When Bad Turns to Worse 2/28/2014

Cold weather always brings bad calving. Our ranch can’t seem to shake the recent cold snaps. Last night at 4 am I flipped on the light into the horse corral to check the cows and heifers. It was lightly snowing and the black hides were frosted with white snow. I was excited that it was my last check of the night and couldn’t wait to go to bed. We already had 4 cows in the cow barn that had calved.

When it’s this cold, spotting something calving is more difficult. They don’t go off by themselves, they lay amongst the others and don’t stand when a person walks by. A large indication of preparing to calve is an elevated tail, nervous behavior, and separation from the herd. In weather this cold, they don’t do any of that(see article on checking heavies).

Working my way through the largest group in the corral, a heifer caught my eye, looking closer reviled two hooves and a broken water sack. She cooperated nicely for me to go into a stall in the cow barn.

I went back to the corral to look at the other group. Then I saw it. Bad is a heifer calving when it’s this cold and having to put her in the barn. Worse is when you find that heifer, and realize not only does she have two feet showing, but they are big. I do not know what the next level is from worse, but my situation was there. Not only is she trying to calve a large calf, but also in the effort to do so, she’s gotten her back downhill and started to bloat.

When a cow gets her “back downhill” this “hill” can be a gentle change in topography of 1-2 inches. In the case of our heifer, she was laying in some hay and in the process of struggling to have her calf, laid back and couldn’t get up because her front end was a couple inches higher on hay. Calving, age, and whether cattle are bred or not have no impact on if they can get their backs downhill, they can all do it and ranching law says it will always be a young one (ranching law must really hate me because it was a young heifer in the process of birth). We have found cattle out to pasture that are dead because of this condition. The kick is, if you do not find them within an hour or two, they will bloat and die.

Our heifer was found with her legs in the air (obvious sign of bloat). I tried to get her up by patting and yelling at her. Usually if you can cause a big enough scare to the cow, they will struggle enough to get up. The combination of birth and bloat made her minimally responsive. Her water sac had broken and was starting to freeze. I went to the house and woke up my husband to help.

Together we tried the same thing, to scare her and prod her up. We knew she had to get up and fast, and that the calf needed pulled. Finally I suggested that we each grab a leg and roll her onto her other side. This can be dangerous, grabbing a cow by her legs. The potential for her to kick and hurt you is high. Nonetheless, I tucked her head in and on the count of three, I pushed the front leg and my husband the back. A struggle broke out and she rose to her feet. Her legs we obviously somewhat numb and shaky but I knew she could make it to the barn.

We gave her a few minutes to get the feeling back in her legs and then moved her into the calving chute. We cleaned her and my husband started applying lubrication and the calving chains. When a calf needs to be pulled, a person has to go inside the cow to adjust the calf and attach the chains to the calf’s legs. The environment in the cow must be absolutely sanitary. We use a bucket of warm water with a cap-full of Virosan mixed in. Virosan is a disinfectant composed of 2% Chlorhexidine Gluconate Solution and 1% Isopropyl Alcohol. The outside of the cow is cleaned with the disinfectant and then it’s used to clean the arms of the person pulling the calf and the calving chains. Next, lubrication is applied around the birth canal and all over the calf.


Calving chains are special chains in which the end links are larger. Our chains are in two sizes, 30 inches and 60 inches. They are attached to the legs of the calf by using a double half hitch to spread out the pressure of pulling the calf and avoid harming its legs. One last check is made after the chains are attached to assure that no part of the cow herself has gotten pinched in the chains on the calf. When it is certain the cow is clear, the pulling begins.


In our case, the calf was not positioned wrong, but just too large for the heifer. When pulling a calf, work with the cow and watch for when she pushes so the pulling can occur in sync. Large calves have to be “walked out” in the shoulders. This is where one leg is pulled further out, then the other, essentially making the shoulder portion of the calf as small as possible.


We had our doubts if the calf was alive, but as soon as I saw the face, I noticed a twitch in the nose. When the shoulders are through, the next thing to do is rotate the calf 90 degrees to avoid hiplock. Hiplock is where the hips of the calf don’t naturally fit though the pelvic opening of the cow. The hips get wedged into each other, thus retaining the calf. A calf stuck in hiplock will die as it is not breathing yet and the umbilical cord it pinched.




Hard as he was to turn, we finally got it situated. A couple more good pulls and it landed on the ground. Although he was somewhat slow to come around, his reflexes and vitals looked good as he perked his head up trying to breath. The heifer had done an excellent job considering she was still standing after a near death experience followed by giving birth. When we released her from the chute she was a bit unstable but walked into the stall with her calf.

Sometimes when heifers have difficult births, they want nothing to do with their calves. Sometimes they hate their calves and will try to kill them. This one was, for the most part, indifferent. I cleaned the calving chute (ps, my hands were covered in calving goo and anything metal I touched my palms would freeze to, ouch). We can only hope that she’ll warm up to her calf and it will get up and nurse.

As for my husband and I, five something in the morning was bedtime. We past the calving baton off to my in-laws and went to bed.

More information of calving difficulties and to see the original graphics, visit the following sites:

Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, Calving

Colorado State University, Calving and Handling Calving Difficulties

Alabama Cooperative and Extension System, Managing a Successful Calving Season

The Beef Site, Assisting the Beef Cow at Calving Time

Fun fact: The active ingredient in Virosan, Chlorhexidine Gluconate, is also the active ingredient in prescription grade mouth rinse.


2 thoughts on “When Bad Turns to Worse 2/28/2014

  1. Pingback: Preventing Dystocia from Large Calves | Calving2014

  2. Pingback: Backwards Calf | Calving2014

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