The most common reason for calf losses in the cattle industry is still calving difficulties, dystocia. In order to recognise dystocia promptly, an understanding of the normal calving process is necessary.


The more difficult the calving; the greater the risk of infectious disease, the greater the incidence of infertility losses in the dam and the lower the absorption of colostrum.


Calving is a complex process with many mechanisms affecting it. There are three stages of parturition:


Stage 1 of parturition = 6-12 hours

The heifer/cow will usually seek an isolated area. Vaginal discharges increase and the cervical mucous plug is passed.

The cow becomes uneasy and shows signs of pain. Uterine contractions begin, they occur every 15 minutes at first and they then increase to every few minutes by the end of stage 1.


Stage 2 of parturition = 4 hours

The calf enters the birth canal. The first water bag ruptures (the chorioallantois), followed by the second (the amnion).  Strong uterine and abdominal contractions occur and the calf is expelled. The pain of the uterine contractions at this point usually force most cows to lie down.


Stage 3 = 6-12 hours

The foetal membranes are expelled and the uterus begins to involute.


When to intervene?

Stage 1

  • -If you suspect the cow has been in stage 1 for over 12 hours.

Stage 2 -

  • If a water sac is visible for 2 hours and the cow is not trying.

  • If the cow has been trying for 30 minutes and has made no progress.

  • If the cow or calf is showing signs of excessive fatigue and stress, such as a swollen tongue of the calf or severe bleeding from the rectum of the cow.

  • If the calf is malpresented.Normal presentation consists of the extended front legs and the head exiting first, some calves come out back legs first however they often require assistance. If the calf comes out bottom first and not the back legs - this is termed 'breach' and is abnormal.

Stage 3

  • if the cow has not passed the foetal membranes within 12 hours of calving treatment may be necessary.Manual evacuation of the membranes is not advocated as this is detrimental to subsequent reproductive performance.


When to call for help?

Calving jacks and pulley gear is often essential in managing difficult calvings, however they can be dangerous if misused.

Your experience and judgement will decide if you are able to intervene yourself or if you will require professional assistance.These few suggested guidelines are provided to refer to - they are recommendations of when to seek help:

  • If the problem that is causing the dystocia can not be ascertained.

  • If the problem is identified but you are unable to correct it.

  • If you have tried to correct the problem but have made no progress in 30 minutes.

  • Further delay will put the calf in jeopardy.


Check out Dr Zoe after delivering a healthy big bull calf recently at one of our clients properties. There is nothing better then a live and healthy cow and calf at the end of a difficult calving, both for producer and veterinarian.