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Pulling a calf: How and when to help

Some tips for ranchers based on years of experience.

Heather Smith Thomas

December 30, 2021

6 Min Read
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Joe McDonald / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Most cows and heifers progress readily through three stages of labor -- early labor with uterine contractions, active labor with abdominal straining, and expulsion of the placenta after delivering the calf. 

Uterine contractions in early labor get the calf aimed toward the birth canal, and the calf pushing against the cervix helps stimulate it to dilate.  The water sac, and then the calf entering the birth canal, stimulates abdominal straining—second stage labor--to push him out. 

If a heifer or cow is actively straining for more than 1 hour with no progress, you need to check her.  If you are seeing progress—water bag, then the feet, then the nose—you can give her a little more time.  Sometimes a large calf isn’t progressing through the birth canal.  In this situation, when you check the cow you must determine whether the calf is too large to be pulled (and you need your veterinarian to do a C-section) or if you can safely pull the calf.

If the feet are showing at the vulva and its head is there (maybe the nose showing) but the cow or heifer isn’t progressing, check to see if there is room for a normal birth.  If when you reach into the birth canal you cannot fit your fingers over the calf’s head (between his head and the cow’s pelvis) it’s too tight.  If the feet are in the birth canal, but not the head, and the head keeps turning back when you try to bring it around and pull the calf, this may mean there isn’t enough room.

If when you check inside the cow and your hand will fit over the calf’s head and you think the pelvic area is large enough, but the birth canal is tight, take time to stretch it before trying to pull the calf.  In first-calf heifers there will be tight rings of connective tissue inside the vulva; even though the feet may come through, these rings must stretch before the head can come through.  Put your arms in and stretch that tissue before you attach chains to the legs and pull the calf.

Work carefully

If you start pulling too hard, too soon, you can cause significant damage.  If everything is in position and feels normal, just spend time dilating the vulva and vagina.  You can put both arms into the vagina and keep pushing them apart to stretch the tissues, but not so forcefully that you start tearing them.

It usually takes at least 5 minutes of dilation/stretching, but keep doing it until you are sure you can get the head through.  With heifers (or cows delivering a very large calf) it also helps to stretch the vulva as the calf’s head is coming through.  Often the birth will progress normally until the nose is showing, then it takes a while for the calf’s forehead to stretch the vulva sufficiently to come through.  Once it does come through, the birth progresses.  When pulling a large calf, it helps to have someone stretching the vulva (putting fingers between the vulva and the calf’s head and pulling the vulva back, peeling it back away from the head) as the calf is being pulled.

You don’t want to take too long trying to manipulate a malpresentation, and you don’t want the calf to be too long in the birth canal.  Yet at the same time, don’t rush or you may injure the cow and calf.  Some people get so excited and in a hurry to get the calf born, that they cause harm. Timing is important—not letting them go too long, but understanding that progress should be made, and what that progress should be. 

If you think the calf can be born with assistance, place chains or straps in a double half hitch, one loop above the fetlock joint and one below, to spread the pressure (putting the force in two places instead of one) and reduce risk of fracture or injury to the joint. 

Before you start pulling, put lubrication around the calf.  By the time you’ve put chains on the legs, the amnion sac has broken and fluid lost, so you need to add lubricant to make up for that loss.  There are some good obstetrical lubricants you can get from your veterinarian, to have on hand.

A good method for adding lubrication is with a clean hose/tube you can insert into the vagina alongside the calf.  You can attach a big syringe to that tubing, or have a hose connected to a hand pump/tub pump on a bucket of lubricant.  The hose can be inserted and a quart or two of lubrication pumped in.  If you need more as you are assisting the calf, you can put in more.  With your hands you might be able to put lubricant in the first 12 inches, but with a hose-pump you can put lubrication much farther into the birth canal.

Caution: don’t add lubricant until you’ve determined that the calf will fit through.  If a C-section is needed, you don’t want lubricant in the uterus.  Some types of lubricant can be dangerous for the cow if it gets into the abdominal cavity during a C-section.  Wait until you know you can pull the calf, then use ample lubrication. 

'Crawl' the calf out

Once you get straps or chains on the front feet and start pulling, work the calf out gradually, pulling on one leg and then the other, to advance the shoulders individually so they don’t present such a wide obstacle.  If you pull one leg at a time, that width is narrower and the calf can come through easier. Alternate the tension from one leg to the other and “crawl” him out.

Often people pull on both legs equally, making it harder for the calf to come through.  And some people make the mistake of pulling straight back, the whole time.  It’s ok to pull straight back (and one leg at a time) until the shoulders are out, but once they are out, you can pull both legs at the same time, and start pulling downward at a 45 degree angle to the cow.  The calf must come up out of the uterus and over the pelvic brim and then down, so it helps to follow that natural arc.  This also raises the calf’s hips as they come through the cow’s pelvis, to where the pelvis is widest, with more room for the calf’s hips to come through, and less likely to become hip-locked.

Pull when the cow is pushing.  Rest when she rests.  She needs time to stretch and dilate fully, and you are more apt to injure her if you are pulling when she’s not pushing.  Help her dilate by putting your hands between the calf and the birth canal, to stretch it, and keep putting in more lubrication.

Try to determine early on whether you can get the calf out or need professional assistance.  Sometimes people keep trying, until it’s too late to do a C-section, or the calf is already dead.  If there is no progress within 20 minutes of effort, reassess your technique, and also assess whether the calf is still alive.

Even if there is no jerking or resistance by the calf when manipulating the legs, you might get a response by pinching between the toes, if he’s still alive.  If the calf is alive and you are trying to pull it or reposition it but have made no progress in 20 minutes, it’s time to call for help.

Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher in Salmon, Idaho.

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