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Planning and managing to avoid dystocia

two pregnant red angus cows in a field

Dystocia, meaning “difficult birth,” often results in the loss of a calf or complications after birth of a live calf. Some examples of complications after a difficult birth can include aspiration pneumonia, joint damage, nerve damage, and hypoxia. Another big problem can be failure of passive transfer resulting from inadequate colostrum intake and the calf not wanting to stand or nurse.

We know that not every dystocia can be prevented, but there are some management factors that can help reduce difficult births.

Good body condition score

Maintaining cows in good body condition score (BCS), proper nutrition, and mineral supplementation is crucial. Cows in correct body condition are not too fat or too thin. A BCS of 5 to 6 for cows and approximately 6 for heifers at calving is suggested. Brood cows require a sufficient mineral program and a diet with adequate energy and protein. Cows in good shape on a good balanced diet will be fit and have the energy to make it through the calving process without exhaustion.

Select bulls and cows for calving ease traits

Selecting sires that can transmit calving ease and calf vigor is important. When buying bulls, traits such as calving ease direct (CED) can aid in helping the calf be born without difficulty. Traits like calving ease maternal (CEM) can help build calving ease into the female side of your herd. I think it is important to also look at the shape of the animal. Masculine bulls with flat, smooth shoulders and clean joints will likely be more advantageous as calving ease sires. Whereas females that have larger, downward-sloping pelvic bones should offer some advantages from a maternal calving ease standpoint.

Pelvic-scoring replacement heifers can help identify any outliers that may be too small or shaped poorly. This is most conveniently done when heifers are in the chute for estrus synchronization protocols. During the first trip through, you can identify any culls before synchronization and breeding.

Pregnancy check cows

Pregnancy-checking cows to determine calving dates is a very useful tool. This can allow planning and targeted attention to cows that will be calving soon. This can be extremely valuable to make sure cows are in a good environment for calving. It is also warranted to state that not all dates will be 100% correct and that some may actually come prior to the due date, even on a proper diagnosis. So, be attentive and watch closely.

One way that I have witnessed many cattle producers checking cows is via cameras. Home security and surveillance systems have become much more affordable, and technology has increased the capabilities of these systems. While very remote areas may not be suitable, many farmsteads have successfully incorporated these cameras and been happy with the results. Checking cameras from a phone can be beneficial for night checks and also allow multiple people to participate in the monitoring.

Assist in deliveries

Lastly, don’t hesitate to assist if things appear abnormal or seem to be taking too long. Once the water bag appears, the calf should be delivered in 2 to 4 hours. Most healthy heifers will calve unassisted within the first hour after seeing the water bag appear. Most healthy cows will calve unassisted within 30 minutes of seeing the water bag. The absence of front feet, no sign of further progress, as well as other abnormal signs, may expedite the need for intervention.

Overall, planning is crucial to avoiding dystocia. Providing proper nutrition along with selecting the appropriate genetics will lend better results at calving time. Some management tools to help avoid calving problems and subsequent losses would be pelvic scoring replacement heifers, pregnancy checking to aid in calving date determination, and utilizing cameras to help monitor cows in the maternity pens. Another big part of planning and preparation is to have a conversation with your local veterinarian before calving season to know what options are available in an emergency.