What to Expect at Calving

As we all know, getting live calves on the ground is one of the main goals of cattle production. For this reason, knowing what to expect at calving, and when to intervene if there are problems, is very important. The information provided below, is aimed at helping people better understand what to look for during this very hectic time of year.

In 90% of cases, the cause of problem calvings (known as dystocia), is due to the calf being relatively oversized, followed by abnormal presentations (5%) and maternal factors such as fatigue (5%).

Leading up to calving

Stage 1 – calving
Initiation of labour

Stage 2 – calving
Calf on the ground

Stage 3 – calving
Placenta passes

2 weeks or more out from calving:

Udders fill.
Cervical plug may loosen (clear stringy discharge from vulva).
Vulva relaxes (springing).

12-24 hours out:

Ligaments around the tail and pin bones relax.

12 hours out:

Behavioural changes, such as separation etc.

Beginning of labour.

No longer than 8 hours.

Ends when cervix is fully dilated and amniotic sac is visible.

Usually animal starts nesting – separating from the mob and looking for a place to lie down. Appears uncomfortable, wringing tail, licking at side, elevated tail, arching back or shifting weight to do with abdominal contractions.

As cervix dilates may have an increase in vaginal discharge.

Contractions progress from 1 every 15 minutes to every 3 minutes. Cervix will start to dilate until fully dilated.

First the fluid bag should be seen, then this will break, followed by the front feet with hooves down

From when the sac is visible (fluid bag) until calf is on the ground.

After bag has broken. Should have had the calf within in 2 hours or made visible progress every 30 minutes. Some heifers may take up to 4, but should be checked at 2 hours. If this hasn’t happened then needs an examination.

From when calf is on the ground until placenta passes.

Normally 8-12 hours. After this classed as retained foetal membranes.

Note: treatment may or may not be required for retained membranes. Producers should not PULL on the membranes!


Indicators of dystocia (difficulty calving)

Stage 1: if labour is > 8 hours.

Stage 2:

  • If the animal is examined during calving and the calf is in an abnormal presentation, position or posture i.e. leg back, head back, coming backwards.
  • If the calf has a swollen head and tongue; green or yellow staining, or brown covering (meconium). Any of these things indicate prolonged time in the birth canal and a stressed calf.
  • If the animal has been trying for more than 30 minutes without progress.
  • If the animal has not tried for 15-20 minutes afte a period of progress. This may signal she is fatiguing.
  • If the water sac is visible for 2 hours and the cow is not trying.
  • If part of the calf eg. feet, are gliding in and out of the vulva and the animal is contracting then allow half an hour; or if no progress is made then assist.
  • If parts of the calf are not moving with the animal pushing, then it is likely that the calf is too big for animal to deliver naturally. Other indicators of oversize calves are:
    • Crossed front legs.
    • Soles of feet together.
    • Head bending back when it reaches pelvis.
  • If a producer cannot get a hand comfortably all the way around the calfs’ head then the animals’ pelvis may be too small to deliver the calf naturally and assistance may be required.

Things to remember when assisting calvings

  • Restrain animal adequately.
  • Clean arms and vulva quickly with disinfectant.
  • If vulva dry may need obstetrical lubricant.
  • Can use chains or ropes, but chains are easier to keep clean and disinfect.
  • When placing chains always place one loop above the fetlock and a half hitch below the dewclaws keeping the chain link on the top of the foot to try to minimise putting excessive pressure on the limb and causing a fracture.
  • No more than the force of 2 men should be used to deliver a calf. If more than this is required then a caesarean is needed for live calves, or a fetotomy is needed for deceased calves.
  • If the calfs’ fetlock can be pulled out to a hand span above it, then delivery vaginally can be attempted. Up until this point the legs should be pulled one after the other in a walking fashion to get the shoulders through the pelvis once this has happened then the calfs’ legs can be pulled simultaneously but also rotating the calf to try to prevent hip lock.
  • How to tell if a calf is alive in the dam?
    • Pinch toes – calf pulls back or moves.
    • Suckling reflex if hand in mouth.
    • Blinking if head out of vulva.
    • Anal tone.
    • BUT keep in mind just because they are alive at the start of delivery does not mean that they will be by the end of it. Birth is a stressful process.

When to call a vet

  • If you have been trying to remove a calf for 30 minutes with no success.
    • If the cow and calf are not stressed or injured and intervention occurs early enough, some calves can survive for 4-6 hours until a vet arrives.
  • If you are unsure of whether or not to attempt delivery.
  • If the calf is presented abnormally.

If you have any questions regarding the information in this article, please contact Quirindi Veterinary Clinic on 02 6741 2000.


  • Enoch Bergman (2011), Dystocia diagnosis – swapping tricks of the trade, Australian Cattle Vets Conference.
  • R. G. Mortimer, Calving and Handling Calving Difficulties.

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