In this post we outline some signs of difficult calving (Dystocia) so that you can be armed with the information necessary to assist or intervene when you’re needed. A good rule to follow in all cases is that the cow knows a lot more about her calving than you will and patience can be just as good as intervening at the wrong time. In general, all you want to see is her making progress every 30-40 minutes or so, from water bag -> feet -> head -> calved. With that in mind a Moocall gives you a good point of reference as to how long she has been calving, so you know that something isn’t right when you arrive on the scene.

Here are a few common causes of dystocia:

Large calf

How it happens:

This comes down to two factors; the size / weight of the calf at birth and the calving capacity of the cow. The size / weight of the calf is governed by the choice of bull, feed choices for the cow and the gender. Bulls are typically bigger than heifers at birth. In the later stages of pregnancy, all the calf is doing is growing in size and the more nutrition available to the cow the larger the calf can grow. The type of cow you have plays a big role here as well. Breeds such as Herefords are large enough to calf most hard calving bulls when managed properly. The age at service can also make a big difference to the end result. With many farmers opting to calf down at 24 months the cow isn’t fully grown at this point and so has a smaller pelvis for the calf to pass through.

Interesting fact: due to the process involved embryo transfer calves are typically larger at birth than they would normally be through natural service

Things to Look out for:

As the cow approaches her due date, she may look very large in the abdomen as the calf grows to full size. Use your own judgement to predict the cows that may have issues with the calf they’re carrying. A cow with a large calf will generally progress slower through the calving progress from the very beginning. Once your Moocall has triggered it is not unusual for two hours to pass from the notification to the calving as the cow has more work to do to get the calf out and will make less progress per contraction when compared to a smaller calf.

What you can do:

The best thing you can do is massage the cervix to help stretch a bit more, this can be done by running a finger around the calf as it passes the cervix. Many lubricants are available to purchase and these applied to the cervix can make it that bit easier to get the calf out. It’s worth pointing out that washing up liquid should NOT be used as a lubricant as the chemicals in it can damage the lining in the cow and cause inflammation/infection down the line. The calving jack and ropes obviously can also come into play here, but the trick is to take your time with it. It is better to go slowly with a large calf and give both cow and calf time to adjust to prevent injuries than to panic, causing long term damage. ‘Walking out’ the calf can also be a great technique where size is an issue, this involves alternating tension from one forelimb to the other in to get some progress on each side individually instead of moving the entire calf at once. As always, if in doubt call your vet for advice or assistance.

Twisted womb (Torsion)

How it happens:

This occurs when the movement of cow / calf causes the pregnant uterine horn to rotate within the animal. A few factors come together later in the pregnancy to cause this: there is less fluid surrounding the calf as it grows; the calf tends to be more active & moving in the uterus; and there are few ligaments large enough to anchor the uterus against these rotations. This rotation can vary from a few degrees to a full 360° that seals off the birth canal, this can cause damage to the membranes and blood vessels that surround and supply the calf.

Normal vs Twisted

Womb: Normal vs Twisted

Things to look out for:

Your cow will most likely be ‘sick’ calving by this point, isolating herself from the herd and showing reduced interest in feed. However, you will see little to no progress on the physical side of things as she will be having trouble pushing out the calf and the water bags. Your Moocall will have alerted and if there are signs of pushing but no progress 2-3 hours after your second alert, you may have a torsion to deal with.

What can you do:

The first thing to do is assess the situation by using a hand to investigate the orientation of the calf, if you can’t get your hand as far as the calf, that’s a sign the torsion is over 180° and you should call the vet. Depending on the rotation you may be able to manipulate the womb and calf back to normal orientation (i.e head over front legs and both front legs coming together). This is generally only possible in a mild torsion where you can reach the calf. For more extreme levels of torsion rolling the cow against the direction of the torsion can resolve the issue. This, however should only be done under veterinary supervision as the uterus can be damaged in the process if you’re not careful. This means using ropes attached to the legs of the cow you roll her across her back in an attempt to outpace the rotation of the uterus and correct the position.

Calf not presenting correctly (Malposition)

How it happens:

The calf naturally moves in the womb, but in the run up to calving they should orientate themselves facing the cervix with the forelimbs out in front, under the head. Difficulty comes from the calf presenting in any other way, whether on or both legs are back or the calf is presenting backwards (breech). This can cause issues with stretching the cervix to allow the calf through as normally there is a gradual increase in diameter from one to two legs, then head to shoulders stretching as it goes. Particularly in the case of a backwards calf, there is little to prepare the cervix for what is generally the largest part of the new-born calf; the rump or hind-quarter.

Hooves: breech vs presenting correctly

Things to look out for:  

Slow progress is the main symptom you will see from a malposition. Only when you investigate the calf can you be sure if malposition is the issue, if you can only find one forelimb in front of the head, the other may be folded in along the calf side. Another case you may come across is the hooves facing the wrong way, i.e the front of the hoof is facing downward, this can be a sign of the calf coming upside down (head below forelimbs) or depending on the angle of the knee a hind leg in the case of a breech birth.

What can you do:

If enough room is available, you can manually rotate the calf into the correct position. A tip to make this easier is to push the calf or limb back to give you more room to work as once it is engaged in the cervix it will become very difficult to manipulate the calf in the birth canal. Be very careful when doing this as there is a risk of damaging the uterus or the umbilical cord which severely limits the calf’s potential to survive inside the cow.

While there are many more ways a calving can go wrong, hopefully some of the above is useful to you when calving this year. If you would like to discuss other scenarios please do write a comment below.

If you have any questions on this topic or suggestions for what you’d like to see discussed in future please contact me direct at, via the live chat option on this page or through our Facebook page. 

All the best,

Alan Horan,

Moocall Research & Development