As a cow-calf producer, you know there’s nothing better than a hands-off, stress-free calving situation. But chances are, if you’re reading this and running cattle on your ranch, you know – realistically, there are times a hands-off approach just won’t cut it.

Sometimes, she will need a helping hand to safely deliver her calf into the world with as much ease as possible.

When times call for using calving chains – also referred to as calf-pulling chains and obstetrical (OB) chains – make sure you are well prepared. For answers to questions about choosing them, using them, properly cleaning them and more, we referred to Arnold Nagely, DVM, co-founder of Valley Vet Supply.

Choosing chains

When selecting calving chains, make sure you’re setting yourself up for success with the best material and length for your needs.

You’ll want a set that is easy to use, durable to last and easy to clean. With these things in mind, Nagely recommends that for material, producers look to “either stainless steel or premium-quality nickel-plated OB chains, which are the best quality for reliable performance, ease of use and long-lasting durability.”

While some operations may use rope, one of the key reasons for using either of these above-noted materials instead of rope is for better cleaning before and afterward. Fully cleaning and disinfecting rope is less effective, and rope also is more likely to slip off the calves during use.

There are also a few differing lengths available, to which Nagely advises that, “If OB chains are to be utilized, using two 30-inch chains – one on either leg – is usually more practical than one 60-inch chain serving both leg applications.”

Using them

Unfortunately, it’s fairly common for a cow or heifer to experience challenges during delivery. A University of Missouri Extension article states that of calves which die at or soon after birth, “about half of those deaths are due to calving difficulty (dystocia). This multimillion-dollar annual loss is second only to losses from failing to conceive.

“About 80% of all calves lost at birth are anatomically normal. Most of them die because of injuries or suffocation resulting from difficult or delayed parturition [calving].”

When is it time to step in and offer her assistance? Nagely advises, “Assistance may be indicated when the calf’s feet or nose are apparent from the birth canal but not much progress is being made after 30 to 45 minutes. In the judgment of an experienced cowman or veterinarian, a determination can be made for the most appropriate method to assist in bringing a newborn calf into the world. This may be by pulling the calf by the front legs, or by the back legs (breech delivery), or possibly by cesarean surgery.

“The experience and judgment of a longtime cow-calf producer, or a livestock veterinarian, can be invaluable in understanding birthing situations and decision-making.”

Placing calving chains

When a helping hand is needed, make sure you’re aware how to properly place the calving chains. Nagely’s guidance for the best OB chain placement technique is to “Place a chain loop around the leg just above the fetlock [ankle], plus a half-hitch just above the hoof. This two-point spread of tension will avoid the risk of a broken leg from excessive chain tension.”

It’s crucial to take the time to correctly place the calf-pulling chains around the baby calf’s legs to help ensure both a sound and healthy calf and cow after the delivery. Below, Nagely shares best practices for using calving chains.

Best practices for chains

  1. Disinfect using chlorhexidine before each use.
  2. Use OB lube and a disposable sleeve; both are essential.
  3. Place a nitrile glove over the OB sleeve to keep the plastic fingers from splitting out.
  4. Attach the two chains to the calf’s front or back legs (if breech).
  5. Place the chain in a loop and half-hitch.
  6. Attach two D-shaped OB handles to the chains to tug by hand.
  7. Thoroughly clean using an antiseptic solution following use.
  8. After cleaning, thoroughly disinfect again, using chlorhexidine.
  9. Before storing in a dry place, be sure to let the chains dry to help avoid corrosion.
  10. Keep chains clean and dry in between uses.

But what if progress isn’t being made by using calving chains? “If using the calving chains is not sufficient, a calf puller is often utilized to assist in the delivery,” Nagely says.

A calf puller is different from calving chains. Such as with Dr. Frank’s Calf Puller, which was invented by B.N. Frank, DVM, a specialist in veterinary obstetrics, the calf puller will provide uniform consistent tension, resulting in no slipping or backing up of the jack. With traction on the calf and counter-thrust against the cow, this unique fetal extractor induces spreading of the pelvic bones, elevation of the abdomen and arching of the animal’s back, while assisting in the natural birthing process.

There are several different calf pullers available, so it’s best to refer to their detailed instructions before calving season, so when you need it, you’re well versed in using your calf puller and not fumbling with the instructions or Googling how-to videos when time is of the essence.

“If reasonable tension by the calf puller is not resulting in the delivery progress, the producer may need to reevaluate and possibly enlist the services of a livestock veterinarian. A cesarean may or may not be deemed necessary,” Nagely says.

Cleaning them

It is best practice to clean and disinfect the calving chains both before and after use. Clean the calf-pulling chains using an antiseptic solution. Then disinfect them using chlorhexidine.

Similar to the chains you keep in your truck for a muddy day, it’s best to let them thoroughly air dry before storing them in a dry place. Doing so will help avoid corrosion of the material.

One last thing

It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it – and that’s especially true as we head into calving season. Consider purchasing a complete calf birthing kit – or building one yourself – to have on hand at all times. Recommended items to keep in this kit include:

• Calf-pulling chains

• Stainless steel pail

• Chlorhexidine disinfectant solution

• OB sleeves

• OB lube

• Triodine-7 (for umbilical cord care)

• Bags of colostrum replacer (and a thermos of hot water)

“Ensuring calves receive high-quality, adequate amounts of colostrum is vital for their immediate survival and for the years to come. It’s a good practice to have colostrum replacer, and hot water, on hand if ever needed. Colostrum helps young calves defend themselves from cold-weather stressors like hypothermia and provide IgG antibodies for disease prevention.

“For the best defense against cold weather, I would also recommend, if possible, that producers have calf coats and calf warming huts available, if ever needed during calving, especially in the colder months of the year,” encourages Nagely.  

Source: Aimee Robinson for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 December 2021