Fetotomy on Whiskey Butte

D. E. Larsen, DVM

Jack had called first thing in the morning. He had a wild little heifer with a calf half hanging out of her. His directions sent me over the top of Whiskey Butte into some country I had not been through before. By the time I made the turn to his place, I was close to Cascadia. It would have been quicker to have come up the river on the highway.

Jack was talking from the moment I stepped out of the truck. He wanted me to know he could take care of this if he wasn’t so damn old. He also wanted me to know that he didn’t think much of that last vet he had out here from Albany.

“That guy was afraid of cows,” Jack said. “He didn’t even look at her, just handed me a little medicine and told me to give her a shot. Charged me forty dollars for nothing. Why I would shoot her before I called that guy again.”

We stood at the edge of the corral, and I flinched as the heifer charged the fence. Jack was watching me with a wary eye. It didn’t look like we were going to get much accomplished standing here watching her. I started over the fence with my lariat in hand. Jack stood by, watching, with a sly smile on his face.

Jack was a big man, standing well over six feet and weighing close to three hundred pounds.  His large belly would shake when he laughed. Jack had a large pointed nose and thinning grey hair topped his weathered face.

“I have a squeeze chute, but it is at the corral in the lower meadow,” Jack said, in a voice that matched his size.

I swatted the heifer on the nose with the lariat as she charged the fence as I was climbing down. That changed her attitude enough to allow me to get on the ground and throw a quick loop over her head. I took a wrap around the nearest post and slid out to the end of the rope. I snubbed her close to the post. Jack was watching open-mouthed as I reached through the fence for the second rope. I put the second rope on the heifer with a loop across her nose to fashion a halter. She was already choking herself on the rope around her neck. I tied her with the second rope giving her ample slack if she needed to lay dow. Then I released the tension on the first rope.

With her safely tied, I jumped back across the fence for my equipment.

“My God, where did you learn to handle cows like that, Doc?” Jack gasps as I hauled my OB bag and bucket over the fence.

“It just comes from growing up around them,” I said. “I get surprised by one every once in a while, but most of the time, I know what they are going to do before they do it.”

This heifer had a dead calf hanging halfway out of her. She was actually in pretty good shape, considering this calf had been hip locked for most of the morning.

“What are you going to do, just yard it the rest of the way out?” Jack asked as I started cleaning up the heifer. “I used to just hook on to em with a tractor and pull em out,” Jack continued. “If that’s the only thing you can do, I know some of em never get up again.”

“No, Jack. This calf is long since dead, there is no sense making it any harder on her than necessary. We are going to do this the easy way,” I explained.

Jack is quiet, thoughtful, rubbing his chin as he ponders what I am up to.

“So what are you figuring to do, Doc?” Jack finally asked as I begin assembling the fetatome.

“This rig here, that looks like a little Trombone is a fetatome. I am going to use it to cut this dead calf into several pieces so we can get it out of there without damage to the heifer,” I explain.

Jack is quiet, but quite watchful now. I thread a length of OB wire through the tubes of the fetotome, leaving a large loop hanging from the front end of the fetatome. I worked the loop over the head the feet of the dead calf and worked it down to the mid-abdomen. 

I ran the fetatome along the side of the calf to the leading edge of the hip bones. Then I hooked the T handle on the side of the fetatome to the chains on the front feet. This would hold the end of the fetotome in position as I made the right angle cut through the calf’s body.

Jack’s son Gene arrived just in time to lend a hand with the sawing.

“This will work a lot better if you can give me a hand with the saw as I hold the fetotome in position,” I say to Gene as I encourage him to climb into the corral.

After getting everything in position, I clamp the handles on the OB wire and instruct Gene on how to saw with long, slow, but strong strokes.

Holding the end of the fetotome against the calf’s hip to stabilize it, Gene starts sawing with the OB wire. The heifer has been pretty still through all of this. Concentrating on pulling against the rope tying her to the fence. The OB wire makes a rapid cut through the calf, and the front part of the body falls out of the heifer in short order. Gene is not prepared for that event and drops the handles as he moves to the far corner of the corral.

“Don’t take off on me now,” I kid Gene. “The real mess is still to come. We still have to the hips out,” I explain.

“I’m O.K,” Gene replies.

Jack snickers, enjoying the whole scene.

“I’m still not sure how you’re going to get the butt out,” Jack says. 

“Well, I’m going to split the thing in two, Jack, and it will slide right out,” I explain as I tie the OB wire to a long OB chain. I had the chain in a bunch in my left hand, and I reach in passing my hand over the rump of the calf. My arm is into the heifer to my armpit. I drop the chain over the back of the calf, reach along the belly between the hind legs, fishing for the chain. Finally, my fingers find it. I retrieve it pulling it out between the calf’s legs. I pull the chain out with the trailing OB wire around the rear end of the calf. I quickly thread the fetotome and position the front end of it against the severed end of the calf’s backbone.

“O.K. Gene, here we go again!” I say.

Gene begins sawing as I hold the fetotome. This is a difficult cut, cutting through a lot more bone. But the bone is soft, and after a brief rest by Gene, the OB wire slides through the last of the fetal pelvis. I removed the fetotome, reached in with my left hand, and pulled out one leg and half of the pelvis. When I pulled the second half out, the fetal membranes followed with a gush.

“I’ll be damned,” Jack said, shaking his head. “I been around cows my whole life, I’ve heard about this kind of stuff, but I never seen it before.”

I cleaned the heifer up and placed 5 grams of Tetracycline powder into her uterus. Then I gave her a dose of extended-release sulfa boluses. I knew that when we turned her loose, it would be some time before she let anybody on this ranch catch her.

“She should be fine,” I told Jack as I turned her loose. “You might want to send her down the road, Jack. She won’t provide you any production for another year.”

“Aw, she’s a big heifer, she’ll be fine next year,” Jack said.

From that day on, Jack would always tell everyone within earshot about my ability to handle cows and how I cut that dead calf out of that heifer, not hurting her a bit in the process. He always spoke in a loud voice and seemed unaware of who might hear him. He proved to be one of my best advertisers, often calling to me in his loud distinctive voice across crowded restaurants or meeting halls.

It never failed; right after the greeting, he would start explaining to anybody close to him.

“Best damm vet I ever did see. I tell you what, you should see him handle a cow. I had the wildest cow ever trying to have a calf, and he just crawled down into that corral and roped and tied her just like that,” he would say, snapping his fingers. And in a voice about as loud as the greeting.

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

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