Common Mistakes When Pulling a Calf

Mistake #1: Impatience

In a normal forward delivery, a calf will survive for up to 8 hours in the birth canal.  Rushing can lead to more problems along the way.

Following the a few simple steps can help with efficiency and outcome.

Normal Calf Positioning

  • Wash up both your hands and around the cows vulva.  OB lube (Not soap!) can be used to lubricate the area.
  • Check the positioning of the calf. You can determine positioning by checking the direction of the bottom of the feet (soles), feeling for joints or if you are lucky enough to see a head or tail.  If the soles point toward the ground, it is likely a forward delivery.  If the sole point toward the sky, then it is likely a backward delivery.
  • Check the legs to see if they all belong to the same calf by tracing one leg up to the chest then

    Abnormal Fetal Positions

    down the other side.

  • If the calf is positioned wrong, then that needs to be corrected before the calf can be pulled.  At this point, call for assistance if needed.
  • Avoid pulling too soon.  If the calving process has just started, the birth canal may not be fully dilated yet.
  • Once the delivery phase has started (active pushing), more progress should be seen within every 15-20 minutes. A calf should be delivered within 1-2 hours of active labor.

Mistake #2: Incorrectly positioning chains. 

Improperly positioned chains can lead to costly mistakes when too much pressure causes broken legs.  An easy way to help lessen the pressure on one area is to apply one loop above the fetlock and a half hitch below it.  If only one loop can be placed, then a single loop below the fetlock is preferred.

Proper Chain Placement

Mistake #3: Pulling both front legs at the same time

When a calf is being delivered head first, pulling with equal pressure on both front legs can cause the calf’s shoulders to get stuck in the pelvis.  In some instances, the calf’s shoulder diameter will be equal to or greater than the diameter of the pelvis.  You can avoid locking the shoulder and the pelvis by pulling one leg at a time so they are at an angle which allows them to pass through the widest part of the pelvis.

Mistake #4: Locking the calf’s hips in the pelvic inlet.

Applying continued pressure the calf as the hips pass through

Twisting the calf so its hips fit through the pelvis

the pelvis can cause the hips to wedge and damage to the cow’s pelvic nerve.  This can cause hindlimb paralysis (weakness) or even tear the uterus. This mistake can be avoided by changing the calf’s position after the head and shoulders have passed.  By taking  a moment to turn the shoulders 180 degrees, the widest part of the hips will pass through the widest part of the pelvis inlet.  This needs to be done before the stomach of the calf is seen since by that time the hips will already be in the pelvis and can no longer be angled.  In a backward delivery, pull one leg ahead and rotate the hips to rotate to the appropriate angle.

Mistake #5: Using too much force.

There should never be more force used then that can be applied by two people.  The maximum pressure applied should be around 400lbs. Most calf jacks are built to be able to apply pressure that exceeds >1,600 lb!  A calving gauge can be used to show the amount of force being used.  Using too much pressure can  have devastating effects on both the cow and the calf.

References: Mistakes to Avoid when Pulling Calves by Rhonda Franck. Dairy Herd Management March 1995.