Calving assistance: Are you doing more harm than good?

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KALAMAZOO, Mich. – The simple act of helping a cow deliver her calf isn’t as innocent as it may seem. It can produce many post-calving complications, according to a dairy technical services manager with Pharmacia Animal Health.

Compared to cows with unassisted, normal calvings, those receiving improper assistance at birth risk developing retained fetal membranes and uterine infections such as metritis.

“Our natural instincts tell us to become involved in calf delivery because it feels like the right thing to do, even when there are no perceived problems with the cow or calf,” Austin Belschner said. “We need to understand that not all animals require help during calving.

“Speeding up the birth of the calf sometimes can cause more harm than good.”

Rupturing the water bag is a common mistake, he said. This fluid-filled sac protects the calf from the intense pressure of the cow’s contractions and accelerates dilation of the cervix.

Tearing it means the calf’s head and shoulders must apply pressure to the cervix to increase dilation, which prolongs labor and increases the force of the contractions directly on the calf.

Another error. The next common error, especially by inexperienced personnel, is to prematurely pull the calf.

If the calf is pulled before the cervix is fully dilated, this forces the calf out of the birth canal and can seriously injure the cow and stress the calf. The act of pulling the calf can produce tears or bruises in the cow, multiplying the chance for retained placenta or metritis.

Recommendations. Belschner offers these recommendations on how and when to intervene during labor and delivery of the calf:

* Be patient. Complete dilation of the cervix is the longest part of calving. Cows may need as long as four hours – and heifers up to six hours – to deliver a calf.

* Do not rupture the water bag. Assessment of calf position and dilation of the cervix can be checked without breaking the water bag.

* If you must assist, pull only while the cow is having a contraction and maintain tension when the cow rests. As the calf is pulled farther out, change the direction of the pull downward in an arc to avoid injury to the cow.

* Observe strict sanitation practices whenever you must check the cow and calf to avoid bacterial contamination of the reproductive tract.

* Seek immediate help from your veterinarian if you suspect any problems such as a uterine torsion or if pulling is not successful after 30 minutes.

Vets’ help. Belschner encourages dairy owners and herd managers to involve their veterinarian in training employees on proper calving assistance and recognizing problems.

He suggests a refresher training session once a year to make sure everyone understands how, and whether, assistance is needed. It can mean the difference between a healthy start in lactation or hindered reproductive performance.

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