Pulling a calf? Here’s the best way

By : W. Mark Hilton, DVM, PAS, DABVP (beef cattle), Clinical Professor Emeritus, Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine

One of my passions in veterinary medicine, besides beef production medicine, is teaching veterinarians and producers an easier way to deliver calves. I always start off my dystocia talks with the numbers 15 and 3. If you have to assist more than 15% of your heifers and 3% of your adult cows, you have a problem that needs attention and it’s most likely your genetics.

That being said, anyone who calves out heifers will likely have to assist one every so often. The Utrecht technique that I learned about 30 years ago from Bob Mortimer at Colorado State University is the easiest way to deliver a calf, in my opinion. It’s easy on the human, the cow and the calf.

The keys to success are:

  • Start with the cow standing, ideally in a chute and do a vaginal exam. If the calf is coming in the correct position, go to the next step which is dilation. If the calf is in an abnormal position, call your herd health veterinarian for assistance.
  • Now the calf is in correct position. Put both lubed and gloved arms into the birth canal, interlock your fingers and expand your forearms laterally to stretch the tissue. This prevents tearing the delicate tissue of the birth canal. Do this for 1-3 minutes.
  • Put chains on the front legs with a half hitch above the fetlock and one between the fetlock and hoof as you normally do.
  • Take a long rope and use the double half hitch method to place the rope around the cow (see picture and video). Halter the cow and as you slowly (ideally) back the cow out of the chute. Tie the lead from the halter low at the back of the chute. Never pull a calf in the chute as the cow could go down and then you are in real trouble.
  • I have used this technique on hundreds of heifers and cows for over 25 years. My only trouble is with aggressive females. This is where a halter with a long lead rope is key. As she backs out of the chute, have the end of the rope halter already wrapped around the bottom of the chute. Take up the slack quickly as she backs and tie her off. I have used tranquilizer on very rare instances with extremely fractious females.
  • Put hooks on the chain and start to apply pressure to the chains at the same time you have your assistant pull firmly on the end of the rope. Apply steady and increasing pressure to the rope until the cows lays down.
  • Keep steady pressure on the rope or tie it to a solid object. Wait about 5 seconds and grasp the part of the rope parallel to the cow’s back and gently pull so that she lays flat out on her side.
  • When the cow is down on her side, she is in her natural position to deliver a calf. The cow pushes much harder and her pelvis is able to tilt slightly to allow the pelvic opening to functionally increase in size, making the calf come out more easily.
  • Pull calf with hooks or use calf jack. The key is to go slowly and only apply pressure when the cow pushes. When she rests, you rest. When the chest of the calf is delivered, stop pulling and take a break. If you wait about 30 seconds, the cow will give a slight push and the pelvis of the calf will twist about 90°, which lines the widest part of the calf’s pelvis with the widest part of the cow’s pelvis. Give another pull and the calf should pop right out. The only time I do not pull slowly is on a backwards calf. Once the hips come through the pelvis, I’m pulling hard and quickly.

Let’s hear from some veterinarians and producers who use the Utrecht technique.

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