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Successful calving technique: What should you do and not do?

John Mee Published on 30 April 2013

Some producers are good at getting calves out alive, and some are not.

Good calving technique is not something you learn in school, it is something you learn by experience – and it is always better to learn from someone else’s experience.



The best way to learn good technique is to watch your veterinarian closely when delivering a calf at a difficult calving.

Good calving technique
The basic tenets of successful calving management include being hygienic, patient, gentle and skilful in assistance and prompt in the care of the newborn calf.

Most cows don’t need any assistance to calve naturally, but approximately one-third of cows are assisted at calving. Heifers will generally take more time to settle down to calve, and when they do they are slower to complete the job. Assistance rates of 40 to 50 percent are not unusual for heifers.

The key to successful natural calving is progress. If the calf is normally presented, and the heifer is forcing intermittently, don’t disturb her. Premature assistance with a mechanical calf puller can result in a hard calving, torn birth passage, leg fractures and a dead calf.

A recent survey found that approximately 20 percent of Ontario dairy producers assisted cows, and 10 percent assisted heifers, immediately after the waterbag broke.


However, the majority of producers (54 percent) waited for an hour before assisting heifers or cows, assuming a normal calving.

Preliminary research at the University of Guelph suggests that early intervention is not detrimental, particularly in cows, provided this is carried out after an examination for abnormal calvings (e.g., twins, malpresented calves) and assistance is hygienically rendered without using a calf puller.

Careful assistance
If you decide to assist, good lubrication around the calf makes pulling a lot easier if it has dried out after a prolonged calving. Clean calving chains or ropes are essential to avoid introducing infections into the womb, which can set up a metritis after calving.

The ropes should be put on above the fetlocks with the knots on the underside of the calf’s legs. Double-knotting of the chains, above and below the fetlock, may spread the tractive load on the calf’s legs.

Surveyed Ontario dairy producers responded that 80 percent of them placed the chains above the fetlock (second leg joint), 70 percent of them placed the knot on the underside of the calf’s legs, and 60 percent of them used a single chain knot.

Correct placement of the calf puller
If you are on your own at calving or have a bad back, as most producers do, a calf puller is a great asset. However, misuse of the calf puller is the primary cause of severe calving injuries to newborn calves. A calf puller gives you the power of seven men pulling together.


The key to avoiding the calf puller slipping down after placement is to settle the calf puller so that the shaft is at an upright angle when it is first placed on the cow’s hips.

The bottom of the breeching piece is placed a hands-breadth below the bottom of the cow’s vulva. This will keep the calf puller in place when you start to lever and pull.

While you are using the calf puller, it is important to regularly check how tight the birth passage is around the calf in order to determine whether you need to pull more or to relax more.

Although we call it a calf puller, jacking the calf out just by pulling harder and harder is a sure-fire way of injuring the heifer and killing the calf even before it is born.

Assisting at calving with a calf puller has three key stages. First, lever the shaft downward only when the heifer forces. Second, when she stops straining, take up the slack on the chains by ratcheting.

Third, lift the shaft upward to relax the pressure on the calf when she relaxes. Thus you are assisting the cow’s natural forcing, which is always intermittent, rather than simply putting on the calf puller and continually pulling till the calf comes out in whatever state.

In the initial stage of assisting, the calf will be levered straight out until the back of the head emerges. Pulling out the distance between the tip of the calf’s muzzle and the back of its head is the most difficult part of most calvings and needs to be taken slowly.

Twist before you hiplock
Once the head and chest are fully out, you can start to rotate the breeching piece or head of the calf puller. This is critical if the calf is oversized. Big calves get caught at the hips. The best way to prevent this happening is to rotate the body of the calf before the calf’s hips enter the cow’s pelvis.

If the calf does get stuck at the hips, the first thing to do is to ensure the calf is alive and breathing normally. If not, start resuscitating the calf.

Relieving a hiplock can take time, and during this time the vitality of the calf is often forgotten in the panic to get him out. Correcting a hiplock can be done by rotating the calf’s hips or the heifer’s hips.

To rotate the calf’s hips, you need to twist the calf’s body using the chest and front legs as levers. To move the cow’s hips, try to get her to stand up.

This movement alone can relieve the hiplock. Continued pulling without correcting the hiplock will cause damage to the nerves on the inside of the cow’s pelvis, resulting in a downer cow after calving.

Born but not breathing?
Once the calf is out, check that it is breathing normally. If in any doubt, suspend the calf upside-down for a short period of time (never longer than a minute). This drains both the lungs and windpipe, enabling better lung oxygenation.

Pouring cold water in the ear of the calf or sticking a finger or straw into its nostrils induces a gasp reflex, which initiates breathing. Once the calf has begun to breathe, sit the calf up on its breastbone. This facilitates efficient aeration of both lungs.

If the calf is weak, cold, shivering and wet, dry it off and place it under an infrared lamp. Have a chat with your local veterinarian about using stimulating pumps or products if you have had a few weak calves requiring resuscitation.

The most common resuscitation techniques used by Ontario dairy producers are sticking a finger or straw up the calf’s nostrils (90 percent of producers), suspending the calf upside-down (50 percent), pouring cold water over the calf’s head and sitting the calf upright (40 percent).

Very few producers use respirator pumps (6 percent), stimulant drugs (4 percent) or oxygen (2 percent) to revive weak calves.

The basic tenets of successful calving management are good hygiene, patience, gentle and skilful assistance and prompt care of the weak newborn calf. Producers would benefit from seeking veterinary training in the correct use of a mechanical calf puller to prevent injuries to the calf and to the cow.  PD

A calf puller gives you the power of seven men – use it carefully. Photo courtesy of John Mee.

John Mee
  • John Mee
  • Principal Veterinary Research Scientist
  • Teagasc