet forwards with its head resting on top. If the calf is not coming normally (head back, leg back or breech), you must reposition the calf before applying traction. Sometimes deviations of the feet or head are minor and simple to correct, at other times they may be very difficult and if you are having difficulties it is important call us as soon as possible. If the calf is coming backwards, never attempt to turn the calf around, it should be delivered back legs first.



Once you have delivered the calf, clear and mucous from around its mouth and nose and stimulate breathing by rubbing its chest vigorously, and by getting it to sneeze by

placing a piece of straw in its nostril. Once the calf is breathing well, cover its navel with iodine and remember to ensure it gets 2-3 litres of colostrum as soon as possible.

Good management of calving cows plays an important part in ensuring the productivity of the herd. Regular observation of calving animals and appropriate intervention in the case of any difficulties will help minimise losses. When you do intervene, always ensure the animal is properly restrained and that you are clean. If you encounter problems you cannot correct, please contact us as soon as possible. If we do need to perform a caesarean section, the outcomes are always better if the decision to operate is made early before the cow is tired.

16th August 2011

Back to news