The 3 stages of parturition

Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Emeritus Extension Animal Scientist


As the calendar turns to a new year, the spring calving season approaches.  Many spring calving herds will begin the calving season around the first of February, if not before.  An increased understanding of the “calving” or parturition process is helpful.  The more we understand about the physiology of the process, the more likely we are to make sound decisions about providing assistance.  Parturition or “calving” is generally considered to occur in three stages. 


Stage 1:  The first stage of parturition is dilation of the cervix.  The normal cervix is tightly closed right up until the cervical plug is completely dissolved.  In stage 1, cervical dilation begins some 2 to 24 hours before the completion of parturition (2 to 6 hours would be most common).  During this time the “progesterone block” is no longer present and the uterine muscles are becoming more sensitive to all factors that increase the rate and strength of contractions.  At the beginning, the contractile forces primarily influence the relaxation of the cervix but uterine muscular activity is still rather quiet.  Stage 1 is likely to go completely unnoticed, but there may be some behavioral differences such as isolation or discomfort.  At the end of stage one, there may be come behavioral changes such as elevation of the tail, switching of the tail and increased mucous discharge.  Also relaxation (softening) of the pelvic ligaments near the pinbones may become visually evident, giving a “sunken” appearance on each side of the tailhead.  Checking for complete cervical dilation is important before forced extraction (“pulling”) of the calf is attempted. 


Stage 2: The second stage of parturition is defined as the delivery of the newborn.  It begins with the entrance of the membranes and fetus into the pelvic canal and ends with the completed birth of the calf.  So the second stage is the one in which we really are interested.  This is where we find all of the action.  Clinically, and from a practical aspect we would define the beginning of stage 2 as the appearance of membranes or water bag at the vulva.  The traditional texts, fact sheets, magazines, and other publications that we read state that stage 2 in cattle lasts from 2 to 5 hours.  Data from Oklahoma State University and the USDA experiment station at Miles City, Montana, would indicate that stage two is MUCH shorter.  In these studies, assistance was given if stage two progressed more than two hours after the appearance of water bag at the vulva.  The interesting thing about the data was that the heifers calving unassisted, did so in about one hour after the initiation of stage two, and mature cows calved within an average of 22 minutes of the initiation of stage two.  Those that took longer needed assistance.  These and other data would indicate that normal stage two of parturition would be redefined as approximately 60 minutes for heifers and 30 minutes for adult cows.  In heifers, not only is the pelvic opening smaller, but also the soft tissue has never been expanded.  Older cows have had deliveries before and birth should go quite rapidly unless there is some abnormality such as a very large calf, backwards calf, leg back or twins.  If the cow or heifer is making good progress with each strain, allow her to continue on her own. Know your limitations.  Seek professional veterinary help soon if you encounter a problem that cannot be solved easily in minutes. 


Stage 3: The third stage of parturition is the shedding of the placenta or fetal membranes.  In cattle this normally occurs in less than 8 to12 hours.  The membranes are considered retained if after 12 hours they have not been shed.  Years ago it was considered necessary to remove the membranes by manually “unbuttoning” the attachments.  Research has shown that manual removal can be detrimental to uterine health and future conception rates.  Administration of antibiotics usually will guard against infection and the placenta will slough out in 4 to 7 days.  Contact your veterinarian for the proper management of retained placenta.


An important ingredient for your calving season preparation is the Oklahoma State University Extension Circular E-1006: Calving Time Management for Beef Cows and Heifers.  Cow calf producers will want to download this free circular and read it before the first calf is born this spring.



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