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January 20, 2010

Calving and Dystocia: When to call the Vet

"They didn't say anything about this in the books, I thought, as the snow blew in through the gaping doorway and settled on my naked back.
I lay face down on the cobbled floor in a pool of nameless muck, my arm deep inside the straining cow, my feet scrabbling for a toe hold between the stones. I was stripped to the waist and the snow mingled with the dirt and the dried blood on my body. I could see nothing outside the circle of flickering light thrown by the smoky oil lamp which the farmer held over me.
No, there wasn't a word in the books about searching for your ropes and instruments in the shadows; about trying to keep clean in a half bucket of tepid water; about the cobbles digging into your chest. Nor about the slow numbing of the arms, the creeping paralysis of the muscles as the fingers tried to work against the cow's powerful expulsive efforts.
My mind went back to that picture in the obstetrics book. A cow standing in the middle of a gleaming floor while a sleek veterinary surgeon in a spotless parturition overall inserted his arm to a polite distance. He was relaxed and smiling, the farmer and his helpers were smiling, even the cow was smiling. There was no dirt or blood or sweat anywhere."
So begins James Herriot's book All Creatures Great and Small. If you have never read his books, you really should. From the first paragraph you are hooked. But this post isn't about James Herriot, rather it is about cow calving and when you should call your veterinarian for assistance. We are just starting into spring calving season here on the Palouse. I had my first middle-of-the-night calving call just a few weeks ago. It is sometimes all I can do to drag myself from my warm bed and venture into the cold blustery dark, but when a new, live calf is the result of my labors (no pun intended), it does make it all worthwhile.

Before we go into the particulars about when to call the vet, let's talk about the normal stages of parturition (labor and delivery). The first stage of labor, which is the dilation of the cervix, often goes unnoticed. You may notice the cow looking uncomfortable, getting up and down, looking around at her sides. The first stage can take up to 8 hrs or more. The second stage commences when the cervix is fully dilated and the calf can begin it's journey through the birth canal. You may see the cow behaving oddly, laying down to push a little, getting up and pacing around. Usually, the bag of fluids that surrounds the calf will rupture in a gush and "strings" from the amniotic sac will hang from the vulva. Soon afterwards, you should see the front feet appear and the nose not far behind. The second stage ends with the delivery of the calf. The second stage should not exceed 1 to 1 1/2 hours. The third stage is the delivery of the placenta and usually takes 4-8 hours.

Dystocia is what we call a difficult and/or prolonged parturition (labor and delivery). Dystocia can occur for many different reasons that fall into two generalized categories: 1) something wrong with the cow, and 2) something wrong with the calf and/or it's position. Things that can go wrong with the cow include weakness due to poor health or nutrition, uterine torsion, scar tissue adhesions, or hormonal imbalances. Problems with the calf include malpositions, deformities, multiple calves, or being too large to be pushed through the pelvis.

So, the question still is "When do I call the veterinarian to check the cow?" Well... there is no set answer, but here are some guidelines I suggest. Call your veterinarian if: 1) You think the cow should have calved and she hasn't. I regularly hear, "I thought she wanted to calve two days ago, but she hasn't shown anything yet." 2) Part of the placenta has been hanging out or you have seen fluid drainage for 1 1/2 hours. 3) Part of the calf has been out for 30 minutes and it still isn't on the ground. 4) The fluid, placenta, or calf is stained yellow. 5) The toes are pointed down instead of up. (This usually occurs with a backward calf.) I feel you will save more calves and cows (and thus more money) if you assist earlier as apposed to waiting too long.

This old diagram shows a backward calf that
will need assistance to be delivered alive.

Notice the toes pointing down with the backward calf.
If these were front feet they would be pointing up.

This is a nightmare that usually occurs at 2 AM,
with 20 degrees and 20 mph winds up my back...
and she has been this way for 2 days.

This presentation usually occurs when
the calf is dead during stage one of parturition.
It is the calf's job to get it's feet up into the vagina.

So, this has been a brief overview of calving and dystocia. Hopefully I have helped you to make decisions about when to call your veterinarian out to check your laboring cow.

PS Always go back inside the cow's uterus and check for another calf if you have had to assist her with calving. Just a tip.