A Little Bit of Magic Helps Sometimes

D.E. Larsen, DVM

“How long has she been down, Dick?” I asked, standing over a young heifer that had just delivered a calf.

“When I got this afternoon, she had this calf hanging halfway out of her,” Dick said. “The calf was dead, I hooked onto it with the tractor and drug her and the calf around the pasture. On the second time around, we hit a bump, and the calf popped out. When she wasn’t up when I got home after the football game this evening, I figured I had better give you a call.”

“I think you would have been better off if you had called me before hooking up the tractor,” I said. “When I have a calf in a hip lock, and the calf is dead, I cut the calf into a few pieces to get it out without doing any more damage to the heifer. But that is water under the bridge now. Let me check her over, and we can talk about what needs to be done at this point in time.”

“What do you do if the calf is alive?” Dick asked.

“That is my worst nightmare,” I said. “We have a few options today, but it is a nightmare. Decisions are often made based on economics. How much is the calf worth versus how much is the heifer worth.”

“This calf was half Simmental,” Dick said. “They say she would be worth $1200.00. That is a lot more than this $400.00 heifer is worth. Or should I say, was worth.”

“Sometimes, we can manipulate the calf in the birth canal,” I said. “If we can turn the calf 90 degrees, so the hips are up and down in the birth canal instead of across the canal, we can sometimes pop the calf through. If the hips are only slightly too wide, pushing them higher in the birth canal will do the trick. The heifer’s pelvis is wider at the top. Then there is a high-risk procedure for the heifer. If the heifer is young enough, we can split the pelvis’s bottom and get the calf out.”

“That doesn’t sound like fun,” Dick said.

“That is what I was saying,” I said. “It is my worst nightmare. Luckily, we have solved the problem somewhat by measuring the pelvis on the heifers before breeding. That, and people are learning that these big Simmentals don’t make the commercial producer any more money than the standard breeds.

We were in a small pasture on the top of Marks Ridge, overlooking the entire town of Sweet Home. It was quite a view at 10:00 PM, with all the lights shining brightly.

“You have quite a view up here,” I remarked.

“Yes, I really enjoy it,” Dick said. “But it is one hell of a drive to town in the wintertime. The wife worries herself sick about one of the kids killing themselves going down the road in the snow.”

“I guess there are pluses and minuses to any location,” I said.

I cleaned the heifer up and did a vaginal exam. Somewhat to my surprise, there were no vaginal injuries. Her hind legs had really restricted function, however.

“Dick, this heifer has Obturator Paralysis,” I said. “When that calf was stuck at his hips in the birth canal, and then you pulled her out in the manner you did, the obturator nerves were damaged. Those are the main nerves going to the inside muscles of the hind legs.”

“I suppose I have nobody to blame except myself,” Dick said. “Is she going to be alright?”

“Time will tell,” I said. “Some of these cases never get up again. Some get up in the first few days of injury, and some get up after a week or two of working with them. Some veterinarians hoist these cows up with a medieval contraption that clamps on the hips bones. It takes some pressure off the muscles when a cow is down for an extended period. I have never liked those. After a few days, you end up with damage up here on the hip bones.  If these cows are going to walk again, they will do it in a few days. Beyond that time, the odds are not good.”

“What do we do with her tonight?” Dick asked.

“I am going to give her a big dose of magic,” I said.

“That sounds like witchcraft,” Dick said.

“The good thing is we are not long after her injury,” I said. “My magic is in a dose of Dexamethasone. This is a potent steroid, a big anti-inflammatory medication. With a little luck, we can reduce the inflammation around those injured nerves. If we get really lucky, she might be on her feet in the morning.”

“That would be good,” Dick said. “If not, I would guess I should be moving her to get her undercover.”

“Yes, but we have to do that carefully,” I said. “Many of these heifers, that would get up, end up being injured because they are moved around or picked up with all sorts of jury-rigged contraptions. Many times, those injuries end up being fatal. For tonight, we will just leave her here. You give me a call first thing in the morning, and I will run up here and help you move her if she is not up.”

“Well do,” Dick said. “And you need to take it slow going down that hill tonight. There will be some frost on a couple of those corners this time of the year.”

Dick called first thing in the morning. He was in a jovial mood.

“Your magic seems to have done the trick,” Dick said. “That heifer was up waiting at the feed rack when I went out this morning. Thanks for your good work and quick response last night.”

“We got a little lucky,” I said. “What I want you to do now is go out and tape my phone number on the steering wheel of that tractor. Just so you remember to call me before you try to pull another calf with that thing.”

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

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.

9 thoughts on “A Little Bit of Magic Helps Sometimes

  1. This story (and many of your posts, actually) causes me to ponder about the current state of affairs in both vet medicine and ranching. Old ranchers moan about the lack of new large animal vets graduating. At the same time, a drive around the country reveals very few small cow herds left in places like Sweet Home. And with no cows, there are just very very few guys like Dick left. And very few spots for cow doctors.

    Feeling a bit melancholy here.

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    1. I used to say that I lost $100.00 every time I got in my truck. After I quit doing large animals, I realized that the $100.00 figure was low. The old mixed practice model in veterinary medicine doesn’t work anymore. The fees in the clinic cannot be matched on the farm and if there is any significant travel time to the farm the disparity is even greater. I fear there will be a day when there are few cow doctors in Linn County. And nationwide, there is a significant shortage of large animal veterinarians. In some of the big cattle country states there are multiple counties without a cow doctor. It is not all dollars and cents. Some of the highest earning veterinarians are those bovine specialists. But with 90% of graduating veterinary classes being women (and most of those being urban women) things are not going to improve anytime soon. You can’t entice a girl out Beaverton to live in Burns and expect her to enjoy doing C- section on a cow in below 0 temperatures.

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      1. The girls that go to veterinary studies are not all town girls. Though few of them will have been born on a farm, some people really enjoy the life in the country with all it gives and takes.

        Are there fewer bovine factory farming vets now then there were before? Yes. Because, let’s face it, the family farm itself has gone out of business, where treating a cow was the right thing to do, even economically. If you have large cattle factory farming, they run against all that is ethical. Pump up the animals with drugs without medical necessity, cos it is easier and cheaper to do it “in advance” then to do it case by case, where you have to have a closer eye on each cow and have to separate the sick cow from the herd etc. Calling a vet for anything else but mass vaccinations and other routine work disrupts the factory schedule. Which costs them money. That is your demise of the country vet. Not the girls that go into veterinary medicine. (I do not think you are a misogynist, but to think of “town girls” as the main problem in veterinary medicine is at least a little lazy thinking)

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      2. I use the example of a Beaverton girl going to Burns because those two towns are a world apart. Big city to desert town, wet and mild Western Oregon to dry and severe Eastern Oregon. They offer new graduates reduced loans amounts if they serve in underserved areas. The hope is they will stay in those areas. Doesn’t happen, if they go at all, they leave as soon as their contracted time is up. There are a few good female cow doctors, but not enough to make up for the demand in the big cattle country. The lure of small animal practice now days is large. No emergency calls, better pay and better working conditions and not nearly as physical as large animal medicine. The shortage will dictate some changes in the profession. For better ?? or for worse ??

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      3. I have to wonder if there is an opportunity for a new paradigm in large animal vet medicine. Perhaps we could follow the model used in Emergency Medicine for humans. Could you envision a technical training course that would produce paramedic cow “doctors” who were trained to take care of many of the routine challenges on the ranch? Limited drug regimen, some surgeries, dystocia, AI, Greg testing, some basic diagnostics. Maybe a B.S. degree in Animal Science with a year of Cow Doctor school? I would think they would operate with no clinic, no staff, just a service truck. I know one “retired” vet who runs a successful business like this now, mostly because he still enjoys working with cows and cow people.

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      4. There will be some changes in the profession in the future. Just what those changes will be is questionable. University of Az has a new school, they have been trying to get a 5 year program accredited. That is one year prevet and 4 years of vet school. My class in 1975, at CSU, had 8 students that were 2 year prevet students. Those were the last 2 year prevets taken by CSU. Now a few 3 year students but most have a BS or more. I get into trouble with others when I suggest there is little (or no) need for Calculus in the prevet curriculum. “How can you take an x-ray with calculus?” they ask. “Push the damn button,” I say. I think that a specialized Large Animal Vet Tech program with some level of supervision by a veterinarian will one day be the answer. Maybe the supervising Vet will be a University type or something. I don’t know, but it will happen out of need.

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