Dystocia in cattle

We have all been there, the 2am calving with a stubborn leg back or presented with a single front leg and a nose. Problems calving, also known as dystocia, seem to come part and parcel of keeping cattle but the prolonged effect that this initial experience can place on a calf’s health and on its future can be dramatic. Studies show that animals needing assistance during the calving process are more likely to have respiratory or digestive issues later in life.

Dystocia comes in three forms: maternal-calf size mismatch; abnormal presentation in birth canal; and maternal factors such as hypocalcaemia. Of the three, the first and last are most readily preventable, by using appropriate bulls in heifers, pelvic measuring and ensuring good body condition at bulling and calving.

During a dystocia, or bad calving, the calf may be starved of oxygen, leading to the blood becoming more acidic. This in turn can lead to a depression in the central nervous system, which would normally stimulate breathing rhythm. Occasionally, in cases where we believe there has been a prolonged period of reduced oxygen, we may administer bicarbonate directly into a calf’s vein, to try and rebalance the blood.

Other ways in which you can reduce the risk after a dystocia include stimulating a normal breathing rhythm and clearing airways of fluid, stimulating the nostrils with clean straw or bedding and sitting the calf on its chest. It is also important to ensure any calf, not only those born weak and requiring assistance, are kept warm in period immediately after birth.

We are always emphasising the importance of colostrum, and these cases are no exception. These animals should receive 50ml/kg, ideally within two hours of birth of good quality colostrum. This will provide essential nutrients and antibodies to the calf.

There are multiple ways to reduce the risk of issues, following a bad calving and we should aim to give these animals a little more attention, and not forget about them once they hit the ground.


This article was taken from our September Farm newsletter.

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