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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

Know when to help fall-calving cows and heifers during the calving process

STILLWATER, Okla. – Oklahoma ranchers who use a fall calving system should be reviewing research-proven information about the amount of time cows and heifers are allowed to be in labor before assistance should be given.

Warning! Many traditional text books, fact sheets and trade magazine articles state that Stage II of labor lasts from two to four hours. Stage II is defined as that portion of the birthing process from the first appearance of the water bag until the baby calf is delivered.

However, research data from Oklahoma State University’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and the USDA Experiment Station at Miles City, Montana, indicate that Stage II is much shorter.

“The research data shows Stage II lasts approximately an hour in first-calf heifers and a half hour in mature cows,” said Glenn Selk, OSU Cooperative Extension emeritus animal scientist. “In these studies, heifers that were in Stage II of labor for much more than one hour or cows that were in Stage II for much more than 30 minutes definitely needed assistance.”

Research information also shows that calves from prolonged deliveries are weaker and more disease prone, even if born alive. In addition, cows or heifers with prolonged deliveries return to heat later and are less likely to be bred for the next calf crop.

“These are yet more reasons that highlight the importance of providing timely assistance,” Selk said. “If the heifer or mature cow is not making progress with each strain, then an examination needs to be conducted. If a producer cannot safely deliver the calf then he or she should call his or her local large animal veterinarian immediately.”

Selk reminds cow-calf producers it is imperative to make certain the cervix is fully dilated before applying chains and beginning to pull.

Most ranches develop heifers fully, and employ bulls genetically disposed to pass on the trait of calving ease to prevent calving difficulties. However, a few difficult births are going to occur each calving season regardless.

“Producers also should remember to use evening feeding as a way to get more heifers calving in daylight, making it easier to provide assistance,” Selk said. “Producers who provide needed assistance in a timely manner will typically save more calves. Another plus is that this can result in healthier, more productive 2-year-old cows to rebreed for next year.”

For more information about assisting cows and heifers at calving time, download and read an OSU Circular E-1006 “Calving Time Management for Beef Cows and Heifers.” This free publication is available online at  


Donald Stotts
DASNR News and Media Relations
Agricultural Communications Services
132 Agriculture North
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078
Phone: 405-744-4079
Fax: 405-744-5739

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078