Feedback on Calving: Hip-Lock and Assistance During Bovine Labor

MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers respond to a recent calving article, commenting on problems with hip-lock and assistance methods during bovine labor.


The first stage of bovine labor (dilation of the cervix) generally takes up to six hours or more, while the second stage (expulsive) occupies up to another six hours. The time span from the moment the feet appear at the vulva to the emergence of the tongue and subsequently the nose will seem interminable if you don't know that it's quite normal. Give the cow a chance to deliver her own baby.


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MOTHER EARTH READERS share observations about a recent calving article, discussing the problems with hip-lock, pulling the calf during delivery, and general information on bovine labor. 


Eleanor Wrigley's "Report from Alberta, Canada" (MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 31) mentioned the problem of "hip-lock" in calving. May I offer a suggestion gleaned from a dairy farmer for whom I milked cows? He kept Holsteins and was breeding a lot of the heifers to exotic beef sires. Now, granted, a Holstein heifer is pretty big as heifers go, but the calves were still large enough to cause trouble during birth . . . mainly hip-lock.

One day my dairyman boss told me the following: The average cow's pelvis is not equally wide and deep, and many hip-locked calves will slip out easily if their bodies can be turned 90 degrees. This method also helps alleviate the damage to the hips of the calf which is often caused by forceful pulling . Although I didn't deliver any of the young myself, 1 often watched my employer as he used the above procedure with good success.

Eleanor's suggestion that a cow be bred for offspring of the correct size is surely the safest way to an easy delivery. Problems can, however, arise with any first-calf heifer — including the homesteader's cherished milker-to-be — and the technique of turning the hiplocked fetus is easy and safe for the beginner.

(Incidentally, readers who are raising their own cattle can surely benefit by the use of artificial insemination. Sires are of the highest quality, fees are reasonable, and inseminators are readily available in rural areas. Ask your county extension agent for help in locating this service.)

Once a calf is safely born, MOTHER's children may wish to preserve its mother's beneficial colostrum ("first milk") for the young animal's use instead of eating it themselves. The colostrurn may be refrigerated for a week or more, or frozen and kept for months . . . and it's wise to have a few quarts in the freezer in case your calf gets sick. Small amounts of this vital food mixed with water will often bring dramatic improvement. The same frozen supply is equally handy for starting lambs that are orphaned at birth.

Colostrum can also be pickled. Find a large plastic or unchipped enamel container or crock, put what you don't feed of the first three milkings into the bowl, and let the accumulation stand at room temperature. It will sour and begin to smell like yeast dough (don't use it until this point is reached). The thickened fluid can then be stored in a cool — not freezing — place. At feeding time, mix one part pickled colostrum and one part hot water to make warm milk.

By the way, my father has fed pigs skim milk clabbered with yogurt starter and swears by it. He just sets out a barrel, puts in milk and a bit of yogurt, and then adds fresh milk daily. The bacteria change over the course of time with this method, so every now and then he starts fresh with a new yogurt culture (from store or home). We're going to prepare the same food for chickens with our extra skim milk as soon as our beautiful cow Ida calves. (We admit to hoping for twin heifers . . . nothing like optimism!)

Speaking of chickens . . . experience has taught me that feeding them whey without additional water gives the poor birds diarrhea. And if you use a heat lamp in the henhouse to encourage laying in cold weather — as Eleanor describes — try a red one. Our flock has a lengthened day through a timed white light, but the red heat lamp stays on all the time during chilly periods and egg production has remained steady all winter.


Eleanor Wrigley's "Report from Alberta, Canada" (MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 31) is discouraging enough to deter even the most eager homesteader front obtaining a cow, because of the "calving problem". This is all wrong, since in the vast majority of cases human interference is not necessary or even wise. Most often, when correct presentation is evidenced, the worst thing one can do is intervene and probably botch up a normal birth.

Modern methods of "assistance" during bovine labor are analogous to hospital delivery of human babies by knocking the mother cold and yanking out the child with forceps. If you don't concur with the latter, then why practice the former on your innocent four-footed companion ? Patience is a virtue in calving, just as it is in human delivery. Precipitous action can only lead to tragedy.

The first stage of bovine labor (dilation of the cervix) generally takes up to six hours or more, while the second stage (expulsive) occupies up to another six hours. The time span from the moment the feet appear at the vulva to the emergence of the tongue and subsequently the nose will seem interminable if you don't know that it's quite normal. Give the cow a chance to deliver her own baby.

As for the calf-puller, it not only looks like something left over from a medieval torture chamber . . . it is. It should be banned from the face of the earth. Farmers have a way of attaching the instrument to the calf the moment its legs appear at the vulva and then literally ripping the young out of the mother, doing irreparable damage to the cow by tearing her cervix.

True cases of hip-lock are probably much rarer than is imagined. Breeding a heifer to a Charolais or Friesian (Holstein) bull is one of its causes.

When hip-lock does occur, force is completely contraindicated. Simply rolling the cow onto her back and over to her opposite side, and then offering gentle assistance, will bring about delivery in around 50 percent of such cases. Another form of aid consists of rotating the calf on its own axis to effect its release. If nothing works and a vet is available, he might have to cut up the calf within the cow (embryotomy) to save the latter's life. The solution is never a matter of "just a little more force".

There is only one circumstance in which more than a single strong person should pull on a calf to deliver it. That exception is a posterior presentation . . . and even then it's not necessary to panic and start yanking immediately. Not until full cervical dilation is effected should gentle pulling, one leg at a time, be undertaken. When the entire hind end of the calf is outside the vulva, get those strong onlookers to help you . . . and quickly. The umbilical cord will rupture at this point and you have 30 to 40 seconds to deliver a live baby. You can't hurt the mother because the widest part of the fetus is already through the cervix and pelvis.

In cases other than posterior presentation, the umbilical cord rarely ruptures before the calf's head is well outside the vulva . . . provided that steady, brute, outside force has not been used. Thus the best way to protect both mother's and offspring's life is not by speed or strength, but by an educated policy of non- or limited interference.

Within reason, there is no need to muddle in on bovine labor.. . any more than you would deny a woman her right to natural delivery. If you're convinced by Lester D. Hazzell's Commonsense Childbirth, then you'll find equal satisfaction in Calving the Cow and Care of the Calf by the TV Vet (this letter owes everything to him). It's the best book I've ever read on the subject and includes hundreds of marvelous photographs: normal calving, Caesarean section, etc. This work — by one of England's top vets — is available for about $7.50 from Farming Press Ltd., Suffolk, England.


I've read the chapter from Farming for Self-Sufficiency reprinted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 27, and would like to add some important points to remember when a cow is calving . . . a very beautiful occasion, but also very serious.

One of the first signs that a cow is about to give birth is a dropping in of the sides of the tail just above the pelvis. Labor should then begin, and the water bag — which lubricates and cushions mother and young before and during delivery — should appear shortly thereafter. (You'll know what it is as soon as you see it.)

Should two hours pass after the early signs without the appearance of the water bag or any indication of calving, it's time to find out what's wrong. A cow which is let go much longer than that becomes exhausted and also exhausts the calf. If the mother is too worn out to continue with the birth process, you may lose both her and her baby.

"Diving in" — as the Seymours describe — to correct a wrong presentation is insane unless you know exactly what to do and how to do it. If you happen to scratch or damage the uterus with your hand or one of the calf's feet, your cow might not be able to calve anymore . . . and could possibly die. A veterinarian should he called, if possible, to straighten things out. Yes, that costs money, but it's a heck of a lot less expensive than a dead or injured animal.

When pulling a calf, always apply the force more downward than backward or straight out. The fetus must follow the direction of the birth canal, or a broken back could result. (The drawing will show you what I mean.) Remember also to pull one foreleg ahead of the other so that the shoulders move through the pelvis separately rather than both at the same time.

Once the cow begins to calve with your assistance, keep pulling constantly and firmly. If you stop, the calf's hips will sometimes (not always) become lodged in the pelvis... and "hip-lock" is a difficult situation to remedy.

This may sound like a lot to remember, but all the things I've mentioned are worth knowing if you have to use them even once. Of course — as John and Sally say — if you don't breed a heifer too young or too small, and if she's properly fed and not fat, there should be no difficulty in calving.

It's also good to know that an injection of vitamins A, D, and E (3 cc when the calf is one day old) gives the newborn a real boost against infection and disease.

The above information was gained by watching 150 calves being born and assisting in at least 50 births over a period of three months. I hope it helps someone.