My Calf Needs a Little Repair

D. E. Larsen, DVM

“Doc, I think I have a calf that needs a little repair,” Larry said into the phone.

“What is the problem Larry,” I asked?

“One of the hind legs is not working quite right. I think it is broken. The cow was having a problem getting it out. She got out into the oak grove up here and was twisting around and slammed it into one of those big oak trees. Is that fixable?”

“That depends, Larry. Where is the break located?”

“I think it is the thigh bone,” Larry said.

“Tell me about this calf, Larry. Sometimes the best medical decision is not necessarily the best financial decision.”

“He is a nice looking bull calf, a half Simmental, but just a market animal,” Larry said.

“The thigh bone is not very amendable to a splint like we used on the front leg of that heifer of yours a couple of years ago. That leaves a surgical repair. My guess is the Vet School in Corvallis would love to repair it, but you will have to sell him and several of his friends to cover the expense.”

“Do you think you could fix him,” Larry asked?

“Well, bring him down to the clinic, and I will get a look at him. If we cut a few corners and get lucky, I might be able to fix him. I need to know if this kind of a repair is a viable option at this clinic anyway. At least we can try. I could maybe split the profits with you.”

The calf was a healthy newborn that was over 100 pounds. He was a bit of a handful, but with several sets of hands, we could get him under anesthesia with a mask.

After he was under anesthesia, I could do a good exam. His left femur had a mid-shaft fracture.

“Larry, this feels like a clean break, but without taking x-rays, it will depend on what we find in there. I am planning to place a couple of pins in this bone, and if we are lucky, this guy will walk out of here.”

“Do your best. That is all I can expect,” Larry said. 

“Plan on picking him up a little after noon, this surgery won’t take long, and he will recover pretty quickly,” I said.

We prepped the leg and draped it for surgery. I made a lateral approach to the femur with no problem. 

“I am planning to use both of those large quarter inch intramedullary pins,” I explained to Ruth.

“Wow! Why two pins,” she asked?

“This guy isn’t going to lay around for a few weeks. He is going to be up following Mom and gaining weight daily. We will try to get Larry to keep her in the barn for the first few days, but that is a bit of a two-edged sword. It will reduce his activity, but the incision will be kept cleaner out in the pasture. This repair has to be strong enough to support that activity. By stacking two pins side by side, we provide enough strength to hold the weight, and they will control any rotation at the fracture site.”

Once exposed, the fracture was a simple transverse fracture with no splintering of the bone. I placed both IM pins retrograde in the upper fragment, pushing them out through the top of the bone at the hip.

With the two pins in position and ready to be pushed into the distal fragment, I brought the fractured ends together and drove the first pin into place. When I finished seating the second pin, I was pleasantly surprised at how stable the fracture site was when I manipulated the leg.

“I think this is going to work pretty well,” I said to Ruth. “Now I just need to close this up and wake this guy up.”

The closure went well, and we recovered the calf in the large dog kennel.

“He is going be a lot bigger when we take those pins out in six weeks,” Ruth said.

“My guess is there is not going to be any taking those pins out. This guy will grow so much, those pins will be buried in the bone. That is probably a good thing because anesthesia is a much bigger problem in an older calf than in a newborn.”

“Why is that,” Ruth asked?

“In six weeks, this guy will have a rumen that is starting to function.  He will have to be starved out for 24 or 48 hours before anesthesia. Then we will need to use an endotracheal tube rather than just a mask. Not to speak of the fact that he will be much larger and harder to get on that table.”

The calf was on his feet when Larry returned to pick him up. 

“He looks pretty good, Doc. Better than I expected,” Larry said.

“If we can keep him restricted for a few days, that would be ideal. But if he can’t be in a clean stall, a small pasture would be better.”

“Yea, I think I can put him and his Mom in the small orchard behind the house for a time. That way, I can watch him better, and they won’t have to deal with the rest of the calves.”

“The other thing, Larry, those pins we put in this bone are going to stay there. When it comes time to slaughter this guy, you need to remember to tell the butcher that those pins are there. Otherwise, he is going to be pretty pissed when he runs his ban saw into them.”

The calf did exceptionally well. I stopped by a couple weeks later and took the sutures out, and you couldn’t tell anything had happened to the leg except for the incision. 

“I think you can turn them out with the herd and treat him like any other calf,” I said. 

The calf grew normally and became a fine market steer. He was close to 1100 pounds when he went to slaughter. And Larry brought the femur in to show me. The butcher had boned it out and carefully cut around it in the middle to expose the pins. Larry probably still has that bone and pins.

Photos by Larry Coulter

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.

2 thoughts on “My Calf Needs a Little Repair

    1. In my surgeries, most pins were removed. They are placed in the medullary cavity, inside the bone. In this case, the bone grew enough in length that the ends of the pins, that remained exposed during surgery, were no longer exposed.

      Liked by 1 person

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