Veterinarians hate doing caesareans in a paddock, in the dark at weekends with the cow lassoed to the fence. This happens too often on small farms because the owner has not called for help early enough, and there are no proper facilities to handle cattle.
Often owners have tried to calve the cow themselves, and then asked a friendly farming neighbour to help who wouldn't admit defeat. Finally the veterinarian is called when things are extremely difficult and there's a high risk of losing both calf and cow. A caesarean may be the only option and even then the outcome may be all bad.
So it's important to learn the first signs of calving. The cow will separate from the herd if there is space to find a quiet area, and she'll prepare a birth site by smelling and pawing the ground with her front feet, walking round and round. She'll get up and lie down a lot as birth pains start to increase.
A small "water bag" will appear protruding from the vulva. This is the membrane surrounding the calf and normally bursts and the cow will smell the ground a lot where the liquid lands. Soon after this you should see the calf's front feet (pads facing downwards) and a nose. If the pads are facing upwards the calf is upside down and will need professional help.
Don't let the cow go longer than half an hour at this stage before getting help, and don't let a calving cow that has been showing vigorous and regular abdominal straining, go longer than one hour (and a heifer for two hours), before seeking help
Normally a cow will then lie down and push the calf out, but she may get up and down between these pushes and look round smelling the ground - almost looking for a calf.
With the final push the calf will be delivered and the membranes over the calf should rupture. The calf may drop out when the cow stands up which breaks the membranes around the calf and the shock of hitting the ground will start it breathing. The cow should stand up and turn round to lick the calf - and hopefully lick the membranes from the calf's nose so it does not suffocate.
The umbilical cord will break when the cow turns around; stretching it helps to stop any bleeding. Don't hurry to break the cord until the calf starts to breathe well.
The afterbirth should drop out soon after the calf. If it doesn't, don't worry about it initially, but if it hasn't appeared in about 3 days or starts to smell foul, then seek veterinary advice. It's quite normal for cows to start chewing afterbirths but don't leave them on the paddock for dogs or cats to eat. Dispose of afterbirths in an appropriate manner (offal hole or burial).
Equipment (e.g. calving jacks) used to assist calving should only be used if the calf is correctly positioned in the birth canal – i.e. head and both front feet pointing outwards in a diving position. If no progress can be made after 5 minutes of controlled mechanical traction, call your veterinarian. The maximum traction on the calf should be no more than that of two average adults pulling at the same time. Bikes or vehicles should never be used to pull calves.