Ask the Vet

Give Cow Time to Clean Off After Giving Birth

Be cautious about intervening with a cow after she's given birth. Manually removing fetal membranes can damage attachment sites for the placenta in the uterus. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Dan Miller)


We had a cow calve in June, and she did not clean off. My father wanted me to go in and remove the placenta. I called our veterinarian, and he told me to leave the cow alone unless she got sick. It took over a week, but she finally passed it, and she seems fine. My father, who is almost 80, still thinks I should have removed it like he used to do. What do you recommend?


I think your veterinarian was absolutely correct in his recommendation. Manually removing fetal membranes (a more technical term for what was hanging out) has been shown to damage the caruncles -- the attachment sites for the placenta in the uterus. This has the potential to reduce fertility.

There are diseases, including brucellosis and leptospirosis, that can lead to retained fetal membranes. These diseases are zoonotic, meaning they can pass between animals and people. So, if you attempted to "clean her off," and she had one of these diseases, you could potentially infect yourself or the cow while damaging the uterus by introducing infection.

The fact is that the weight of fetal membranes and a mild infection at the site where the caruncles and cotyledons attach eventually leads to detachment naturally. Those rare occasions when a cow will get sick like this seem more common in the summer, a good reason to avoid summer calving if you can.

Call your veterinarian if you think you have a sick cow. Often, you'll notice she's gone off her feed. She may need antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications. Very sick cows may need more intensive treatments, possibly including oral or intravenous (IV) fluids. I still like to flush the uterus of these cows with a warm, antimicrobial solution.

In the past, many veterinarians have recommended oxytocin or one of the prostaglandins (Lutalyse, Estrumate, etc.) for retained placenta. Oxytocin, the milk letdown hormone, causes the uterus to contract during birth, but it has little to no effect after 24 hours. Lutalyse has a similar effect, but there is no evidence contractions help the placenta come out.

So, my recommendations? Avoid summer calves and be patient when a cow does not clean off. She is better off in a clean pasture than in a dirty lot. This will almost always save you time and money and be better for the cow.


Write Dr. Ken McMillan at Ask the Vet, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite 415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or email