Minimising calving difficulties

Welcome to the Minimising calving difficulties series. The series covers all stages in the production cycle, from before breeding to cow care after calving.

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The birth of a calf represents a significant investment of time, effort and money and is the only annual output of a beef cow. If the calf dies, the entire annual productivity of the cow is lost.

Planning for all possible outcomes is the best way to prepare for a calving. The aim is to have a tight calving period, with the majority of calves born unassisted. Cows should also become pregnant again as early in the subsequent breeding season as possible.

Many of these are obvious, but calving should be considered unsuccessful when:

  • Cows die as a result of calving difficulties
  • Calves are born dead
  • Calves are injured during birth or do not receive sufficient colostrum, which leaves them susceptible to infections that can lead to poor performance or death
  • Cows are barren
  • Cows suffer from health problems around calving, which reduces their subsequent fertility
  • Dystocia, or difficult calving, can be caused by:
  • Calf effects, for example, high birth weight or deformity
  • Cow effects, for example, inappropriate body condition, age, pelvic size or shape; or disease contracted just before, during or after calving
  • Foetal position at birth – about 5% of calves present in an abnormal position

Key messages to prevent calving difficulties

  • Cows with a body condition score (BCS ) of 2.5 0 at calving tend to have fewer calving difficulties and a shorter interval to first heat
  • In general, very fat or very thin cows are at greater risk of difficulties around calving
  • Estimated breeding values (EBVs) can be used to select bulls that produce females that are likely to calve more easily and produce calves that are born easily
  • It is important the dam is up to date with her vaccinations and in good health
  • Before calving begins, be prepared with suitable dry, clean shelter, plus handling facilities and basic equipment on hand
  • Record the birth dates and calving ease of each calf to track the reproductive efficiency of the parent cow and bull
  • When faced with a cow in difficulty, be patient, think about hygiene and use plenty of lubrication
  • It is vital that ropes and/or pulley systems  are attached correctly to prevent injury to the calf
  • Calving problems caused by a relatively oversized calf can be minimised by using easy-calving sires 
  • Restricting feed in the last month of pregnancy can do more harm than good: cows should be in target BCS one month before calving and then fed to requirements
  • Leave cows and heifers undisturbed for four hours after mucus or slime is first seen at the vulva, unless the animal is clearly having powerful contractions every five minutes or so
  • It is easier to correct a malpositioned calf when the cow is standing because it can be pushed back or manipulated
  • Colostrum contains nutrients as well as antibodies, but the calf needs to consume three litres of good quality colostrum within six hours of birth to acquire satisfactory passive immunity
  • Cows should pass the placenta within 12–24 hours of calving

You have just read the introduction to the minimising calving difficulties series. Explore the sections below for guidance on minimising calving difficulties throughout different stages of production.

The information on these pages was compiled by Katie Thorley, AHDB Beef & Lamb and David Black, Paragon Veterinary Group and reviewed by Dr Alexander Corbishley, University of Edinburgh.