Dakota Farmer

5 ways to ease dystocia issues

Prepare for birthing difficulties before calving season.

February 8, 2023

4 Min Read
Black angus cow and calf
PREVENT DYSTOCIA: Knowing the signs of labor and when to intervene can help producers minimize difficulties during calving season. SteveOehlenschlager/Getty Images

Calving season is a busy time of year for beef producers. Nearly 91% regularly observe cows and heifers during calving, and research shows doing calving checks every three hours yields the best results.

Yet, the best calving check regimen isn’t always practical and won’t eliminate calving problems or dystocia from occurring. About 9% of heifers and 4% of cows need some assistance during calving each year. What can producers do to prevent calving difficulty before it occurs to make the season less stressful?

In the hours leading up to calving, often little can be done to prevent dystocia. However, looking back on your management decisions from the past breeding season and fall may give insight into how calving will go. Here are some example areas to evaluate before calving starts:

1. Calving ease direct

Using a CEDexpected progeny difference, bulls with calving ease are mated to heifers or young, small cows that may have trouble calving. CED measures percent of unassisted births and takes into account the size and presentation of the fetus. Be careful not to over-select for CED in mature cows, as valuable calf weight will be given up and sacrifice potential revenue.

2. Pelvic measure

Measuring pelvic area in replacement or bred heifers before their first calving event will give producers an idea of which females may have trouble due to abnormal pelvis shape or size. The pelvis continues to grow and shape until cows are mature, so keep in mind the pelvis can change between first and third calving events.

3. Body condition score

Pay attention to heifers and cows that are carrying extreme amounts of fat or are very thin. Over-conditioned heifers are more likely to have troubles calving due to accumulation of fat in the pelvis, hindering fetal passage through the birth canal.

In addition, if heifers are too skinny, their endurance during calving may be limited by the absence of energy resources. At any time, if a female stops making progress during calving for more than 15 minutes, assistance should be offered. Separate cows based on condition so not to overfeed fat cows and underfeed thin ones.

4. Pregnancy detection

Most producers want to know if a cow has twins, but only 20% of beef operations palpate or ultrasound for pregnancy. Modern technologies are available and should be utilized to confirm pregnancy in cows and identify twins or large calves.

5. Exercise

Cows need to be in shape come calving season, so providing adequate exercise before calving improves their physical strength. Feeding cows in a loafing pasture and providing water a quarter-mile away is a good distance for cows to travel daily.

If keeping cows in a lot during gestation, less energy will be used every day, as they don’t have to walk so far. Design rations to meet requirements of cows based on location during gestation.

Avoid moving cows that are close to calving, as fetal growth is occurring rapidly and calf position can flip if cows slip or fall.

Not all dystocia is preventable, even if you follow the practices listed above. However, if you observe a cow struggling during labor, closely observe her through the stages of labor and intervene when necessary.

Knowing the three stages of labor and what to look for can help you see issues sooner rather than later:

  • Stage 1 will show external signs such as restlessness, nesting, lack of eating and drinking, and vaginal discharge. This stage can last from two to eight hours and may be longer in heifers.

  • Stage 2 will involve abdominal straining, appearance of the water bag and fetal limbs, and delivery of the calf. This stage can last from 30 minutes to four hours. If you haven’t seen the water bag appear in two hours and no progress has been made for 30 minutes, take steps to intervene and assist the cow.

  • Stage 3 entail the placenta passing, which should be completed no more than 12 hours after delivery. If no placenta appears after 24 hours, check for a retained placenta.

Of producers that monitor their heifers during calving season, the majority allow two or fewer hours before intervening. The smaller the herd size, the longer the time interval from the start of calving to assistance. Take time to ensure practices are in place to minimize dystocia during the calving season.

With dystocia, producers can do their best to estimate the size of the fetus, and presentation in the birth canal and pelvic area for each cow. Only time will tell if cows will calve unassisted or need help. Take steps to understand the stages of labor and when assistance is needed to successfully navigate through a dystocia.

Source: South Dakota State University Extension

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