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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

Timing is crucial when giving labor assistance to heifers and cows

STILLWATER, Oklahoma (Jan. 26, 2018) – Now is the time to put together and post a protocol for family members and hired employees to follow when they find a cow or heifer starting in the process of calving.
Timing is crucial when giving labor assistance to heifers and cows

Getting a healthy calf on the ground is the point of calving season. (Photo by Todd Johnson)

One particular issue facing the cow-calf producer at calving is the amount of time that heifers or cows are allowed to be in labor before assistance is given, reminds Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension emeritus animal scientist and editor of the popular OSU Cow-Calf Corner newsletter.

“Many traditional text books, Extension fact sheets and magazine articles historically state ‘Stage II of labor’ lasts from two to four hours,” he said. “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.”

Old but still viable research data from OSU (Putnam 1985) and the USDA Experiment Station at Miles City, Montana (Doornbos 1984) clearly show Stage II is much shorter, lasting approximately 60 minutes in first-calf heifers and 30 minutes or less in mature cows.

In these studies, heifers that were in Stage II of labor much more than one hour or cows that were in Stage II much more than 30 minutes definitely needed assistance.

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

Consequently a good rule of thumb is that if a heifer is not making significant progress one hour after the water bag or feet appear, examine the animal to see if assistance can be provided. Mature cows should be watched for only 30 minutes before a rectal examine is conducted.

“Make certain the cervix is completely dilated before pulling on the chains,” Selk said. “If the producer cannot safely deliver the calf at this time, he or she should call the local large animal veterinarian immediately.”

Most ranches develop heifers fully and use calving-ease bulls to prevent calving difficulties. Still, a few difficult births can be expected to occur each calving season.

“Using the concept of evening feeding to get more heifers calving in daylight and giving assistance early will save a few more calves and result in healthier more productive 2-year-old cows to rebreed next year,” Selk said.

Cattle and calves represent the number on agricultural commodity in Oklahoma, accounting for approximately half of the state’s total agricultural cash receipts, according to USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service data.


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