Calving is one of my favorite seasons on the ranch. I was reminded of this on Sunday morning as I watched young calves buck and run against the backdrop of a wonderful sunrise. Our snow-laden and cold weather have given way to a much more welcome warming trend this week; much better conditions for calving season.
Unfortunately, calving season is not all play and watching the sunrise. It comes with its own share of difficulties. First, it was the prolapsed cow that I fought in the snow on Wednesday. Unable to correct the problem due to excessive tearing and straining, we sutured her up and sent her to auction. Then just as I thought I would escape unscathed on Saturday, the sky came falling.
As I make my morning rounds, checking each group of cows for newborns and cows that show signs of impending parturition (labor), I make note of any cows that I need to return and check on later. On my second round I found one heifer that had given birth to a stillborn. Not much I can do about that, but at least the heifer is ok. Then I had a cow that was off by herself and made me a little uneasy. After giving her another hour, and with no progress being made, I walked her up to the corral for an examination by palpation. As soon as I felt a tail in the birth canal, I knew things were not good.
Dystocia can be caused by a number of elements. Twins, incorrect fetal presentation in the birth canal, or even hormonal imbalance in the cow.
This is a normal presentation of calving:
As you can see, the legs go first through the birth canal, over the pelvic rim, with the head on top.
This calf was presented in a breech position:
This is why I felt a tail in the birth canal. Notice the rear of the calf is blocking the birth canal, with the hind legs underneath the calf, and the head toward the front of the cow. Not an easy fix.
I have encountered several different dystocia problems, but never a breech position. This is where my adrenaline starts pumping. I have to figure out how to fix a problem without ever “seeing” what I have to deal with. But still I had to get the calf delivered in a timely manner. First I had to push the calf back into the uterus and pull the hind legs up, into the birth canal. This is not an easy task when the cow’s contractions are trying to push the calf up and out, not down and back in. After being literally “Up To My Armpits”, and having my arms pressed between the birth canal and the calves legs because of the contractions, I eventually got the calf pushed back in, legs pulled out and everything set to pull.
I hear so many stories of people using a horse, or a wrench, or even worse a vehicle or tractor to pull out a calf. PLEASE NEVER DO THIS! Pulling a calf does not take that much effort. I have pulled many, many calves out with an O.B. chain attached to a handle, and only the strength all 160 lbs. of this guy can muster. Or better yet, only some hay twine. If things are not moving along, something is misplaced, like a hiplock. (okay I had to get that out) Call a veterinarian if you have tried for 30 minutes and things are not moving along.
Anyways, I got the calf pulled out only to find it was not breathing. I tried cleaning out its airways, making it sneeze, and even compressions, but to no avail. We lost the calf. But the mother was alive and ok, just a little sore. I kept the cow in the corrals over night for observations. Everything was ok.
All of this to say, being a cattleman during calving season is no easy task. Rather, I would compare it to a labor of love (Mushy, I know right?). We have to consider the cattle to be more than a commodity if we are willing to spend hours upon hours making sure they live. If I dwell on every stillborn calf or prolapsed cow, can you imagine how sorrowful calving season would be? If I keep asking “could I have saved that calf, if I had examined the cow sooner?”, how would I ever make it to save the rest? These skills only come with experience.
When things do go wrong, I consider the loss, and think I have about the fact that I have 499 other chances to get this right.
So today I will get out there and do it all again, not knowing what the cows have in store.