The Moos Room™

It is spring calving season, and Dr. Joe has been getting many questions about how to know when we should help a calving cow or heifer. Dr. Joe goes through a few things to help you decide when to jump in and help.

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Hosted by members of the University of Minnesota Extension Beef and Dairy Teams, The Moos Room discusses relevant topics to help beef and dairy producers be more successful. The information is evidence-based and presented as an informal conversation between the hosts and guests.

Dr. Joe Armstrong: Welcome to The Moos Room, everybody. This is Dr. Joe Armstrong. Just me today. We're keeping with the theme of the season, which is calving. There are a ton of questions coming in lately. The most common question I'm getting right now is, how do I know when it's time to jump in and intervene when a cow or a heifer is calving? Of course, we want to help these cows and these heifers when we think there might be issues, but we also know that jumping in too early can be detrimental and delay everything that much further. Every time that we go and move a cow or check a cow, and they're in the middle of their calving process, we've delayed it that much more. These are prey animals. We have to keep that in mind.
When we interrupt something, evolutionarily, they're programmed to prioritize their own life and stop calving because if they feel threatened in any way, or they're disrupted in that process, they shut everything down in case they have to go somewhere or run. Now, we can do that as people. Even people that they know really, really well, if we're constantly messing with them and checking them too often and getting in their face, it's going to delay everything that much more. But again, we want to help if something's wrong.
The first thing to know when we're talking about how to answer this question of when do I know it's time to jump in and intervene, we have to know what normal is. If we don't know what normal looks like, it's really hard to notice when something's going wrong. Normal is what we need to discuss first.
In the normal labor process, there's three stages. The first stage is where we have dilation of the cervix. We have small contractions that are really far apart. It might be going on for quite a while. This might be happening for 24 hours, but really for us, it's only observable for between four and eight hours. What we see is a cow or a heifer that's pacing, separates herself from the herd, gets kind of colicky, I would say, action where they're standing up, then they lay down, then they stand up, then they lay down. Their tail goes up. You might see a mucus plug in this stage, but you see an animal that's starting to become uncomfortable and is trying to separate herself from the herd.
Now, like I said, stage one is usually only observable for four, six, eight hours max. If you have an animal that's acting this way and you never see them progress to stage two, but they're still doing all of these things, that's time to jump in. If you see an animal acting this way, colicky, up and down, separating themselves from the herd, and you've watched it go on for six hours, it's time to start being worried about, "Why haven't I seen anything progress to stage two?"
Now, stage two starts with either the appearance of a water bag or feet. I'll change that to say any calf. If you see any part of the calf or a water bag, you're in stage two and we've started stage two. Usually, that cow is on her side, really strong contractions that last 30 seconds to a minute. The goal is to have a live calf at the end of stage two because stage two ends with the calf on the ground.
All right. In stage three, that can happen right away or up to 12 hours later. We're looking at the expulsion of the placenta. Stage three ends when we have placenta on the ground. Now, if this takes longer than 24 hours, that's when we get into the discussion of a retained placenta. That's associated with all sorts of different conditions and things that we don't want. Metritis, delayed return to estrus. A lot of things we don't have time to get into today. Stage three ends when we have placenta on the ground.
Now, most of the questions that I get are centered around stage two. We see parts of a calf or we have a water bag out, and people are wondering, "How long do I let that cow or that heifer go before I jump in to make sure things are okay?" There's several papers out there that help us determine what we should do in this situation. Essentially, what we're looking at is that there's people that have done the research to look at how long does the average stage two take, whether it's a cow or a heifer. When we look at cows, it doesn't take that long and it's very surprising how short of a time period it takes.
In the average cow, we're looking at between 20 and 30 minutes for stage two from the start to the end. From the appearance of the water bag or any piece of the calf, and then to calf on the ground, that only takes 20 to 30 minutes. With a mature cow, if you don't see progression and you don't see that calf coming out more and more, and she's been at it for 30 minutes, or even from whenever you show up, and you notice that she's in stage two, if it's been 30 minutes and that calf's not on the ground and you don't see really good progression of that calf coming out, it's time to jump in. There's no reason to wait. It shouldn't take that long.
Now, I don't really play games with trying to figure out when did she actually start versus when did I show up in the process. It's not worth it to try to figure that out. Cool, if you have cameras and you can look and see. Great. If you don't, it's just whenever you notice she's in stage two. If you see no progression in a half-hour, time to jump in.
Now, with heifers, not any surprise to anyone, it takes longer. These studies show that for a cow, a mature cow, we're looking at 20 to 30 minutes on average for stage two. For a heifer in stage two, again, starting with the appearance of a water bag or any part of the calf, stage two shouldn't take longer than an hour. On average, it's taking between 50 minutes and an hour. The same rules apply. If you see that heifer and she's making no progression, or she's been in stage two for an hour and you really don't see that the calf is pretty much out already, it's time to jump in. There's no reason to wait longer than that.
Very important recap here. Mature cows, stage two starts with water bag or the appearance of the calf. If she's been at it for a half hour, it's time to jump in unless that calf is pretty much all the way out. If she's at it for more than a half hour and you don't see much progression, you see she's really struggling, if it's been a half-hour, jump in on a mature cow. On the heifer side, same rules apply. It's just an hour. We want them to work at it a little more just because sometimes it takes a little longer just because they haven't done it before. It's heifer, maybe there's a little less space and they're learning as they go.
Now, I've talked a lot about progress and whether or not they're making progress. Progress is just really exposure of that calf and movement of that calf on its way out. Now, we talked about time. How long do you wait? The other piece of normal is, how are they positioned? We can tell a little bit without reaching in just by looking how they're positioned. Normal positioning is for both front feet to be forward with a head right behind those front feet, kind of nestled in between the hooves, but behind those hooves. You should see front feet first with the hooves pointing down towards the ground or towards her belly, towards the udder. Then followed by that, there should be a nose, the crown of the head, and then the rest of the calf.
One of the things you can look for right away is, which direction are those hooves pointing? If the hooves are pointing up or towards her tail or towards her spine, then I know either we have a calf that's upside down or those are back feet because those hooves should always be facing down or towards the udder, towards her belly. If you don't see that, you already know that you don't have a normal positioning. The other piece of that is if you see front feet and everything's pointed in the right direction, so the hooves are down and towards her belly, but then you get a bunch of that leg without any head. A lot of times head back is an issue with some of these presentations where they just don't get their head in the right position and it gets caught behind the pelvis, whereas our legs are further forward.
Hoof positioning up or down, that tells you right away whether or not you have a problem. Then we really do want to see that nose and the crown of the head appear not too far after those feet. If we don't see that head come out and we've got a decent amount of leg showing, you know that you might have a head back situation and you need to get on it.
What are some situations where you don't see anything? If you see the water bag appear, break, do whatever, that starts stage two, and then you see no calf. All sorts of situations there. The most common, in my opinion, would be a breech. Breech is where you have all four feet and the head facing towards the front of the cow, towards her head. All you feel when you reach in is a tail. That's one situation where if you see a cow or a heifer, and especially if you see water bag, but then followed by nothing, that's a lack of progress.
You don't see calf, you don't see anything appear. You should see feet pretty quickly, even in a heifer, especially if you've already seen water bag. I don't wait that long. If I see nothing and I know that I'm in stage two, then I only wait 15, 20 minutes and then with no progress in that time point, it's time to jump in.
I've told you when to intervene or some timeframes that you need to look at. I would be remiss and I would be yelled at by my co-host, Emily, if I didn't touch on this. When you do intervene, when you decide it's time to help dairy, beef, doesn't really matter too much, your safety is most important. Working in a chute or especially a chute that's designed for calving intervention is very important because it allows you to be safe. Are there situations where I work without a chute? Absolutely. My first step is always to put a halter on if I can even in a dairy animal just so we have some control. A chute is my best friend when it comes to working on cows regardless of the situation.
I know some people will disagree because it puts the animal at risk, especially if they go down in the chute. It's hard to work on them in the chute now that they're down, but there's ways around that as well. If we get them to the chute, especially with a beef animal, I can now get a halter on. Then I can either attach that halter to something and let them out of the chute or attach the halter to the chute and back them up some way to where I know that I'm not in a world of hurt if they do go down and they get stuck there.
Again, safety is the most important piece of this so if you're going to work on them, make sure you have safe conditions. Everyone's going to want to save that cow, save that calf, but you're more important than either one of them. We don't have time and it doesn't work well with just audio to explain how to fix different positioning problems in a calving. There's really no way to learn that well unless you're in person and able to work on some kind of model or actually get experience with calving problems on a real cow.
We do have time to tell you just a few rules that you need to keep in mind when you're going to work on them besides the safety piece. Safety's number one. After that, lube is the best thing in the world. As much lube as you can get in that animal, as much as they'll physically hold. If you're having issues, lube might be the solution.
After that, the question is when do you call the vet? It's going to be different for every producer. Some producers are super experienced, they've dealt with a ton of calving issues and when certain people call, I know that in all likelihood I'm doing a C-section because I know that producer has done everything that I would do.
Now, that's a skill that's been built up over many years and many calvings so it's not something you're going to have right away. You build it as you go over time. Every time you're working on something, you build more skills and you find more tools in your toolbox that you can go to and you can run through your list of things that you can try and make sure that you're doing everything you can before you call the veterinarian.
Now, the rule of thumb with any of this, to keep yourself from going crazy and from getting tired because you're going to get tired, is very humbling to realize that that cow and hurt uterus are stronger than you will ever be. I don't care who you are, so never try to work on the exact same thing without changing up tactics for more than 10 minutes. You're just going to get tired and it's going to get harder to do because you're more tired and it's not worth it to continue to bang your head against the wall. Work for 10 minutes then switch tactics, try something new. Work for 10 more minutes, switch tactics, try something else. Work for 10 minutes until you run out of things to try.
When you've run out of things to try, it's time to call the vet. Simple as that. Some people are going to try a ton of things and when they call the vet, there's going to be nothing left for me to try when I show up. You check the situation over, you talk to them quick and you go straight to C-section. Some people are going to try for just a couple of things on their list because they don't have that experience yet, and then they're going to have the vet come out and it's going to get figured out from there.
Please don't keep trying the same thing over and over and over and over again and just getting tired and frustrated and then when you call the vet, it's been way too long and there's nothing I can do to make that situation better. We're back into salvage mode instead of getting things done and having a live calf and having mom be in okay shape.
If the vet does end up coming out and you haven't figured out what's wrong or how to fix it or what to do, ask them if there's time for them to teach you and help you feel what's going on so that you learn and you can feel it and you can know for the future. Hopefully, your vet's willing to do that for you. Hopefully, there's time and they feel like there is time to allow you to feel once they've identified the problem to have you go back in and feel what's going on, explain to you where things are.
I think that that's a huge value. Don't be afraid to ask your veterinarian if that's okay to have them take that moment to teach you. I don't know a ton of veterinarians that are going to say no. I view it as an investment in the future for your clients. That's just one more time that situation comes up, you know what's going on, you help fix it yourself, and now all of a sudden your veterinarian's not out at three in the morning trying to fix it. Everyone wins in that situation.
There is so much more we could talk about with calving and we could get into all sorts of other tips and tricks and try to figure it out. Again, hard to do with just audio. Definitely, something we would have to do in person to get the most out of it so recap real quick.
We've covered when to intervene. The big thing is to identify what's normal. Stage one in a cow should last four hours so if you see stage one pacing, colicky, up and down, tail up, separating herself from the herd but no progression to stage two which starts with the appearance of a water bag or any piece of the calf, then it's time to intervene in that cow. Same thing for a heifer except we bump it to six hours. Stage one, up and down, colicky, tail up, separating herself from the herd. We see that in a heifer for more than six hours, it's time to jump in.
Stage two, like I said, starts with the appearance of the water bag or any piece of the calf. No progression in a cow within 30 minutes to that calf being on the ground, time to jump in. Heifer, same rules apply, but it's an hour so no calf on the ground within an hour and a halt in progress at any point, jump in.
Malpositioning is about where those hooves are. Normal position, those hooves should be down. They should be facing the udder or the belly of the cow, and you should see a nose following behind those fairly quickly. If you got hooves up, you probably have back feet or a calf in a really weird position, that's something you should jump in right away. If you see a bunch of leg and no head coming behind it, again, a time to jump in and help as well.
With that, maybe you have comments, questions, scathing rebuttals, please send those to That's Please check out our website extension Catch us on Twitter @UMNmoosroom and @UMNFarmSafety, catch Bradley on Instagram @umnwcrocdairy. Thank you, everybody. We will catch you next week.
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