This is the story of our first experience with a relatively rare calving problem. I didn’t take any photos during that adventure. In those early days of our ranching venture, I didn’t take very many pictures with my old box camera. The only photo I have for this story is one that was taken a year or two after this episode — of Pandora and one of her other calves.
This story begins on a very cold day in January 1972. Pandora was calving. She was an independent-thinking, temperamental Black Angus cow, a daughter of old Molly — a wicked old cow who deserves a whole story of her own sometime. Pandora was pacing the fence in the maternity pasture, so we put her in a calving pen and watched and waited. Nothing happened. She became more restless and upset, madder and madder, but no calf appeared. Day faded into evening.
After several hours of Pandora's pacing the corral and trying to get out, with her labor pains becoming more and more serious — with no results — we resigned ourselves to the unpleasant fact that we would have to catch her and check to see what was holding up the birth process. We’d put it off as long as possible because she was not a gentle cow, but now we could delay it no longer. Something was very wrong.
We didn’t want to tie her up. She was the type of cow that can pivot and jump around so fast (even with her head tied to a post) that she could injure the person trying to check her, creating a crack-the-whip effect and banging you into the fence first on one side and then the other, if you could keep up with her that long. So we ran her down our lane to a head catcher — and caught her head with great good luck the second try. She ran right through it the first time. This was our “cow checking and cow milking” chute; it was much better than the squeeze chute, for these purposes.
With her head caught and me holding her tail tightly to one side in this chute, she had much less room to dance around while my husband Lynn checked her. The calf was still alive, but no feet had come through the cervix yet. The legs seemed twisted around. We called our veterinarian, Dr. Pete South, and even though it was now 11:30 at night and he’d just gotten home from a party (and was in the bathtub), he agreed to come right away.
(a heifer named Pandamonium), a few years after her trouble delivering Torque.
It was a nasty, dark, cold night, about 8 degrees with a wind blowing — so the wind chill factor made it well below zero. We used our jeep lights and a flashlight to provide illumination, since there was no yard light in that part of our barnyard. I held the flashlight in one hand and Pandora’s protesting tail in the other as Pete checked the cow and diagnosed the problem as torsion of the uterus.
Due to an overactive calf (moving just wrong as the cow is getting up or down with her belly suspended and swinging) or to the cow’s fighting other cows (bouncing around), the uterus had flipped over and put a corkscrew twist in the cervix, making it impossible for the calf to come through. When Pete told us the probable reasons for torsion, we figured Pandora might have flipped her uterus while fighting, since she was always fighting other cows.
Torsions can be mild, less than 180 degrees, or a full 360 degrees. Pandora’s was 360-plus. True to her name, whenever she got into trouble, she always did it big-time. Pandora was the mythical character who opened the box and let all the troubles out into the world, remember?
When we told Pete the cow’s name, he chuckled and said that all she needed was to have her box straightened out, so he set about doing that. He cut a slit in her left side and reached his arm inside her abdomen — and began heaving. He got the big heavy uterus swinging, then with some massive heaves turned it over to where it was supposed to be, undoing the twist in the cervix.
Pandora’s box took a large effort to turn over. She was a big cow, with a big crossbred calf inside her uterus — and he was also a very stubborn fellow. Calf, placenta, uterus, and fluids altogether weighed well over 100 pounds. But Pete’s strong arm and good-humored determination eventually got the job done.
Once the torsion was corrected, we were able to help Pandora deliver the calf. She needed help now, even though the calf was finally in proper position, because with the slit in her side she was unable to push effectively. Each time she strained, air just rushed through the hole in her side; she couldn’t create much pressure. So we pulled the big crossbred (Angus-Hereford) calf, and put him into the barn, out of the wind. Pete sewed up the cow and we put her in the barn stall to mother her calf. She licked him vigorously and got him dry, but we had to help by thawing his ears.
As usual, Pandora didn’t appreciate our efforts. But she was very glad to have her baby at last, and Pete chuckled again when I told him I was going to name this calf Torque. Torque grew up to be one of our biggest and best steers that fall, so we were glad we were able to save him — glad that Pete got Pandora’s box straightened out.
Torsion of the uterus is not very common. At that point in time, early in our cattle-raising experience, we had never heard of it. Pete told us that he usually dealt with only about six cases a year in our county — out of about 35,000 cows. With those percentages we didn’t know if we’d ever have another case in our small herd, but over the 40 years since Pandora, we’ve had two other torsions, and our son has also had a couple of cases in his cows. Thanks to Pandora and her box of troubles, however, we were able to readily diagnose the problem and knew what to do about it.
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.