Preventing Dystocia from Large Calves 3/7/2014

With a wet snow falling this morning, feeding was postponed until it would quit. My in laws went to a doctor appointment in the city and I was sent to town to run errands.

Going to town isn’t just a quick trip. It’s 25 miles to town, population 187. A person doesn’t just “run in” to pick something up, each stop takes at least 15 min. as you socialize with the people you see. A stop at the gas station led to coffee and doughnuts with an old cowboy in the area. Next I stopped in the vet clinic for ear tags and iodine and joked with the vet aid while petting a three legged cat.

Then I headed 8 miles down the road to our closest town, population 31. A stop in the lumber yard led to exchanging old calving stories. When the feed store owner returned from lunch, I pet his 3 legged dog as I told him what all I needed. I loaded 1300 pounds of feed into the back of the pickup. Yes, 1300 pounds, I did the math. At 50 pounds a bag, we got 6 bags of senior horse feed, 6 bags oats, 10 bags of salt, 4 bags of mineral. Loading all this is a bit of a work out.
When I returned home I got to unload the 1300 pounds I just loaded.

My husband had just finished feeding at 3 pm and was making himself a hamburger. I went to check the heavies as there was a heifer he put in a pen that was trying to claim another cow’s calf. She had just started calving and was showing two feet.


After his lunch we tagged calves and noticed the heifer had not made any progress despite her obvious efforts. It was time to assist. Luckily, she is a very nice heifer and allowed us to walk her through the lot into the pens. I ran to the house to get the calving necessities and returned to the barn to bring her into the chute. The feet of the calf were much larger up close than they originally looked from a distance.

The calf was positioned right so my husband attached the chains and we started to pull the calf. It was a big calf. When its head emerged, I could see its tongue was a little swollen. As soon as its entire head was out, I grabbed the calf by its shoulders and it took all I had to rotate it to prevent hiplock (for a post I wrote on hip lock, see When Bad Turns To Worse). The hips made it through and the calf fell to the ground. I had calf goo all over me too, who cares, it’ll buff out.

I grabbed a piece of wheat straw and stuck it in its nose and the calf flinched back and started to come to life. For some reason when a newborn calf is lying there with its tongue out, which they always are, it bothers me. I don’t know if they feel the need to make faces at me upon arrival to be smart or what. When the calf starts to breath I stick a finger in its mouth and poke at its tongue, just so it feels it and knows where it is. Then he can put it back in his mouth where it won’t bother me by being out.

This little guy was in good shape for as big as he was and I had high hopes he wouldn’t be “dumb” like some calves when they are large and experience hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain). His birth was quick and smoothly executed thanks to my husband. We moved him into a stall and let the heifer out. She was excited to see him and soon licking him clean amongst her gentle moos (she’d better like him after trying to steal another cows calf, she’d wanted one of those things all afternoon).

Big calves are a problem that can, to some extent, be avoided by management. We make every attempt to get high calving ease, low birth-weight bulls for our heifers. Bulls come with EPDs (expected progeny differences) that are used to predict what type of offspring they will produce. EPDs are breed specific and the average on one breed may be different from another.

While EPDs help in preventing dystocia in the form of large calves, another management technique is exercise. Research shows cattle that get exercise have a lower incidence of dystocia. To exercise a cow, a rancher needs to acquire a drive-in-movie sized screen in the pasture and play Richard Simmons videos repeatedly. HAHA. No, just place their food and water some distance apart forcing them to walk back and forth between the two.

Don’t forget the sweat bands
IMG_1861 copy

That cake is going to go straight to your calf
Now, back to serious blogging.

One factor that is out of our control is the weather. Research has shown that colder weather produces larger calves. Calves born in Florida weigh roughly 2/3 the weight of calves born in Montana.

No matter how hard one tries, the possibility of dystocia from large calves cannot be completely eliminated, but it’s a no brainer in ranching to do everything possible to prevent it.

Some great articles on EPDs and Dystocia:

Bovine Veterinarian Magazine, Dystocia and Weak Calves (hypoxia)
Oregon State University, Calving School Handbook, Dystocia
NBCEC, Beef Sire Selection Manual
University of Georgia, Factors Affecting Calving Difficulty
Virginia Extension Cooperative, Bull Selection for Heifers

Last I checked, our little calf was up and nursing which is a very good sign that he is healthy. I’m saying “he” even though I didn’t check the gender because most of the time the large calves that need pulled are bulls.


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