Calving Signs – Being Ready to Assist

Watching your Cow Birth a Calf is Breathtaking and a Bit Scary

When calving signs become evident, be prepared to assist when things aren’t progressing as they should. Know the stages of labor and how to react. When your cow is nearing full term, gather the suggested items for assisting a birth.

What to Have on Hand for a Cow Birth

      • Towels for drying a wet calf if the mother is unable or uninterested
      • Iodine solution for dipping the navel. We put it in a wide mouth canning jar to make dipping easy
      • Halter and rope
      • Nylon rope or obstetrical chains for pulling the calf
      • OB gloves and OB lubricant
      • Flashlight and batteries because it all may happen in the dark of night
      • Bottle and lamb size nipple (just in case)

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What are the calving signs to look out for with the cow? When the pregnancy reaches full term, the milk production mechanism may start to work. Many mothers-to-be bag up right before the arrival of the baby. The udders may become swollen and the teats more prominent. You may even see drops of colostrum leak out. As the first stage of labor begins, the mamma will often separate herself from the rest of the herd. She may eat or just nibble at her food. The restlessness will continue to increase as the labor progresses. She may turn her head and look at her side. Or she may try to nip at her side. The first stage of labor and the restlessness may last a few hours.

Used with permission. Photo credit Cheryl Aker

Learn About Calving Signs and Normal Presentation

Normal birth presentation for calves, kids and lambs is front hooves first, with the nose down on the front legs. Picture a diver’s position as he cuts through the surface of the water. This position makes birthing easier. The front legs start through the birth canal, the head follows. After the head and shoulders, usually the rest of the body follows, quickly sliding out.


Calving signs during the second stage of labor are a bit more dramatic. The cow will now be seeking a quiet spot, if she hasn’t already. The calf is entering the birth canal. The first thing you notice may be a bubble from the water sac that comes before the baby. The sac may break on its own. The water sac may also follow the baby. It’s important to note that this is not the amniotic sac that surrounds the fetus. In most cases the baby’s arrival should be only a couple of hours, or less, from the time serious labor signs are evident. The cow (or doe or ewe) will probably lie on her side. During contractions, her legs will often stretch out straight. This is a sign I have often observed as the momma is having delivery contractions. Most farmers agree that if the cow is making progress during labor, there is no need to interfere. As the calf emerges from the birth canal, liquid is forced from its lungs. The amniotic sac must be removed from it’s face so it can start breathing on it’s own. Most cows will take care of this if the sac does not break during delivery. This is a vital time to be observing, so that you don’t lose a calf. If the cow is doing her job, let her continue. It’s also good to know how to tube feed a calf, in case you need to feed colostrum to a weak calf. The newborn should eat within the first two hours of being born. If the baby isn’t able to or the cow is resisting feeding, you need to intervene. Hobbling the cow’s back legs to prevent her from kicking the calf is one method often used with reluctant mothers.

When you Need to Assist the Cow with Calving Signs and No Progress

If you have seen no progress after a couple of hours of serious labor, you may need to assist the cow. If this is your first time assisting a cow with a delivery, I advise calling a veterinarian or a trusted fellow farmer. Moral support is important at this stage, even if no one can get to you to physically assist. Our farm vet has talked me through a very difficult lamb delivery over the phone. It’s important to know just how hard it is to pull a calf. Even a small lamb can be quite a struggle if stuck in the birth canal and not progressing. The presentation of the calf can be incorrect, leading to difficulty getting past the pelvis area. Some abnormal presentations are breach, posterior presentation and one foot or more not in the correct position. Breach is the presentation of the butt end of the calf, first. The many different complications that could happen are numerous. Be prepared to assist by having the birthing kit items nearby. Pay attention to cleanliness if you have to use your hand and arm to enter the birth canal to check the presentation or attach ropes for pulling. Wash the vulva if any manure is stuck there. Ideally, the ropes would be secured to the front feet, above the first joint. If the calf is breach, you may have to enter the birth canal, try and find the back legs and rearrange the calf’s position so the legs can be pulled. The first time you assist a difficult birth in any livestock, you may be surprised at how very difficult it is to pull the baby out. It does take some strength.


Are the Signs Similar in a Sheep Giving Birth? Are Goat Labor Signs Like Those in a Cow?

The signs of labor and birth are similar in most large livestock. When watching sheep giving birth, be aware of how long they have been in labor. Goat labor signs are very similar to a cow, also. Look for the udders to fill, tail ligaments will soften, and the doe or ewe will remove herself from the herd as delivery approaches.


It is important to note that most births proceed normally and you are able to witness a beautiful sight. Watching a new momma care for her young calf is inspiring and heartwarming. Being prepared and informed before calving time will help ensure a good outcome.

Share your livestock birthing stories in the comments.

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