Minimising calving difficulties: the birth process

Welcome to our minimising calving difficulties series. Here we focus on the birth process, in particular the three main stages to calving.

The birth process

As the calving season approaches, cows will show signs that they are about to give birth. These include:

  • Udder development/bagging up
  • Swelling of the vulva
  • Slackening of the pelvic ligaments (the ligaments either side of the tail) which can result in the tail dropping
  • Mucus/slimy discharge from the vulva
  • Lack of appetite
  • Isolation from the herd
  • Restlessness
  • Tail swishing

These changes will be slightly different from cow to cow. Age is also a factor. A herdsperson who knows the cows well and checks them several times a day will be able to spot these changes in behaviour fairly easily.

There are three stages to calving.


Calving basics

Credit NADIS

Assisting cows to calve can influence the success rate of the subsequent breeding season. It is clearly better for cows to calve on their own, rather than with human interference.

Calving history

Number of cows

Subsequent breeding season success rate

No assistance



Assisted by stockperson



Assisted by vet



Caesarean section



Source: NADIS - After Caldow and others (2005)

Provide shelter

If calving outside when the weather is cold and wet, provide a place for the calves to shelter. Keep these areas clean and dry to prevent disease.


Record birth dates, the birth weight of each calf and notes on calving difficulties. This valuable information can help track the reproductive efficiency of the cow and the bull and can be used for other management purposes, including genetic selection.

Follow the sections below to explore more in this series.

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.