Cows close to calving (springers) must be checked at least twice every 24 hours. If calving is not proceeding normally, remedial action must be taken and a moving vehicle must not be used to provide traction to assist calving (Code of Welfare: Dairy Cattle).
Check springers for signs of labour regularly, quietly and thoroughly and record what you observe.
Quietly: walk quietly through the springer mob – when cows are feeding is best. Don’t walk through the mob when cows are hungry and are waiting to be moved to fresh grass or a new break. Look for cows that are showing signs of labour.
Regularly: check cows at least four times a day. Your manager will set a routine for springer checks.
Thoroughly: check all areas of the paddock and depending how good the fencing is, check the paddocks next door as well. Check drains, hollows, long grass, hedges – anywhere a calf could be sleeping.
Record: note the number of any cow or heifer that has started to show signs of calving, or has calved, and report to your manager so you can keep an eye on her progress.
Early signs of labour
- Swelling of udder can happen up to a month before calving.
- Milk dripping from teats.
- Mucus string from vulva (from plug of mucus that seals the vulva).
Stages of labour
Calving will progress at different rates for different cows. Some may show all the signs whereas others may show very few signs.
Generally labour can be broken into two stages; preparation for labour and delivery.
Preparation for labour
The preparation phase can take up to six hours in cows and 72 hours in heifers. Look for these signs when observing springers:
- away from herd and reduced appetite
- pelvic ligaments relaxed - vulva looks swollen and flabby
- dip between tailhead and pin-bones
- tummy less full as calf moves into birth canal/birthing position
- mothering other cows’ calves
- discomfort – swishing tail, arched back, restless, peeing, kicking and nosing at her side, tail raising
- water bag protruding.
Cows should take 30 minutes to one hour to calf – no more than two hours. Heifers should take two to three hours to calf – no more than four hours.
During a standard delivery the following process will occur.
- The cow starts straining and pushing – two feet are visible within the water sack.
- Once the feet are 10cm clear of the vulva the head has cleared the pelvis. The chest of the calf has not passed through the pelvis at this stage and the umbilical cord is still attached so the cow is still providing oxygen to the calf.
- Once the head has cleared the pelvis, the cow may rest for a minute or two. Once the calf’s shoulders have cleared the pelvis, the birth will continue fairly quickly. The umbilical cord will have likely broken by this point and the calf will start to breathe on its own.
- After a normal birth, the cow will stand, sniff and start to lick the newborn calf. Licking will help dry the calf, stimulate blood flow and prevent the calf from getting too cold.
- The placenta comes out within six hours of birth and the uterus begins to shrink back to the normal size.
- Cows usually eat some or the entire placenta. Make sure you know what an entire placenta looks like. If only a small part of the placenta comes away, record this and let your manager know.
The calving cow
Normal presentation is head first. The two front feet and head of the calf create a wedge which assists in opening the birthing canal to allow the calf to pass through.
Feet and nose entering the birthing canal is one trigger that causes the cow to start straining. If a calf is presented breech (tail first) the cow may not go into full labour.
Even if a calf is in the right position, assistance may be needed if the calf is too big for the cow.
A calf which is abnormally presented is likely to need assistance calving.
Examples of abnormal presentation
How to correct abnormal presentation
If you are unsure how to correct an abnormal presentation call your manager or vet for help. Watch and learn from anyone who is experienced in calving cows and take opportunities to feel for abnormal presentation and to assist with difficult calvings.
Look at the way in which the joints move. Front leg fetlock and knee bend in the same direction. The back leg fetlock and hock bend in opposite directions. Use this to help identify if the calf is presented head first (normal presentation) or backwards (abnormal presentation).
When to intervene
If calf presentation is wrong or other issues are occurring and you are not confident and experienced in dealing with them, call your manager or vet for help.
Signs a cow has calved
- Hollow looking or slab sided
- Appetite returned
- Red, stretched/floppy vulva, might be bruised or torn
- Blood/mucus in tail/udder/hocks
- Dirty flanks if in a muddy paddock
- Teats clean/suckled by calf
- Has a calf with her
- Looking for a calf or murmuring to calf
- Afterbirth may be hanging out of vulva or already ejected – she may be eating it
To prevent navel infection, spray navels of newborn calves in the paddock and on arrival at the shed. Completely spray or dip the navel with iodine. Don’t use teat spray. Failure to properly treat navels can result in infection leading to navel ill.
Use of calving aids
A moving vehicle must not be used to provide traction to assist calving (Code of Welfare: Dairy Cattle).
When using calving ropes or chains, ensure calf presentation is correct before you attach them. Pull on alternate legs to ‘walk’ the calf through the pelvis. Work with the cow and her contractions. Watching or helping your manager or vet use calving ropes or chains is the best way to learn.
Calving jacks and pulleys
The use of calving jacks and pulleys can produce a large amount of force. Ensure that you are properly trained and confident in the use of calving jacks and pulleys and are only using them when they are necessary to avoid causing damage to the cow and calf. Talk to your vet about training in using calving jacks and pulleys.
If calves are not breathing, attempt to resuscitate immediately by:
- Clearing airways
- Rubbing flank of calf vigorously
- Tickling nostril with straw/grass to stimulate sneeze
- Pouring a bucket of cold water over the head to stimulate gasp
- Performing mouth to mouth/nose
Don’t hang a calf upside down to resuscitate – this compresses the diaphragm and makes it harder for the calf to breathe.
Record all births and make sure you know the recording procedures for your farm prior to calving. Spray cows that have calved with tail paint to make drafting easier.
- cow (dam) tag number
- sex of the calf
- alive or dead
- calf identity/number
- assisted or unassisted calving.
Matching cows and calves
Check the system used on your farm for matching cows and calves. If in doubt, checking the breeding information can help; is the cow due? When was the mating date? Does the breed match the bull/sire? LIC also offers parentage/DNA testing.
ID systems - tagging in paddock
Elastic neckbands with tags Temporary identification tags can be used for newborn calves in the paddock, e.g. elastic neckbands with tags. Once back in the shed, proper tags can be put on in an environment that is clean and dry. If tagging in the paddock, ensure that the area is clean, dry and disinfected, and that the tag is in the correct place.
When moving cows and calves, stay safe and don’t turn your back on a newly calved cow. Even cows that are usually placid can become aggressive after calving. Keep the calf between you and the cow and don’t take any dogs or children into the calving paddock.
When lifting calves, bend your knees and keep your back straight. Get assistance if needed. Be gentle with calves – they are babies.
Good practice is to pick up newborn calves from the paddock twice daily to ensure they get enough gold colostrum in the first hours of life. Regular pick ups will also decrease the number of calves in each pick up, making transport easier and safer.
The trailer used for picking up calves should be cleaned and disinfected regularly. To make transport safer for calves, AstroTurf or another easily cleaned, non-slip material can be used in the bottom of the trailer. Carpet, straw or other calf shed bedding can also be used. This is comfortable and warmer for calves than lying on wood or metal. Ensure the trailer is large enough so calves can lie down comfortably. Don’t overload the trailer – make two trips if there is not enough room. Calves move around easily so travel at walking pace.
Recently calved cows are fragile and need close monitoring. Keep a close eye on the colostrum cows and report any that are showing signs of being unwell. For information on managing mastitis in transition cows click here.
Use of hip lifters
Hip lifters should only be used to assist a cow into a standing position and not to suspend a cow that is unable to stand without the additional support of a breast strap or sling.
Padded hip clamps should be applied firmly then raised slowly using a front end loader or hoist to assist the cow to stand. Using a breast strap under the brisket in conjunction with hip clamps is recommended good practice as it helps the cow up onto its front legs as the hips are raised. The additional support also minimises discomfort for the cow and provides some additional restraint, making the process safer for you and the cow. Using a full sling to stand a cow up is not recommended as the pressure on the cow's abdomen causes the muscles in the hind leg to relax.
It is okay to move a cow a short distance using a sling or breast strap, with a correctly applied hip clamp, as long as it doesn’t cause the cow any undue discomfort or distress. If you need to move a cow longer distances, use a transport tray, tandem trailer or front end loader bucket. Regardless of the method of transport, the cow must be adequately restrained to prevent any additional harm, pain or undue distress.
If the cow cannot stand on her own within 48 hours of going down, seek veterinary advice.
Correct placement of hip lifters and brisket
Watch our animation below on correct use of hip lifters. Hip lifters should only be used to assist a cow into a standing position and not to suspend a cow that is unable to stand without the additional support of a breast strap or sling.