Calving 101: dystocia, intervention and feeding

A veterinarian says knowing when and how to intervene in a difficult birth can improve the odds for both cow and calf

FORT MACLEOD, Alta. — Calving season is underway, or soon will be, on ranches across the Prairies and a refresher on handling calving basics can come in handy.

Dr. Melissa Moggy, speaking in her role with the Alberta Farm Animal Care Association, provided basic tips at the Feb. 11 Rural Roots Ag Days in Fort Macleod.

Minimizing problems at calving time “starts way before the cow is ever pregnant,” said Moggy. Careful breeding choices and judicious culling can reduce problems later on. So can providing adequate nutrition to cows particularly in the last two months of gestation, when the fetus grows the most.

The veterinarian warned against reducing feed to the cow herd late in pregnancy in the mistaken view that it will reduce the chances of calving difficulty.

“This is not true. Underfeeding the cow does not reduce calving difficulties,” Moggy said.

When a cow does begin the calving process, usually recognizable by isolating itself and showing signs of restlessness, this first stage should not last more than eight hours. If it does, it’s time to intervene, the veterinarian said.

The calf should be born within one hour of the appearance of the water bag, in the case of cows, and within 1.5 hours in first-calf heifers. The calf should emerge no more than an hour after the feet first become visible. Intervention is recommended if birth is taking longer.

Moggy said producers should call a veterinarian if they are unable to solve a calving problem within 20 minutes. That allows time for the veterinarian to respond before the life of the cow or calf is endangered.

Never involve more than two people in pulling a calf. If there’s a thought that more are required, it’s a sign of major problems best handled by a vet.

Moggy discussed the importance of ensuring calves receive colostrum within the first one to two hours after birth. Two litres at first followed by another two litres in six to 12 hours is ideal. Frozen or powdered colostrum, properly prepared, can be administered if the calf can’t or won’t nurse or if the cow won’t allow nursing.

In the case of purchased colostrum, Moggy said the package should indicate it is a replacement and not a supplement because the latter has lower antibody content.

Colostrum can be stored in the refrigerator within two hours of milking and for up to seven days. Though it can be frozen for up to a year with reasonable results, she advised against keeping colostrum longer than that.

She also noted colostrum should not be kept in a frost-free freezer because such appliances do not stay at a constant temperature.

When thawing frozen colostrum, do it in warm water and heat it slowly. Microwave thawing is discouraged.

“If you think of when you microwave a cup of soup, there will be sections that are burning hot … and freezing cold,” she said, and valuable proteins may be destroyed.

Moggy said providing pain relievers to cows post-calving is becoming more common.

“No one here doubts that calving is a painful process … for the cow and the calf,” she said.

Research indicates that provision of pain relief promotes cow recovery and appetite and improves milk production. Meloxicam, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, is the most common product used and it requires a veterinary prescription.

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