Cattle production: A layman’s guide to helping a cow give birth

Many farmers have had to help out when a cow is unable, or struggling, to deliver a calf. Here are some tips.

Resolving some cases of difficult calving can only be attempted by an experienced veterinarian, but the average farmer can tackle some simple cases and assess when veterinary help is needed – provided that he or she has the background knowledge.


There are basically only 2 reasons for dystocia (difficult calving):

  • Inadequate contractions.
  • Obstruction.

Obstruction is by far the more common, and there can be many reasons for this. The most important factor is too-big calves. The size of the calf is largely determined by the genetics of the bull used.

The first decision a farmer should take after a cow has suffered from difficult calving because the calf was too big is to use a smaller bull on that particular cow next time.


If you notice that, even though a cow has strong contractions of the abdominal muscles and arches her back, the calf has still not been born after 2 hours (or as long as 4 hours for a heifer), it is often worth a quick examination.

A calf’s birth position should be with the top of its head at the top of the birth canal, both front legs fully extended and its chin resting on the fetlock (or knuckle) joint. If this is not the case, the cow must be assessed.


No. The only equipment that you need are your hands, and possibly full-length rectal gloves, nylon ropes and 30 cm to 40 cm long broomsticks if obstetrical assistance is needed.


  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before inserting them into the cow’s vagina.
  • Make sure that you wash off all the soap from your hands and arms.
  • Lubrication is essential.
  • Methyl cellulose powder, made up to the desired consistency by adding water, is a very good obstetrical lubricant.
  • Apply generous quantities of this lubricant to your hands and arms and insert them in the cow’s vagina.
  • Now try to feel how the calf is lying in the birth canal.
  • Identify things such as the elbow, head and hooves and decide whether they are normal.


Pinch the claws, stick your finger into the calf’s mouth and throat and poke it in the eye. If the calf moves, it is alive. If there is no response, it usually means that the calf is either dying or already dead.

If the calf presented with the hind legs first, you may have to insert a finger into its anus and feel whether there is a response. You could also check for a heartbeat by feeling for a pulse at the front of the chest or on the inside of the back legs.


It is usually better to call your vet sooner rather than later. Phone for advice if you are unsure.

If you are helping the cow yourself, the following signs will indicate that you will not resolve the difficult calving without causing serious damage to the cow:

  • 2 strong men pulling for longer than 10 minutes without making any progress.
  • Excessive bleeding.
  • Swollen or gas-filled calf.
  • The cow lying down and very weak.

A cow has to make money for a farmer, and she does so best by delivering calves. Some economic analyses suggest that the money lost due to the death of one calf can never be made up for by that cow.

Culling cows after a difficult calving, combined with a good choice of bulls, can dramatically reduce the occurrence of dystocia in a herd.


Be gentle! You want the cow to be able to calve again in future.

  • Never pull anything else but the legs of the calf, and then only after manipulating the calf so that it is in normal presentation position.
  • A calf cannot be delivered unless its presentation is longitudinal, i.e. the spine of the calf lies parallel to the spine of the cow.
  • Push the calf back. There is much more space for performing manipulations if the calf is in the abdomen, not in the bony pelvis.
  • Always put your hand over the calf’s claws when you are trying to get the legs into the normal position. If you don’t, both the birth canal and the uterus could be perforated.
  • Secure ropes around the extended legs, just above the fetlock joint. Then pass the ropes between the two claws before starting to pull the calf out.
  • You will need at least 2 assistants to help you with a difficult calving. There must always be 1 person checking what is happening inside the cow while the other 2 pull the ropes.
  • Never pull both ropes simultaneously.
  • 1 person should pull with even, moderate force until there is no further progress and then maintain tension on that rope.
  • Do not jerk the ropes! The other person then starts pulling.
  • Pull horizontally until the calf’s knees are visible; then pull at a 45° angle to the ground. This conforms to the natural shape of the birth canal.

As soon as the shoulders have been delivered, 1 person should hold the calf while the other continue to pull. This stops the umbilical cord snapping off too close to the calf’s body, which could result in its bleeding to death.

Also read: Livestock production – assisted calving

  • This article was written by Dr. Henry Annandale and first appeared in Farming SA.

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