Steve Wikse, associate professor of large animal clinical sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University, answers this month’s beef cattle health question.
Q — When I help a heifer that is having difficulty calving, how can I tell if delivery through the birth canal is possible?
A — Last month’s question was “How can I tell if a heifer needs help in calving?” This month, I’ll describe to you an easy way to tell if a calf can be delivered through the birth canal.
This is one of the most important skills a cattleman can have because it can save the lives of many calves.
Too often, I’ve been called to deliver a calf and found it dead or nearly dead when I arrived at the ranch because the rancher, and one time the rancher plus two neighbors, had tried too long to deliver the calf before they called me. They didn’t know how to tell if the calf could fit through the birth canal.
So, they kept trying until it was glaringly obvious that a caesarean section (C-section) was needed.
If they knew the simple technique I’m about to describe to you, they wouldn’t have lost that calf. The technique was developed at the Utrecht Veterinary School in The Netherlands.
Start by restraining the heifer. You can put a halter on her and tie it to a corral post or tree, or hold her in a squeeze chute.
Tie the heifer’s tail out of the way or have someone hold it. Then wash your hands and arms, and the hairless area surrounding the birth canal with disinfectant soap.
Next, put lubrication, obstetrical lube or J lube, on your hands and arms and examine the birth canal.
Determine if the birth canal is fully dilated. If it isn’t, you can manually dilate it by clasping your hands together, fingers interlocked with arms parallel, inserting them into the birth canal and slowly opening them to expand the wall of the birth canal. You may have to apply steady force for up to 20 minutes to dilate the birth canal.
Be sure the calf is properly positioned to be born (head between the two front legs, top of head facing up).
If it isn’t, that may be the cause of the difficult birth. Sometimes, however, the reason a calf is abnormally positioned is that it is too big to fit properly in the birth canal. In that case, a huge calf and small birth canal may immediately indicate to you that a C-section is needed.
Usually, whether or not a big calf can be delivered through the birth canal, it’s not immediately obvious.
So, if the calf is abnormally positioned, you must move its parts into the normal position for birth and proceed to step 3.
Common abnormal presentations include elbow lock, leg back, head turned sideways or down and breech presentation. Breech presentation is when the calf’s hindquarters are stuffed into the birth canal with its two hind legs extending back into the uterus. In breech presentations, there may be no part of the calf protruding from the birth canal or classically the calf’s tail.
Correction of an abnormal presentation is easiest when the heifer is standing. Some calves are positioned in posterior presentation where both hind legs protrude from the birth canal and the feet are upside down. These calves can be delivered backward as long as the calf is not too big for the birth canal.
It’s very important to immediately help a heifer trying to deliver a backward calf because, in that position, the umbilical cord of the calf can be squeezed shut against the pelvis of the heifer. The calf will then die due to lack of oxygen.
Place obstetrical chains or nylon straps on the two feet. The best way is to place a loop of chain above each fetlock joint and a half-hitch of chain below the fetlock joint on the pastern.
Thoroughly lubricate the calf and birth canal. Don’t hold back here. Sometimes I use a stomach tube to pump a whole gallon of lube into the uterus and around the calf.
Now you know why my nickname in practice was “Slippery Steve.”
Apply traction to determine if the calf can be delivered through the birth canal. The technique is a little different for calves coming normally versus backward.
Normal presentation — Pull one leg until the fetlock joint is a hand’s width past the vulva of the heifer. This will be easy as the first shoulder is pulled past the pelvic ring and into the birth canal as illustrated below.
Next is the moment of truth.
Apply traction on the second leg to see if it can be pulled even with the first. This will be hard if the calf is big and the force applied should never exceed the strength of two men.
Only apply traction when the heifer strains. If the second foot can be pulled even with the first, the second shoulder will have passed the heifer’s pelvic ring and will be sliding through the birth canal. The calf can be delivered through the birth canal if both fetlocks of the calf can be pulled a hand’s width past the vulva of the heifer as illustrated below.
Backward presentation — First rotate the calf 45 to 90 degrees so the widest part of its hips (side to side) are lined up with the widest part of the heifer’s pelvis (top to bottom).
When the heifer strains, one person on each leg then applies traction slightly upwards and backwards to see if the hocks of the calf can be pulled a hand’s width past the vulva of the heifer. If that’s possible, the calf’s hips will be through the pelvic ring of the heifer and sliding through the birth canal.
The calf can be delivered through the birth canal if both hocks of the calf can be pulled a hand’s width past the vulva of the heifer.
This is good to know out on the ranch. You now have the skill to accurately determine whether or not a big calf can be delivered through the birth canal of a heifer or cow.
If your Utrecht test indicates the calf can be delivered but it’s a whopper calf, quite a lot of finesse will be needed to get that calf out alive and healthy.
Next month, we’ll discuss how to get that job done right.