Wednesday, April 18, 2012

More than winning... borrow a phrase from Tom Osborn

By the time we’d gently teased an exhausted 005 heifer into the calving barn, I’d lost nearly all hope of saving the calf, and was beginning to wonder whether we’d even save the cow. As she stood there in the obstetric pen, head secured by the head catch but hanging very low, I mentally kicked myself. Why had I waited so long?

Her breathing was rapid but very shallow. She stared at a fixed point on the straw in front of her nose and wouldn’t even follow my boot tip with her eyes. She seemed to be quietly resigned to her fate.

At the other end things looked even worse. A pair of enormous hooves protruded from the birth canal, and eight incredibly long inches of cold, lifeless calf tongue. I began to wonder whether we’d better off calling the vet right now and getting the heifer into town for a fetotomy – the procedure which will likely save the cow’s life but leaves the dismembered corpse of the dead calf scattered across the cold concrete of the veterinary working pen.

As I felt the sadness and despair rise in my heart my mind went back over the preceding hours. The heifer started calving at 10:30 when she expelled her bag of waters. At the same time, her sister heifer 006 was doing the same thing a few hundred yards away. I watched them both on and off for about three hours while running back and forth, clearing up a slate of piddly little chores.

About 1:30 p.m. 006 delivered her first baby, a huge, gray bull calf. Since the heifers had been exposed to Lowline Angus heifer bulls, her calf should have been little and black. But a pair of neighbor bulls had paid the heifers a visit one day last July, and one of them was obviously the sire. The little 006 heifer had had a hard labor and didn’t get up for almost an hour. But she did get up and mothered her new baby, so everything was fine in that part of the EJE world.
A first-calf heifer with her unexpectedly large calf on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.

On the other hand, 005 was having a harder go of it. Time and again she would have the front feet of her calf expelled and be right on the edge of delivering the head. But then she’d stop pushing, get up and sniff around, then lay back down and start again. After five or six cycles, we decided to get her in an pull the calf.

Once she was in position and the obstetrical chains were in place the first part of the pulling went well. With a fairly mild tug the head, shoulders and chest popped out, and surprising me greatly, the half-delivered calf began to bawl.

The calf’s bawling was both a relief and a prod. He was alive, which was great, but he needed to get out of there sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately, he became hip locked, and after a bit more pulling the cow lay down on her left side. This put the calf on his left side, so he was twisted at the hips in the birth canal. After getting him turned around and with a bit more pulling, he finally slipped out.

He was gigantic, and a bull calf. I released the cow from the head gate and pulled the calf around so she could see and smell him. She was obviously interested, but also obviously exhausted.

We left the pair alone for a bit and went and had supper. After two hours the cow was still down but had shifted around several times and was half-heartedly licking and nuzzling her new calf. She couldn’t get up yet, though she tried. She was quite weak and uncoordinated in her rear end and almost certainly had a bit of birth-trauma nerve damage. The calf needed nourishment, though, so we milked her out and tubed the calf with it’s first meal of colostrum, then left the pair for the night.

In the morning they were both up, the calf nursing hungrily and the cow contentedly licking and nuzzling her new charge. The cow had some lingering nerve damage from the difficult birth, but she’s been getting better each day and is almost back to normal as I write this on Monday.
Three days after a tough delivery, heifer 005 stands placidly chewing her cud in the calving barn on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.

This big bull calf seems to have survived his tough birthing experience just fine.

In retrospect, I’d have liked to been quicker in making the decision to pull the calf. The big front feet were a warning sign, and so was the difficult birth experienced by her herd-mate 006. Likewise, the oh-so-close but not quite successful attempts 005 went through should have prompted me to get her in.

On the other hand, 006 did have a normal, though difficult, parturition. And a normal, unassisted delivery is best for both cow and calf. You can also do a lot of harm to both the calf and the cow by forcing things too soon.

But there’s a point – and it varies in each case – when assistance becomes necessary to save the calf and keep the cow in the best shape possible. I’m afraid I delayed too long in this case and got lucky. But I’ll take lucky. And I’ll file this experience away for future reference.

A big part of the rancher’s job is to select the correct cows and bulls for the breeding herd, and then stay out of the way at calving time and let nature work as intended. When intervention is needed, it’s vital to have the skills, knowledge and equipment to assist the cow properly. Paradoxically, there’s great satisfaction in watching your cows calve naturally every year, but there’s enormous joy in being able to pull off successful intervention. It’s a little like snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, to use a trite sports metaphor. And to use another, less trite and perhaps more meaningful, it’s more than winning.

1 comment:

  1. Dang, that brought back a lot of memories... 500 first calf heifers and few bred the way they were said to be...