Article Summary:

Many calving problems could be avoided by properly developing replacement heifers and/or breeding first-calf heifers to bulls that sire calves with lower-than-average birth weights. The most important thing is to know when to help, when to stop, and when to call the veterinarian. In this article we’ll dive deeper into what dystocia is and how to deal with it.

  1. What is Dystocia
  2. Causes of Dystocia
  3. Effects on the Calf
  4. Effects on Fertility
  5. Requirements of Assistance
  6. Examination
  7. Types of Abnormal Presentation

What is Dystocia:

The old definition of dystocia or difficult birth is any birth that requires assistance. Any unassisted birth was considered normal, but by definition, an unassisted birth could result in a weak or dead calf at birth.

A more modern definition of dystocia is a birth that requires assistance or results in a weak or dead calf or dam injury. By this definition any “normal” births that may require some degree of assistance are not considered to be dystocia. This is animal welfare 101 .

Causes of Dystocia:

The most common cause of dystocia is relative fetal oversize, which can be defined as a calf that is too big, a pelvis that is too small, or both.

When it comes to calving difficulties, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Proper sire selection is essential for avoiding calving difficulties. Underdeveloped heifers and heifers bred to bulls with large birth weights are both risk factors for difficult births.

The second most common reason is an abnormal presentation or position. In cattle, the normal presentation is anterior or head first, and the normal position is right side up with the head and forelimbs extended into the pelvic canal.

Any position in which the calf's head or one of the legs is turned back is abnormal. Remember that a normal delivery cannot occur unless the head and both front limbs enter the pelvic canal and pass through the vulva.

A third cause of dystocia is a lack of uterine contractions, also known as uterine fatigue. The reasons for this are complex and not fully understood. Sometimes hormonal imbalances cause the cervix to be partially dilated or uterine contractions to be infrequent or insufficiently strong.

Low calcium levels, as seen in milk fever or grass tetany, may be to blame. In any case, those issues usually necessitate the assistance of a veterinarian to resolve. Other causes of dystocia include twins or genetic errors.

Effects on the Calf:

A dead calf at birth or one killed during the assistance process is obvious to everyone. Trauma such as leg fractures, a ruptured diaphragm, and nerve damage can occur as a result of excessive pulling, incorrect chain placement, or the development of a hiplock.

A third, and often overlooked, effect is a weak calf, also known as weak calf syndrome, which can be caused by prolonged labor. This is due to more time spent under increased pressure as a result of increased uterine contractions and dam straining.

A prolonged labor with no progress in calf delivery will result in less oxygen and more carbon dioxide for the fetus. These calves make no normal respiratory efforts. They make no significant panting or gasping efforts.

They lack the rapid respiration and heart rates required to deliver oxygen to the tissues and carbon dioxide back to the lungs.

These calves are depressed; they do not sit up well, do not shake their heads and ears, and do not shiver to warm themselves when the weather is cold. Shivering increases metabolism, which raises body temperature.

Because these calves have a slow metabolism to begin with, their body temperature drops. Even those who appear to breathe and sit up normally at first become depressed, slow to rise, and slow to nurse. Many do not nurse on their own and die within 12 to 24 hours.

Even those who do nurse may do so too late for adequate antibody absorption. To summarize, dystocia affects not only dead calves and injured heifers, but also weak and sick calves.

Effects on Fertility:

Calving difficulty, in addition to being the leading cause of baby calf mortality, significantly reduces reproductive performance during the following breeding season.

Heifers receiving early parturition assistance returned to heat earlier in the post-calving period and had higher pregnancy rates than heifers receiving conventional obstetric assistance.

Heifers subjected to prolonged labor had a 17% lower rate of cycling at the start of the following breeding season. Furthermore, the rebreeding percentage was 20% lower in the counterparts who received assistance during the first hour of labor.

Requirements of Assistance:

Following are some of the requirements of assistance:

  • Perform a walkthrough of the pens, chutes, and calving stalls before the calving season begins. Check that everything is clean, dry, strong, safe, and working properly. This is much easier to do on a bright afternoon than it is on a cold, dark night when you need them.
  • Ensure that all family members or helpers are aware of the plan. It might help to write it down and post copies in strategic locations. Discuss the protocol with your local veterinarian and incorporate his/her suggestions.
  • Many lubricants have been used, and one of the best is probably the most basic lubricant - non-detergent soap and warm water.
  • Disposable obstetrical sleeves, non-irritant antiseptic, lubricant, obstetrical chains, two obstetrical handles, mechanical calf pullers, and injectable antibiotics should always be kept in the stockman's medicine chest.

And, don't forget the essentials, such as a good flashlight with extra batteries and a roll of paper towels or old towels.


It is critical to know exactly when and for how long to leave the cow and when to seek assistance. The amount of time heifers or cows are allowed to be in labor before assistance is given is a problem for ranchers during calving season.

Examine the heifer to see if you can help if it is not making significant progress one hour after the water bag or feet appear. Mature cows should only be observed for 30 minutes before undergoing a vaginal examination.

Examine the heifer to see if you can help if it is not making significant progress one hour after the water bag or feet appear. Mature cows should only be observed for 30 minutes before undergoing a vaginal examination.

If you are unable to safely deliver the calf at this time, contact your local veterinarian as soon as possible.

Types of Abnormal Presentation:

Following are some common types of abnormal presentations that lead to dystocia along with a brief description of the methods used to deliver the calf safely:

  1. Head Retained
  2. Head Between Forelegs
  3. Forelegs Retained
  4. Breech
  5. Twins

Head Retained:

If the calf's head cannot be felt, do not assume it is moving backward. The two front legs are presented and the head may be retained.

Rather than pulling on the limbs, as previously described, distinguish between forelimbs and hindlimbs. It is easier to correct where the head is bent back into the cow's right flank if the left hand is used, and vice versa.

The head can be raised and directed into the pelvis by grasping the muzzle, the ear, or the lower jaw, or by placing the thumb and middle finger in the eye sockets. Do not pull too hard on the jaw because it is easily broken.

Head Between Forelegs:

The head occasionally falls well down between the legs. To raise the head, insert one or both limbs into the uterus.

Turning the cow on her back is another option. The calf's head will fall toward the cow's spine and can then be more easily guided into the pelvis by a single hand or a loop around the lower jaw.

Forelegs Retained:

The calf's head may be out, but one or both forelegs may retain. Place a chain or rope behind the poll and through the mouth to secure the head, then lubricate it and push it back into the uterus.

Then, one by one, look for the limbs. Each limb should be bent at the knee and grasped just above the fetlock. Now, push the bent knee toward the spinal column and back, bending all of the limb's joints.

Meanwhile, the hand moves down the limb toward the fetlock. Raising the fetlock above the pelvic brim allows the leg to move forward.


In a breech presentation all four limbs along with the head are retained and the calf’s rear is presented. In this case, the calf must be repelled all the way back into the uterus.

Then, grasp a leg just below the stifle and work your way down to the foot. Insert the hoof into your palm and withdraw your arm until the foot is drawn over the pelvic brim.

This manipulation is made easier by rotating the hock outward while pulling the foot up and back.


There is no problem if twins enter the vagina one at a time. However, twins are occasionally born together and block the birth canal.

In most of these cases, one comes first, followed by the other. Take the nearest twin. If in doubt, extract the twin displaying hindlegs first after repelling the other twin far into the uterus.

Make sure both limbs belong to the same calf before proceeding. Feel along each limb to where it connects to the body, then along the body to the opposite limb.

Keep in mind that the length of labor of parturition is critical to the calf's survival, and if an issue cannot be rectified within twenty to thirty minutes, seek help.

Until we meet again, Happy Farming!

- The Dedicated Team of, 2022-07-20