a story of Southern agriculture


Last week I mentioned that a cow and calf died in labor, and I told you I’d talk more about labor issues on a beef farm.  So, here we go…


Every farm has a no man’s land – a place where no one wants to have to go because it can involve a lot of worry, heartache, stress and unknown results…but somebody has to go there and conquer it…

…or experience the defeat it sometimes dishes out.


This harrowing place in my farm life is called Dystocia.


Dystocia is obstructed labor.

And dystocia is what caused the death of the cow and unborn calf last week.

T’was breech.

T’was messy.


Across the board in the US, statistically, 3-5% of cows in your herd will experience dystocia.

Thankfully, we are below the statistics on our farm because we take preventative measures to keep birth weights low and, subsequently, labor easier.  We do this by choosing “calving ease bulls” for breeding.  If you start at conception trying to avoid dystocia, you can definitely avoid an unnecessary lot of it.


Dystocia – it’s the main reason we check the herd each day during calving season.  When we drive out on the pasture to check the herd we are looking at each cow to see if she’s in any sort of distress.

Does she look pregnant?  Is she in labor?  Are there any cows hiding away from the majority of the herd – hiding while they have their baby? 

Day after day.  Week after week.  For two months or so twice each year this is what we do all because of dystocia.


Sketches of dystocia:


This image is from Missouri’s Extension. The image links to a good article on dystocia if you’d like to read less farmwife and more technical information. I certainly enjoy both takes on the matter!


Now, allow me to clarify that when I look at a cow in labor out on the pasture, I don’t see these sketches.  Instead she tells you she’s having calving trouble with body language, the presentation of the calf (if you can see it coming), length of labor from the time you find her, etc.

What?  Cow body language, you say?

When facing dozens of cows it seems overwhelming at first to distinguish between them, but over time, you can become quite fluent in bovine body language and know when one of 100 is ailing.  I think dystocia is much more obvious to spot than sickness.  The cow is in pain, not just ailing with a fever.  Something inside you knows that expression, and with practice, you can spot it quite efficiently.

Believe me, it’s nothing like the bull with his head down charging, but it’s every bit as communicative.  Once you learn a few expressions of this language (the calving process + dystocia), then you can put it together into sentences and call your farmer.

Farmhand to Farmer – we have a breech…of sorts.  The back legs are coming first and the points of the hooves are down.  Praise be. (I’ve had best success with this breech. – we can do this back legs first, baby!)


I like to think female intuition makes me a better farmhand, but our A#1 male farmhand could be a nurse holding hooves through delivery everyday.  He’s that good at spotting them and acting efficiently on their behalf with a heap of sympathy.

And the more efficient we are, the better chances our mamas and babies have of beating dystocia!  Go team!

pregnant cow-5

Oh-eleven – our calving season spokes cow – she no like dystocia. We no like it either.



The thing with farming of any kind is that you’re trying to function and earn a living and feed the world with an entire group of uncontrollable variables.  Not the least of which is dystocia.  Even with the best laid breeding plans, you still cannot know when dystocia is going to show up.

Can I get an “amen” from some of you ladies who have had surprising labor and delivery stories a mile and a half long?!  Yeah, that whole “women have been having babies for centuries” line may tick you off – because a century ago, you probably wouldn’t have survived childbirth.

We get it.  So we work and pray hard against dystocia here on the farm.

Dear Jehovah – may the presentation be front hooves first, facing the ground like the calf is just going to jump out of the mama…

In fact, if parturition (havin’ a baby) is coming up for you, we’ll pray for you, too – by the time we’re almost done praying you’ll probably have record calving ease  labor mercy. 

If I were God, I’d make it fast, just so the cattleman would hush it.  Just sayin’ – if the unjust judge moved for the widow who pestered him, I’m knowing the cattleman who manages dystocia for a whole herd of females will bend His ear nicely.


Point being – dystocia will bring you to your knees.  We prepare as best we can and we pray.


So far this year we had only one case of dystocia out of dozens of healthy births.


We are so, so thankful when dystocia passes us by.  BUT, when we have to wade out into our no man’s land braced for an unknown inevitable challenge, we still find reasons to be thankful while we help our mamas because…

Every no man’s land needs the cup to be half full at the end of the day.  It’s the only way to keep going year after year.


Emily Grace


Do you have a personal or livestock dystocia saga?  Do you or your furry friends have babies like it’s a walk in the park?  Have you never had a baby and are happy to have brushed up on your Canadian geography?

Would love to hear from ya…just, you know, keep the details…unscary.  I still have to live through calving season biannually and my nerves can only take so much.

A little extra detail if you’re interested:

This has been a short and lighter introduction to a very serious possibility on cattle farms that have calving seasons – we call them cow/calf operations.  I remember my first case of dystocia – it was overwhelming.  My farmer told me about dystocia, but we didn’t look at diagrams together and research it online.  He’d been dealing with this sort of thing at the graduate school level right before he moved to our farm, so I don’t think it occurred to him to hold my hand through it via the Internet before we hit the pasture that first autumn.

Dystocia hospitality?  It seems that is my department. 🙂

So, this is me gently introducing a problem that usually ends well enough, but doesn’t always – and either way, it can be scary.

Just remember that our main hope every season is to implement good plans at conception in order to keep our cows in the 95% without dystocia.  For those who experience dystocia, we are out there everyday with the entire herd, making sure we can intervene if they need us.

This every day vigilance is typical for Southern farms because our average herd size is about 30 mama cows.  Due to difficult terrain and other considerations, large ranches don’t always have this luxury of checking so meticulously.  But, this post gives you a decent peek into this topic at one type of cattle operation in the U.S.

* Thank you Wikipedia for helping me gather my thoughts on no man’s land.

This post is linked up at the Country Fair Blog Party!

25 Responses to “Dystocia”

  1. SJ

    Your poor cow and calf. 😦 Dystocia is a terrible evil! I am glad you are below the statistics when it seems like a lot can go wrong. You are blessed to be able to keep a close eye on them!


  2. d. tafakari

    “Can I get an “amen” from some of you ladies who have had surprising labor and delivery stories a mile and a half long?! Yeah, that whole “women have been having babies for centuries” line may tick you off – because a century ago, you probably wouldn’t have survived childbirth.”

    Women have indeed been birthing babies for centuries, but unfortunately, I missed the first few centuries’ and had to learn from scratch. lol.


  3. countrylinked

    As always a very well written post that makes the subject easy to grasp and understand. There is always worries on the farm, but with a little careful thought and planning, (like using low calving ease bulls) we can hopefully keep some of the worry low.

    Don’t forget to linkup this week at the Country Fair Blog Party! Please! This post would be a great addition.

    Have a great weekend E.G.!!


    • Emily Grace

      Hi Laurie! Thanks for the CFBP encouragement. I was thinking this morning when I saw your post in my email that I needed to get over there today and “party” with you all. I’ll make sure I do. 🙂


  4. Caitlin | The Siren's Tale

    Wow, dystocia sounds downright awful. I appreciate you being so honest… sometimes I think people try to sweep the real life-and-death issues around farming under the rug. It’s refreshing to hear the good, the bad, and the in between 🙂

    While we’ve been developing our farm business plan, cows are one of the biggest topics. My guy wants some desperately, but since I’ll be the farmer, I don’t think it’s doable right away (we’ve already agreed on vegetables/fruits/beans, ducks, chickens, goats, and bees just within the first 2 years). I love reading along with information like this because it helps make business planning so much easier and more realistic 🙂 Hopefully one day I can invite some abused/neglected/abandoned cows and bulls to live on the land. I have so much respect for people that work so hard with these animals… it’s amazing to see all of the time and care!


    • Emily Grace

      Hi Caitlin,
      Well, I appreciate your appreciation of honesty about life and death issues on the farm. I prefer for all the livestock hearts to be beating in healthy bodies, but as with people, difficulties happen, and somebody has to be there to deal with it. I think this conversation was a lot easier in the past when more people had livestock animals in addition to pets.

      Your plan is very ambitious, but it’s not that different from what my Farmer and I walked into when we took over his family farm a decade ago – a lot of work and two sets of shoulders to lean into it. Personally, I’d rather try to keep a bovine alive than a caprine. I’m 0 for 1 in the goat department, yet hundreds of cows roam this piece of dirt healthily and happily with much less effort than that one goat took for the 6 months he lived here, plus 3 days of intensive nursing by me before he died. (his name was Herald, by the way – spelling intended as he was a noisy guy:)

      I doubt you’ll have any rescue cattle come your way in the near future – like the next decade – the market is high for cattle and will probably stay that way. It’s more likely that cattle would be stolen and taken to market than neglected. That being said, should a bottle-baby come your way in need of a mama – with cattle prices so high, you can afford to bottle feed and sell a steer or bottle feed and keep a heifer to start your herd and come out nicely in the numbers – time and money input – as well as have a fun experience.

      Anyhow, that’s my two cents. Thanks for reading along. We’re happy to pour out bovine information on anyone who wants it.:)



      • Caitlin | The Siren's Tale

        Emily, I couldn’t agree more with you about wishing all the livestock hearts were in healthy bodies.

        Our plans are overly ambitious (to be honest LOL), and I’m sure once we’re there and actually doing it, the plans will change drastically. As I’ve been reading along with farm blogs, I’ve found so many people run into it with high ambitions, then slowly have to become realistic about what can be done in a given amount of time. Thank you for the insight on goats… it’s very helpful 🙂 Hearing that makes me want to swap our plan and happily welcome cows, instead of goats. I’m so sorry to hear about the tough situation you had with Herald.

        I also appreciate the insight into the cattle market! In the area we will be purchasing, it’s more focused on growing food organically and goat dairy farms. I (foolishly) assumed that cows would be easy to come across since they aren’t in ‘high demand’ in this region. But you pointed out so many careful considerations I should make… it’s so appreciated 🙂

        I hope nothing I said came off the wrong way, I have so much respect for cow and dairy farmers.


      • Emily Grace

        You are absolutely coming across respectful and delightful, Caitlin! I’m thrilled with your curiosity and wish I had more time to enjoy your blog. I look forward to your visits here and you’re on my list of places I make a specific effort to click over to.

        There’s nothing foolish about your assumption that cows would be easier to come by in the area you hope to move to. Your thoughts sound quite logical, but as with any industry, be it cosmetology, meteorology, or agriculture, etc., there’s a lot of perspective to hone. It took me years to reduce the number of sharp turns I was having to make in my brain – I’d think I was tracking with a topic my husband was teaching me about, then I’d exuberantly rattle off an extension of thoughts on the matter and THEN he’d proceed to tell me which thoughts I could keep and which ones he was going to turn on a dime and send in a different direction. The joy of learning! My apologies if I’m abrupt in any responses – I tend toward direct, but know that I am still learning, too, and love learners – and believe in new farmers coming into the ag world. We need you and your guy!

        I’m glad to see you’re acquainting yourself with the progression from high ambitions to realistic progress – it took me years to get that. I didn’t enter farming with a plan – well, unless kissing on the farmer counts. hehe 😉 We used to joke that I was a hobby farmer and he was a commercial producer. In time my hobby enthusiasm gave way to the realistic perspective of a business person who loves agriculture. But, being an overachiever, it took a while for me to adjust my sight. Well done that you are already writing such valuable perspective in the margins of your business plan.

        (: eg


  5. countrylinked

    EG and Caitlin your conservation is fantastic! Communication and learning is the key. Another reason that I love to follow both of your blogs. Willingness to learn, grow and share ones perspective. Thank you ladies!


  6. Katie

    Oh should I share the story about the calf that broke the calf pullers? Perhaps not. Calving problems don’t happen often … but when they do, it can be devastating. It is hard to see the Momma cow search for her dead baby that didn’t make it after being pulled. It is painful to watch a lonely Momma out in the field depressed for months because her baby died. The ones that I can most relate to are the Moms that try to deliver next to the river – seems like a soothing idea that I might try. However, much like your story recently, the calves can’t swim yet and they stumble with their new legs right into danger. I believe that prayer is our most essential plan for calving season.


  7. glattheranch

    At 400 head we are not very large, but we have no problem checking all our cattle every hour or two during calving. I’m not surprised the calf died, I am surprised the cow did. Did you take the cow into the vet?


  8. J. Rhoades

    We just had a case of this over Mother’s Day weekend. Me, husband, father-in-law and mother-in-law – trying to get a cow up to the corral for two hours straight (don’t get me started on my FIL’s “layout” that does not work), only to end with both the cow and the calf dying, and bruises and soreness all around. Thank goodness it doesn’t happen to often in our cows, but still sucks every time!


    • Emily Grace

      Hi J! Good to hear from you. I haven’t bumped into you since Christmas in the Country. Wouldn’t it be nice if WP and Blogger played nicer together. 🙂

      I’m sorry to hear you had a rough weekend with the bovine. You’re right, it doesn’t happen often, but the difficult dystocia cases can be exhausting and heart breaking. I’m sorry for your loss and bruises. Thank you for putting your heart and body into helping your family and cattle!


  9. the south dakota cowgirl

    I read your post late last night. Now, I sit here, eating some yogurt, waiting for 30 minutes to pass, so I can go back to the heifer pen to check on a heifer that I noticed was possibly having calving trouble, I find this an (ironically) ideal time to comment.

    We’ve had two cases this year (possibly three) in our heifer pen. One, had a leg back, and one was upside down, head first. We had to cesarean that one. The heifer later died.

    There were roughly 70 heifers in our pen so we are basically right in average numbers for dystocia. We , however, take a pragmatic approach to calving, not just the cows but the heifers as well – and that is, simply put – not everything is made to live and sometimes saving them and putting them back into the gene pool contributes to calving problems in the first place. That’s not to say we wouldn’t like to save every calf, but Mother Nature has different plans.

    Because of that, we don’t often have trouble in our large cow herd that we, on our several thousand acre ranch, check daily. Each calf gets a tag, (usually to match the mom), and sometimes we are known to go through the herd more than once/day. 🙂 We only have spring calvers here though, because we believe Mother Nature did not intend babies be born in snow storms. And even at our April 15 start date, we still run into the occasional blizzard or freezing rain storm, but much less than an outfit that starts calving March 1.


    • Emily Grace

      Hi SD Cowgirl!

      Thanks for stopping by. Having some yogurt while on the “labor/delivery waiting” farm job sounds great!

      I understand your pragmatic approach and think you have expressed it well. Thanks for sharing. 🙂 You are right – many times nature chooses for us. I think farm/ranch life requires a great deal of patience, tolerance and acceptance from us – because there’s so much we can’t control, even though we wish we could and certainly we’d like it if we didn’t stare death down every calving season, knowing that the numbers don’t lie, no matter how hard we stare and work.

      Yes, with your climate, one calving season is all you can manage, and I’m sure your mama cows and baby calves appreciate not birthing during winter. I like to think ours do, too. Of course, if you ever want two calving seasons, you can just head our way. ;o)



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