Livestock production: Assisted calving

Assisted calving should not be an event that occurs regularly in any herd, but it is useful to know what to do should you have a cow that needs some help delivering her calf.

This Jersey first-calver had been in labour for about 90 minutes when I stopped to have a look at her. The calf is presenting as it should, front feet first, but the animal is showing signs of struggle. She is restless, getting up then lying down and frequently turning her head to look at her belly. The head turning is often a sign of pain. On the plus side, the membrane surrounding the calf is still intact.

Picture 1 – I first saw her in this position lying down stretched out. During labour the cow will try to get as comfortable as possible and lying down like this is not necessarily cause for alarm. At this stage she has been in labour for 90 minutes.
Picture 2 – The membrane is clearly intact and the front feet are presenting first.
Picture 3 – The animal is pushing through her contractions but doesn’t seem to be making much progress. After labouring for an hour and a half (especially for a first-calver) it’s natural that she should be tired.
Picture 4 – She is in full contraction here; notice how her legs have stiffened during the contraction and how the vulva and birth canal are stretching to accommodate the emerging calf. If you zoom in, you can see the calf’s nose between the forefeet.
Picture 5 – Some progress is apparent and the membranes are still intact. Again she is looking at her belly which indicates some distress.
Picture 6 – Now the membrane has torn and delivery becomes more critical as the calf starts to breathe. Notice how swollen the animal’s udder is. The first milk, or colostrum, is the calf’s key to a good start in life
Picture 7 a
Picture 7 b – The cow is now in distress. She has been pushing for a good long time without much advance in her calf’s exit through the birth canal and the membrane is torn. She’s not getting this calf out alone.
Picture 8 – Along comes Zolile Vunathi taking care not to distress her or give her reason to move. You really do have to sneak up on them in field conditions like this or they will get up and move away. The danger is that the calf will be pulled back inwards and it is already breathing.
Zolile is a stockman with 25 years of experience and a specialist in steam-ups (cows very close to calving), calving and calf rearing. It’s 08:10.
Picture 9 – No fuss – Zolile has his hands on the calf to ease it out a little.
Picture 10 – He attaches a rope to both the calf’s front legs just above the hoof.

Picture 11 – Rope attached, Zolile waits for a contraction and pulls as the cow pushes.

Picture 12 – Shoulders through and the danger of the calf getting stuck is over. It’s 08:12.
Picture 13 – The calf’s out; it’s a bull calf, a little too big for this first calver.
Picture 14 – Mom and baby happily united at 08:13.
Picture 15 – The simple tool Zolile uses to assist at a calving.

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