As many people have started calving their heifers, it is the main time of year where calving difficulties occur. Many different issues can arise, from having a leg back, the head back or the calf coming breech. However, the most common issue is a calf coming the correct way but just isn’t progressing at a normal rate.
The cause of a slowly progressing calving can be attributed to either the calf being too big, the cow not putting enough effort into calving or, most likely, a combination of both. The natural inclination in this case is to grab the calf puller and try to get the calf out with force. Before slapping the chains on to the calf’s legs and jerking the calf out, it’s better to check and make sure the calf can actually fit out the back end. Doing so will mean the difference between a live calf and a dead one.
The first step in determining if a calf puller can be used is to make sure both feet you feel are front feet from the same calf. It is not uncommon for a cow with twins to have a foot from each calf in the pelvic canal. Put the chains on the forward-most two feet, and then follow one back to the calf’s chest by feeling with your clean, lubricated hand. You should be able to feel across the chest and back up the other leg to the chain you placed on that foot, guaranteeing you are attached appropriately. If you cannot do this, remove a chain and look for the correct leg. Note calves can be pulled backwards, but in this case use the same technique to make sure you have two back feet from the same calf.
Once you have the two correct legs, next the head needs to be taken into account. The head should always be in the pelvic canal before a calf puller can be used. If it isn’t, pull by hand. It may require a head snare to position the head correctly.
If the head is in the pelvis, the final check to before using a calf puller is to feel if your hand can pass between the top of the calf’s head and the pelvis. If it takes a lot of force to do this, the pelvis is too small for the calf and a C-section will be required. If your hand passes freely, then the calf can be extracted with a puller.
Before using the puller, if you are using chains or rope and not a 1” wide strap, you will need to put another half-hitch in first. As the first loop of the chains should be above the dew claws, take the slack of the chains and add the second half hitch below the fetlock (ankle) joint. This spreads out the force of the puller so it is less likely to damage the calf’s leg.
When pulling, remember in most circumstances it is not a race to get the calf out as fast as possible. The calf will have an oxygen supply as long as the umbilical cord is attached. This doesn’t break until the calf’s chest is out. Pull the calf out while taking time to manipulate the cow so she doesn’t tear.
If it looks likely the cow will tear, it is better to do an episiotomy instead. This is a simple cut done through the vulva at the ten o’clock or two o’clock position to give the calf more room. It can be up to three inches in length and two inches in depth. After calving is finished, sew her up with an absorbable suture such as catgut.
Using a calf puller can mean the difference between a live calf and a dead calf if using correctly, or vice-versa if used incorrectly. Taking the time to make sure the calf is in the correct position and can fit through the pelvic canal is essential before using a calf puller. If these conditions cannot be met, it is best to call your veterinarian for a C-section instead.
Jake Geis, DVM, works out of the Tyndall Veterinary Clinic.