Correcting a Malpresentation: Tips for Pushing a Calf Back into the Uterus

By : Heather Smith Thomas


Calving problems can be a challenge. In some situations the calf is not entering the birth canal properly and cannot be born. The legs may be coming but the head is turned back, or perhaps one leg back, or the calf is breech (rump first) with no legs entering the birth canal. The calf must be repositioned.

To have enough room to manipulate a calf, you must push him back into the uterus. When you put your hand into the cow, however, this stimulates her to strain and push against you-and she is stronger than you are. If you push hardest when she’s not straining (and just try to hold ground as she strains) it will be easier.

The simplest way to push him back into the uterus is to continually lean your weight against the calf, rather than pushing with brute strength and wearing yourself out. Put your hand on his head, breastbone, or rump (whatever is being presented) and lean steadily. Each time the cow quits straining for a moment, you’ll gain a few inches.

If you have a helper to hold the cow’s tail straight up over her back and push it forward at the base, this can reduce her ability to strain, says Nick Thomas, a rancher near Baker, Idaho. If enough pressure is put on the tail in that position it tends to inhibit her ability to push against you.

It’s easier to manipulate a calf if the cow is standing up rather than lying down-with the weight of her abdomen pressing against the uterus. There is more room to work at shifting the calf if the cow stays on her feet. If she goes down and won’t get up, pull her hind legs straight out behind her.

“This forces her to lie on her belly, stifles and brisket,” says Thomas. ‘You need a helper to straddle her back (facing to the rear) to hold her tail straight up over her back. This not only keeps the cow in this position (so she can’t get up), but pulling her tail straight up reduces her ability to strain.”

With hind legs out behind her, resting on her stifles, it puts her hindquarters a little higher than her front end (with gravity in your favor instead of against you). This makes it easier to push the calf back into the uterus where there is more room to maneuver and bring his head or legs into proper position.

After you have pushed/leaned on the calf enough to get him back into the uterus, you can move his head or limbs around, immediately after one of the cow’s contractions and hopefully before she can strain again. “Once you have the calf’s legs and head coming properly, reposition the cow onto her right side instead of on her belly. You want her on her side, so she can strain more effectively and help you deliver the calf,” says Thomas.

When it’s a tough challenge to manipulate the calf because the cow is straining hard, some veterinarians use an epidural block (anesthetic injected into the spinal column) to keep her from straining. Its better if a person doesn’t have to resort to this, however, because then she won’t be able to strain when you need her to.

“With an epidural you don’t have to fight her contractions-which are frustrating when you are just about to get a leg or head turned and she gives a big push and you lose it again. But I’d rather deal with that frustration, and then have the help from her straining after I get the calf straightened out,” says Thomas.

Another trick that works, especially if you are by yourself and don’t have any help and you can’t get the cow to stop pushing, involves using a nasogastric tube. Shelie Laflin, DVM, former Professor of Agricultural Practices at Kansas State University until she went back to her family ranch in 2015, says that if you know how to use the tube (putting it into the nostril, to the back of the throat, where the animal swallows it, then pushing it on down into the stomach), you can pass the tube-just like you were going to administer fluids-only this time allow it to start into the trachea instead of the esophagus.

The simplest way to push a calf back into the uterus is to continually lean your weight against the calf, rather than pushing with brute strength and wearing yourself out.

“If you leave it there, a little ways into the trachea (tying it to the cow’s halter so it stays in place) while you are trying to correct the calf’s position, the cow cannot push against you,” says Laflin.

The cow is focused on the object in her throat/trachea and won’t strain. “This works nicely when you don’t have an epidural or any way to stop her straining. If the calf has a head back, or a leg back, or some other problem you have to correct, this allows you to get it done quicker and easier. Once you get the calf in position, just pull the tube out of her trachea and she can then push and help you again,” explains Laflin.

If you are not comfortable with either of these techniques, experts suggest calling your veterinarian for help.

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