Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — A Tight Squeeze

A couple of years ago, Rishira, a 13-year-old crossbred cow, was one of the last to calve. She was very restless one afternoon, and I was sure she was in early labor, so I put her in the calving pen. She continued to be restless but never progressed to obvious labor. She wasn’t acting normal — still restless — so we kept her in the pen all night, where I could check on her periodically from the house, using a spotlight through the window. By 5:30 a.m. she seemed more uncomfortable, so we put her in the barn to calve, since the weather had turned windy and cold. By daylight she still hadn’t gone into active labor, so we put her back out in the calving pen where she would be easier to watch.

Rishira has always been a fast and easy calver, but this time there was something wrong; she was having contractions and getting up and down but never started straining. Finally, my husband and I took her to the pen in front of the barn and put her in the head catch so we could check her. Lynn reached into the birth canal and found the cervix wide open; Rishira was definitely calving. But the calf was still way down in the uterus, and he could hardly reach it. He couldn’t get hold of the feet.
We called one of the local veterinarians, Jeff Hoffman, and he drove out to our place. With his longer arm he determined the problem: Rishira had a uterine torsion. The uterus had rotated, making a twist in the tissues that made it impossible for the calf to come into the birth canal.

Veterinarian Jeff Hoffman has shaved Rishira's flank
and is preparing to cut an incision through the skin,
into the abdomen.

Jeff told us he’d have to do a C-section to get the calf out. We mentioned that we were a little leery about doing that because another vet had tried to do a C-section on one of our young cows that had a uterine torsion about 20 years ago, and even though we saved the calf, the cow bled to death soon after. Doing a C-section on a misplaced uterus is more risky than a routine surgery; there’s more strain on the blood vessels because of the twist, and they are also not in their usual place. We asked Jeff if it would be possible just to cut a slit in Rishira’s side, reach in, and turn the uterus back over to its proper position so we could pull the calf. That’s what our old vet did, one dark, cold night 40 years ago when we had our first experience with a uterine torsion—in an ornery old Black Angus cow named Pandora.
Jeff decided to give that a try, and it worked; he was able to reach in through the cow’s side and heave on the uterus to turn it over; then we pulled the calf, a nice black heifer. We put the calf in front of Rishira, next to the head catcher, so she could lick it while Jeff sewed up the slit in her side.

We put the calf in front of Rishira . . .

. . . so she could lick it while Jeff stitched up the slit in her flank.

Mama and baby did fine, but 4 days later Rishira’s incision started draining a little pus and fluid from the lower end. We called Jeff, and he recommended that we give her more antibiotics, so we tried to put her in the head catch to give her the injections. Rishira had other ideas. No way was she going in there again! Not after suffering the pain and indignity of having her side cut open and stitched up! We tried putting her calf through the head catch in front of her, but she was too smart for that and wouldn’t follow the calf.

The incision was healing, but there was some drainage from
the bottom of it, so she needed more antibiotics.

We finally took her and the calf around to our main corral to run her down the alley to our squeeze chute. When we got to the alley, we tried to get in front of the calf and turn it back so it wouldn’t go down the chute, but we’re older and slower than we used to be, and the little calf darted right down the chute. Lynn was afraid the cow might squish the calf or step on it, so he ran down the chute after the calf, and Rishira came right behind him.

Mama and baby were doing fine . . .

. . . but we needed to put Rishira in the chute one more time.

I ran to the squeeze chute to open the tailgate and let Lynn and the calf in, to get away from the cow, hoping to then close the tailgate in her face. But she was too quick for me. She was right on Lynn’s heels (he could feel her hot breath on his back), and she barged right through the tailgate as I tried to pull it shut.

It all happened so quickly there was no way to save Lynn from being squashed. Rishira charged right past him, jamming him into the side of the squeeze chute and spinning him around. I yelled in the cow’s ear and got right in her face, and miraculously, she backed up (again spinning and crunching Lynn against the side of the chute because there really wasn’t room in there for all three of them!), and I got the tailgate closed. Then I let Lynn and the calf out the front. Rishira was very upset and worried about her calf and was ramming the tailgate with her head, so as soon as I let them out the front, I let her back in, and we caught her in the squeeze chute.

Luckily, she hadn’t stepped on the calf or knocked Lynn down. She’d squashed and scraped his arm pretty badly against the angle iron on the back side of the squeeze as she knocked him aside and rolled him around between her big body and the side of the chute. Fortunately, the pressure didn’t break his elbow. His arm was bleeding, and he was sore, but he didn’t think anything was broken. So we went ahead and gave Rishira the antibiotics and checked her stitches, making sure there was adequate drainage at the bottom stitch.

Rishira healed up nicely after her second round of
antibiotics, and her calf was growing well.

The drainage stopped after a few days, and Rishira healed up fine over the next several weeks. Lynn took longer to heal; he soon discovered that she’d cracked or broken several ribs when she jammed his lower arm against his chest. Those ribs bothered him all spring and summer. He sometimes still has a bit of discomfort if he lies on that side—a continual reminder that three is a crowd in a squeeze chute!
P.S. Rishira, now 15 years old, is still in our herd and recently had her 14th calf, a little heifer that our youngest granddaughters (ages 6 and 8) named Merry Mary.

Rishira this past winter, getting ready to have her 14th calf

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.


Mimi Foxmorton said...


Animals. They are truly a gift from the Universe.......

Thanks for sharing.


Anonymous said...

Wow, this is an awesome story. I really enjoyed it and would love to see more like it.

I have a similar issue in childbirth... my uterus gets so tilted that the baby can't be born. I have to get on my knees, drop my shoulders and head so that the uterus will slide back far enough that the midwife can reach the cervix with a hooked finger and pull it forward. It then has to be held in place while I push through a contraction and the baby's head pushes tight against the cervical opening. Once this happens, the cervix will stay put.

The first time we did this it was because of a story about a farmer friend aligning the cervix of his cow so she could birth! It worked for me as well... and has for 5 births!