Ask the Vet

Labor and Delivery; Three Stages Of Calving

While every situation is a little different, there are some basic guidelines when it comes to calving. (Progressive Farmer photo by Becky Mills)


Do you have any guidelines for recognizing when a cow in labor needs help? I think sometimes we jump the gun and have gotten cows up when we did not need to. I know we have waited too long on a few occasions, too, and ended up with weak or dead calves.


I recommend checking cows that are in labor at least three times a day—heifers even more often. We have our heifers by a road we drive by several times a day. All calving pastures should have easy access to a working facility. Make mental (even better, physical) notes of cows that are getting close to calving. Signs in the weeks leading up to calving include udder development, relaxation and swelling of the vulva (springing), and a thick mucus discharge from the vulva. Relaxation of the pelvic ligaments and strutting of the teats may be observed in some cows in the 24 hours leading up to labor. Cows will often separate themselves from the herd as labor approaches.

Labor is divided into three stages. In Stage 1 (the preparatory stage), contractions begin. Initially, they are mild and spaced far apart, but become more intense and frequent. The cow or heifer will get up and down often, and is obviously uncomfortable. This stage should last two to six hours and ends with emergence of fetal membranes or water bag.

Stage 2 is the delivery stage. Contractions are very strong, and the cow or heifer is usually lying on her side. The fetal membranes, and then the calf, enter the birth canal. With a normal presentation, both front feet emerge first. The feet will often go in and out several times before the head emerges. Continuous progress should be made during this stage, and it should last no longer than a half-hour to an hour in cows, less than two hours in heifers. Labor lasting longer than two to three hours or any abnormal presentation are reasons to intervene.

Stage 3 is the cleanup stage. The uterus continues to contract, and the placenta is usually passed within three to eight hours. If the placenta isn't passed within 24 hours, it's considered to be retained.

If you feel Stages 1 or 2 are prolonged, and the cow or heifer needs assistance, try to get her to a working facility. This is much safer for the cow and the humans involved. I have seen many cows (especially heifers) abandon a calf when it was delivered in the pasture with the dam tied to a tree.

Lastly, if you are not completely comfortable with your ability to quickly and safely deliver a calf, call your veterinarian before you start.