Calving time essentials
Preparation is key
Regardless of how often or what time of year you calve, having the right equipment with you will make a busy time of year on the farm just that bit more straightforward.
Every step you can take ahead of time to improve the health and vitality outcomes for your animals, minimise your stress levels, and optimise safety and on-farm efficiency during this period is absolutely worth it.
Prior to calving, calving kits should be checked and restocked. Equipment and stock handling facilities need to be thoroughly inspected, maintained and repaired as required for safe and correct function.
Medicines should be checked for quality, integrity and expiry dates. Record keeping and staff communication systems should be reviewed, and any staff training or knowledge deficits addressed. Treatment protocols ought to be reviewed and refreshed if required; including your plans for assisted calvings, newborn calf care, fresh cows and downer cows.
Your calving kit should include:
- minimum of two chains/leg ropes
- additional long chain or head snare
- pulley or calving jack in good order
- obstetrical lubricant
- detergent (soap)
- disinfectant (eg. chlorhexidine)
- long obstetrical gloves
- short latex gloves
- clean towels
- clean water
- naval spray or dip (seven per cent iodine or two per cent chlorhexidine)
- a can of spray paint.
- anti-inflammatories and other medications as per your individual farm’s requirements
- needles and syringes of various sizes
- a calf resuscitator
- bags of four in one, calcium and dextrose for quick administration in the paddock
- clean milking apron
- ear tags and applicator
- calf coat.
Stages of labour
Cows will commonly become restless in the days and hours leading up to labour, and may separate themselves from the rest of the mob. The first stage of labour involves the softening and opening of the cervix, and the amniotic sac (looks like a fluid filled bubble or bag at the vulval opening) and/or calf entering the birth canal. This stage can last up to eight hours. Stage two involves delivering the calf, and again duration is variable but should not last longer than six hours. Stage three is the expulsion of the placenta, which can take up to 12 hours.
When to intervene
If a cow appears to be in labour based on the signs above but there are no signs of progression, an examination should be performed, ideally while wearing a clean lubricated obstetrical glove. If the amniotic sac is visible for over an hour but no signs of a calf, or if the cow is straining unproductively for more than half an hour whether there is a sac present or not, the cow should be checked as assistance may be required. Retained placentas are not usually intervened with during the immediate labour period in cattle.
Tips and tricks
Cleanliness is key. Wash the cow’s vulva and your arm (if not using gloves) before you assist her and continue to keep yourself and her clean during the intervention. Nobody wants to be treating a preventable uterine infection in three days’ time.
Don’t underestimate the power of lubricant, especially if the cow has been straining for a while and already expelled a lot of her amniotic fluid. Lube bombs are cheap, simple and effective: fill a clean obstetrical glove with one to two litres of lubricant, tie off the end and gently introduce it into the cow and down around the calf before popping the glove and dispersing the lubricant. Lube will not only assist in the passage of the calf or help you finally bring up that cheeky missing foot you’ve been chasing, it will help protect the internal lining of the uterus and birth canal.
Leg chains or ropes should always be applied appropriately using half hitches (see diagram), with force distributed evenly across multiple joints in the limb. Head snares, chains or ropes should never be applied to the lower jaw — fracture or dislocation will likely result.
Traction should be used appropriately by experienced operators, and in a careful controlled manner using a calving jack or pulley. No more than two people should ever be required to apply tension to a jack or pulley. Using tractors, quad bikes or wire strainers is not acceptable and excessive force should never be used to make up for an inability to correct a malpresentation.
Always check for a twin.
When to call in the reinforcements
If you have attempted to assist a cow deliver a calf without making any progress within 15 minutes, if the cow appears distressed, bloated, paralysed or bleeding heavily, or if you are unable to determine the position of the calf or correct a malpresentation, it’s time to call for help.
Never give a cow oxytocin while a calf is still inside. Calving season can be long and exhausting — knowing when to call for help during a calving may feel like defeat, but you’ll more than likely be doing yourself (and the cow) a favour in the long run. Once you’ve called either another member of staff or your vet for assistance, it’s best to stop and reset, and give the cow a break too. Grab a drink (maybe offer the cow one too) and refresh your water buckets ready for the next person. If it’s a doozy, the vet will likely still rely on you to help out in some way, so take the time to have a breather before they get there.
If a cow continues to strain after calving, she may prolapse her uterus (push it outside her body). A prolapse is a medical emergency and should be attended to immediately by an experienced operator or vet to improve chances of successful replacement and survival.
Lucy is completing her Dairy Residency with The University of Melbourne. She works as an on-farm veterinarian for Apiam Animal Health, and alongside her husband on his family’s dairy farm in south-west Victoria. She is a 2021 Nuffield Scholar supported by Gardiner Dairy Foundation.