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Welfare Issues Associated With Calving

09 March 2010

Speaking at the recent British Cattle Veterinary Association conference John Fishwick from the Royal Veterinary College discusses welfare issues associated with calving and how the veterinarian can help reduce potential problems. Charlotte Johnston TheCattleSite junior editor reports.

Insemination/ service

The choice of bull should be determined by the breed of the dam, her type and whether she a heifer or cow.

Mr Fishwick stressed that it is important for heifers to be the appropriate weight and height at the time of service to ensure they will be sufficiently grown at the time of parturition.

He suggests a typical target for Holstein/ Friesian heifer at first service for a 24 month old calving would be around 375kg bodyweight and 132cm high at the pelvis.

He admits that weighing and measuring youngstock requires a considerable investment of time in farms which are often already very hard pressed. However if inseminating cattle some sort of handling system is required - this could be used to handle cows to weigh as well Mr Fishwick says.

Use of easy calving bulls is advocated in heifers. However a study of six bulls used on 58 farms showed a significant difference in the incidence of difficult calving and calf mortality between bulls. However Mr Fishwick pointed out that a much more dramatic association was made between different farms and the level of calving difficulty which suggests management is the key to reducing calving difficulties and hence welfare problems.

Feeding of cows

Mr Fishwick says that feeding will have a major influence on the success of the calving period.

Cows and heifers must maintain the correct body condition score throughout the pregnancy to reduce and prevent dystocia and metabolic diseases. He says that clinicians can play an important role here, weighing cows throughout the pregnancy and increasing the stockman's awareness of this issue.

Exact calving dates should be known so that cows receive adequate nutrients. A veterinarian is often best placed to see when the practical application of a diet falls short of the theoretical expectation.

Management of the calving process

Whilst a veterinary surgeon can deal with dystocia and other problems effectively, Mr Fishwick says that it is important that the farm team are able to deal with their calving cows effectively to avoid problems and reduce the possibility of welfare problems.

Mr Fishwick says that discussion and training with farm managers and staff can make a highly significant improvement to the success and welfare of cows and youngstock at calving time.

Training with cadaver calves

Use of dead or stillborn calves can help in training, says Mr Fishwick. He suggests blindfolding staff and asking them to attach ropes to the calves as they would during an assisted delivery. Mal-presentations can be arranged to give staff greater confidence and improve skills.

Guidelines on when to intervene

Mr Fishwick says that a common problem is that of stockmen intervening too soon with a calving animal.

He recommended waiting an hour to an hour and a half, however veterinary surgeons in the audience suggested waiting up to two hours before intervening, with more time given to a heifer.

Proper use of calving aid and traction

If used incorrectly calving aids could cause a great deal of suffering and harm, therefore anyone using them should have some basic training in using one safely, advises Mr Fishwick. He suggests a training event should be held on farm to educate farm workers.

He says that progress should be seen within one to two minutes of traction, if not a caesarean may be needed.

As a general rule of thumb he says that the calving jack should be used to take up the slack in the ropes whilst traction is applied by gently pulling the shaft of the calving jack down in an arc behind the cow. This will provide a much more gentler traction than delivering the calf using the handle.


Staff should be reminded of basic hygiene including washing and storage of ropes and chains.

Agreed plan of action for handling calving cows

Having simple guidelines in place will help staff know what they should be doing and also improve standards. It is important to follow this up to see how things are going.


Mr Fishwick says that it is important to benchmark and monitor calving activity using a simple recording scheme. He suggests monitoring calving activity as follows:

Calving score

0 No hand touches calf
1 Hand touches calf but no rope used
2 Rope is used - gentle pull
3 Rope is used - hard pull
4 Caesarian section

Mr Fishwick says that producers should target to have less than 10 per cent of cows and less than 15 per cent of heifers calve with score 3 and 4.

Live birth rate should be monitored and defined as the per cent of calves born which are alive and survive for 24 hours. This should be 97 per cent for cows and 92 per cent for heifers, advises Mr Fishwick.

Management of freshly calved cow

Mr Fishwick stresses that cows should be observed frequently for the first five to seven days post calving, paying particular attention to feed intake and behaviour.

He said that repeated observation is much more effective than reading temperatures on a daily basis or giving a standard protocol of treatments to all fresh calved cows.


Mr Fishwick concludes saying that the potential for pain and suffering in cows around calving is immense. Risks of pain and problems can be reduced and controlled through appropriate decisions on breeding and proper management of the calving process.

The veterinary surgeon has a key role in this and can play a proactive part in helping the stockman to handle the calving situation appropriately.

March 2010


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