Calving Season: Labor of Love


Calving is one of my favorite seasons on the ranch. I was reminded of this on Sunday morning as I watched young calves buck and run against the backdrop of a wonderful sunrise. Our snow-laden and cold weather have given way to a much more welcome warming trend this week; much better conditions for calving season.

Unfortunately, calving season is not all play and watching the sunrise. It comes with its own share of difficulties. First, it was the prolapsed cow that I fought in the snow on Wednesday. Unable to correct the problem due to excessive tearing and straining, we sutured her up and sent her to auction. Then just as I thought I would escape unscathed on Saturday, the sky came falling.

As I make my morning rounds, checking each group of cows for newborns and cows that show signs of impending parturition (labor), I make note of any cows that I need to return and check on later. On my second round I found one heifer that had given birth to a stillborn. Not much I can do about that, but at least the heifer is ok. Then I had a cow that was off by herself and made me a little uneasy. After giving her another hour, and with no progress being made, I walked her up to the corral for an examination by palpation. As soon as I felt a tail in the birth canal, I knew things were not good.

Dystocia can be caused by a number of elements. Twins, incorrect fetal presentation in the birth canal, or even hormonal imbalance in the cow.

This is a normal presentation of calving:

As you can see, the legs go first through the birth canal, over the pelvic rim, with the head on top.

This calf was presented in a breech position:

This is why I felt a tail in the birth canal. Notice the rear of the calf is blocking the birth canal, with the hind legs underneath the calf, and the head toward the front of the cow. Not an easy fix.

I have encountered several different dystocia problems, but never a breech position. This is where my adrenaline starts pumping. I have to figure out how to fix a problem without ever “seeing” what I have to deal with. But still I had to get the calf delivered in a timely manner. First I had to push the calf back into the uterus and pull the hind legs up, into the birth canal. This is not an easy task when the cow’s contractions are trying to push the calf up and out, not down and back in. After being literally “Up To My Armpits”, and having my arms pressed between the birth canal and the calves legs because of the contractions, I eventually got the calf pushed back in, legs pulled out and everything set to pull.

This is an O.B. chain used to wrap around the legs when pulling a calf.

These are similar to the calf pullers I used. I attach the chain to the ratchet to pull out the calf.

I hear so many stories of people using a horse, or a wrench, or even worse a vehicle or tractor to pull out a calf. PLEASE NEVER DO THIS! Pulling a calf does not take that much effort. I have pulled many, many calves out with an O.B. chain attached to a handle, and only the strength all 160 lbs. of this guy can muster. Or better yet, only some hay twine. If things are not moving along, something is misplaced, like a hiplock. (okay I had to get that out) Call a veterinarian if you have tried for 30 minutes and things are not moving along.

Anyways, I got the calf pulled out only to find it was not breathing. I tried cleaning out its airways, making it sneeze, and even compressions, but to no avail. We lost the calf. But the mother was alive and ok, just a little sore. I kept the cow in the corrals over night for observations. Everything was ok.

All of this to say, being a cattleman during calving season is no easy task. Rather, I would compare it to a labor of love (Mushy, I know right?). We have to consider the cattle to be more than a commodity if we are willing to spend hours upon hours making sure they live. If I dwell on every stillborn calf or prolapsed cow, can you imagine how sorrowful calving season would be? If I keep asking “could I have saved that calf, if I had examined the cow sooner?”, how would I ever make it to save the rest? These skills only come with experience.

When things do go wrong, I consider the loss, and think I have about the fact that I have 499 other chances to get this right.

So today I will get out there and do it all again, not knowing what the cows have in store.

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About Ryan Goodman (970 Articles)
Ryan Goodman lives in Helena, MT and comes from an Arkansas cattle ranching family. Since growing up on a family cow/calf and stocker-calf operation, he has spent the last several years learning about farming systems across the country. A graduate of Oklahoma State, Ryan is currently working on a Master's degree from the University of Tennessee. He works continuously to share his story of ranch life through community outreach and social media, all while encouraging others in agriculture to do the same.

6 Comments on Calving Season: Labor of Love

  1. Loved this post Ryan! I think you answered all of my thousands of questions from last week!

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    • Good deal, glad I could help. I’ll have a few more posts on the subject as the season wears on. Be sure to let me know if there’s something I’m not touching on you want to learn about.

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  2. Eugene Corley // February 15, 2011 at 3:50 PM // Reply

    Sounds like the same problems we have around here, only we have Jerseys. Had to pull a calf last week with his head turned backward. This was a Jersey heifer, however we also lost the mother.

    Like

    • Those are the rough times when you lose both…

      Like

  3. Mary Ann Nilson // February 18, 2011 at 3:08 AM // Reply

    I had my first prolapsed cow this year. Your situation reflects my procedures and outcome. Sad.

    Two weeks later, we are having some tough weather conditions. Christmas Eve, YES in that terrible cold, a cow, (#151), delivered twins! It is now nearly two months later. All three are doing great! Mom gets extra feed, cubes, and is in a separated area to make sure she does not lose weight as the twins grow. This is her second season.

    Interesting fact: #151 first calved last season, but let other cows and calves nurse on her. She was wearing down so I separated her. She was close to the house and received lots of treats and attention as I got her weight stabilized. Her calf grew quickly now and a neighbor bought the calf when the time came. With the arrival of twins this year, I wonder if the extra nutrition, attention, space, plus extra love when placed back in the cow population was a contribution multiple birth factor. Many farmers in the area have never had twins.

    Like

    • See for every loss we have so many more chances to do better! Twins are always an interesting part of the mix. Twins in cattle is often a genetic occurrence, I have had lines of cows that would almost always produce twins. However, it is studied in sheep, where twinning is desired, that an increase in energy consumption can increase twinning rates (see link), and there an increase in energy consumption at the time of ovulation can increase twinning – process called flushing (see link)

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