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When Do I Assist a Cow in Delivery?

Dairy Pipeline: November 1998

Tom L. Bailey
Dairy Production Medicine
Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Vet Medicine
Virginia Tech
(540) 231-3936

The question is often asked, "When do I assist a cow in delivery?" If a heifer has been in labor for 1.5 to 2 hours or a cow has been trying for 1 hour, without any signs of progress, an examination should be done to determine why progress is not being made. It is better to intervene earlier if you think it is necessary to ensure a live calf. Also watch close-up cows for other signs of calving. A cow that frequently assumes a urinating posture or walks with her tail extended for more than 3 to 4 hours may be attempting to calve or could have a twisted uterus, an abnormally positioned calf, or some other problem with delivery. Sanitation is very important when an examination is done. Infections can be introduced to the uterus which cause infertility and breeding problems. The vulva area should be cleaned with a mild soap (Ivory or iodine soap), the hands and arms of the person doing the exam should be thoroughly cleaned and plastic OB sleeves worn to prevent contamination of the birth canal and uterus. There is also the possibility of infectious agents in the birth canal that can affect people, so wear sleeves. Check the vulva to see if it is relaxed and large enough for delivery. The vagina should be examined for obstructions like fat, a pelvic fracture, abrasions, or bleeding. The cervix should be examined to assess the degree of relaxation and dilation. The next step is to determine the position of the calf. Presentation is important for a successful delivery. You should examine all the way up to the elbow or hock. Remember there is a joint (front knee or carpus) between the fetlock and the elbow of the front leg, but not between the fetlock and the hock of the rear leg. If two feet are presented, it is important to determine if they are both front or rear feet, or a combination of each. If the feet are presented upside down (see the bottom of the feet), think about a breech or a twisted uterus. Always cover the foot (toes) with your hand to protect the uterine wall and vaginal area from a possible tear or puncture. Forced extraction or delivery by mechanical means is very critical. Calf chains are preferred over ropes. The chains should be positioned in two areas, a loop above the fetlock and a half-hitch below the fetlock. This gives a more even distribution of force during pulling to prevent fractures of the leg. It also keeps the foot from folding under and damaging the vaginal canal during delivery. How much force to exert is the next question? Professionals agree; NO MORE THAN THE EQUIVALENT OF 2 PEOPLE. Pull with the timing of the abdominal press of the cow to help with delivery. After delivery, clean the area again and examine the cow's vaginal canal and uterus for abrasions, lacerations, or bleeding. These may require professional help for suturing or medication. Always check for the presence of a second calf. This will require your arm to be at shoulder depth for a good examination of the uterus. Cows should be made to stand after delivery and moved around for increased circulation to the muscle area of the rear limbs. Watch for signs of being wobbly or not using a rear leg. These animals may need to be confined in a small lot and kept off of concrete.

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