Producers should have three goals when providing calving assistance, says Matt Miesner, Kansas State University DVM:
- A live, viable beef calf,
- The welfare of the cow,
- Preservation of the dam’s reproductive soundness and her ability to breed back.
In most cases of dystocia during calving, the calf can be pulled by hand after correcting any abnormality of position. There are some instances, however, when a mechanical calf puller, or calf jack, is needed to pull a calf. Once it’s determined that a calf can be safely pulled, Mark Alley, DVM, a clinical assistant instructor in the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, says a calf jack is an excellent tool when used appropriately.
Most experts say you should not apply more force than that of two strong men pulling by hand. But, if you’re alone in assisting a difficult birth, a calf jack can help generate the necessary force.
The criteria Alley uses for predicting ease of birth during calving is if he can get the calf’s head and front legs into the pelvis without traction and can get his hand between the calf’s forehead and the cow.
“This usually means it can be a vaginal delivery,” Alley says. If the calf’s head is hitting the cow’s pelvis, it may not come through and delivery by C-section may be necessary.
“If the forelegs are crossed, this usually means it’s a big calf and the shoulders are wedged in the cow’s pelvis. This may or may not be one the calf jack can be used on.”
Pulling a calf properly
When assisting a delivery, never continuously pull at full strength. Only pull when the cow strains, and rest while she rests.
“A calf jack is the best tool for holding the calf at the point it is in the birth process. I use it to hold (and not lose ground). A calf jack can be detrimental if you just continue to crank,” Miesner says.
He adds that research shows a calf jack can exert 2,000 lbs. of pull, while two men typically exert about 400 lbs. “If I can get a calf out with hand pulling, it’s a lot easier on the calf,” he says.
Correct placement of the chains is critical to prevent injury to the calf. “Put one loop above the fetlock joint and a second loop (half-hitch) below it, for two points of pull. This spreads the pressure so it doesn’t all come in one place,” Meisner says.
Make sure the cow is properly dilated before pulling; if not, move slowly and pull gradually while using plenty of lubrication. “If you’re making progress and the calf’s legs are coming through to help the cervix dilate, it will probably be all right,” Miesner says.
“If you feel you’re putting too much pressure on the calf, stop and reassess the situation. This is just a feel, rather than something you can measure or see,” Alley says. The amount of pressure you can safely apply during calving assistance will vary with each cow or heifer and size of the calf.
How to use a calf puller
Alley says he prefers the cow to be flat on her side before using a calf jack. It makes controlling the instrument easier for the handler, and the cow can strain more effectively. “Gravity is against you when she’s standing because the heavy uterus and calf are resting on the abdominal floor; the calf must come up and over the pelvic brim,” he says.
“Once she’s down, I align the base (butt plate) of the calf jack just below the cow’s vulva,” he says. The chains or straps around the calf’s legs can then be hooked to the chain of the calf jack.
“I prefer a calf jack that can put alternating pressures on the legs, bringing them forward one at a time, walking the shoulders through the pelvis – like you would when pulling by hand,” he explains.
Alley times his efforts with the cow’s contractions. When the calf’s head comes through the vulva, he may halt for a moment to clear mucus from the calf’s nostrils. “Small amounts of pressure can be applied after the head comes out, but take your time,” he advises.
“As soon as I get the head out, I start pushing down a little with the end of the calf jack, toward where the cow’s feet are. I try to deliver the calf in an arc, as it would come during a natural birth,” Alley says. But he cautions against pulling downward on the calf too much too soon, as the calf’s ribcage could be injured.
“If you continue to pull straight out, you put an unnatural pressure on the calf’s spine because of the way the cow’s pelvis tilts. This can paralyze a calf,” Alley says.
In addition, a birthing calf’s hips tend to catch on the cow’s pelvis if pulled straight out. Pulling downward raises the calf’s hips to pass through the wider upper part of the cow’s pelvis, which is oval-shaped – the vertical diameter is greater than the horizontal diameter.
“We rotate the calf as his shoulders come through the pelvis, so the widest part of the calf’s hips line up with the widest diameter of the cow’s pelvis,” he explains.
Once the last rib of the calf has cleared the vulva, Alley stops to assess the calf’s size to decide whether its hips need to be rotated. At this point, the calf can begin breathing, as its ribcage is free to expand. He also adds additional lubrication to promote easier delivery.
“If you’ve taken time to clear his airways, or to let fluids come out of his nose as the ribcage is compressed going through the birth canal, he can start to breathe. This happens naturally as a calf is born, but can be hindered if you keep steady, unrelenting pressure with the calf jack,” Alley says.
One common mistake is letting the calf hang there (if the cow is standing), or hanging a calf upside down after delivery, thinking this will help fluid drain from its airways. If he’s having a hard time breathing, this is counterproductive, Alley says. The weight of his abdominal contents presses against his diaphragm and it’s hard for him to take a breath.
Know when to call for help
“Delivering calves is one of the most challenging things to teach people how to do,” he says. It’s as much art as science, and experience helps, because each one will be different.
“Even with experience, if you talk with experts who have delivered lots of calves, the reason they are experts is that they’ve made mistakes and have learned from those. You learn what not to do,” he explains.
The most important thing for producers to learn during calving is when to call for help. “If you’ve worked on a dystocia for 30 minutes and haven’t made progress, it’s time to reevaluate your actions. Fetotomies and C-sections are options, but in some situations euthanasia should also be considered,” Alley says.
“A common mistake people make with a calf jack is trying to pull a calf that can’t be delivered vaginally. The calf is too big or the cow’s pelvis too small. Another mistake is working too quickly, which can result in vaginal or uterine lacerations in the cow or injuries to the calf,” he adds.
First aid for leg injuries
Limb problems are one of many issues that ranchers face during calving season.
David Anderson, Kansas State University DVM, says broken legs in newborns usually fall into two categories – “mama trauma,” in which the calf gets stepped on, or injuries sustained in an assisted birth.
To prevent the latter, Anderson stresses the importance of correct technique in attaching OB chains: “Use a double half-hitch, with one loop above and one below the fetlock to spread the force, so it doesn’t all pull on one place.”
Regardless of the cause, some fractures are more easily repaired than others.
“If it’s broken at the growth plate at the end of the long bone, it tends to break straight across. If you can get the leg realigned and set the fracture, a calf often responds well in a cast or splint that prevents it from bending its leg while still allowing it to walk,” Anderson says.
How-To Video: When To Intervene When Calving First-Calf Heifers
When the fracture occurs higher up the leg, it’s more difficult to stabilize the weight-bearing force. “Assessing location of the break is important when deciding the type of appliance to fix it. If the fracture is above the growth plate, a cast can share weight with the leg much more than a splint can,” he says.
For fractures above the knee or hock, he often inserts pins before the cast is set to prevent weight bearing on the fracture area. This simple technique can be done onsite, the pins are inexpensive and the procedure usually gives the fracture a good opportunity to heal, he says.
There are some splints designed for high limb injuries and may immobilize the leg enough for it to heal, he adds. A dog splint wrapped with stretchy tape to hold it in place, for instance, may be adequate to support a hind limb injury on a newborn calf. But, the prognosis for an older, heavier calf with the same injury may not be as favorable.
Purdue University DVM Mark Hilton says PVC pipe cut lengthwise in half will work as a splint, with rolled cotton between the pipe and limb to pad it.
“When fixing a hind leg, we use a propane torch to heat the PVC pipe to bend it, so it will curve at the hock at the same angle as the leg. We heat the half-pipe at the proper spot and push the end of the pipe on the ground to get the correct angle. We hold it a couple minutes at that angle until it cools and then it stays that way,” he explains.
Anderson stresses the importance of immediate first aid for fractures, especially if waiting for an on-call veterinarian.
“Most fractures in young calves aren’t open wounds or compound fractures, so there’s no infection. But if you don’t protect that limb and it becomes open, that calf’s survival chances plummet quickly,” he says.
Preventing the calf from putting weight on the leg is important. “Sometimes we use slings to reduce movement. We have a Velpeau sling for front-leg use and an Ehmer sling for hind-leg use – to bandage the limb against the body. If a calf was mobile after birth, it can usually nurse on three legs. But if the fracture occurred during birth it usually won’t be able to stand,” Anderson says.
Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, ID.