A Difficult Delivery

D. E. Larsen, DVM

It was early when the phone rang. I had just stepped out of the shower and hurried to answer it, so Sandy could get a few more minutes of sleep.

“Doc, this is Bob Wilson. You have been out here a couple of times before,” Bob said. “I have a heifer down in the field, and I have to get to work. Do you think you get out here and take care of her this morning?”

“Sure, Bob, I remember your place,” I said. “Is the ground firm enough that I can drive out to where she is located?”

“Yes, it is dry as a bone out here this spring,” Bob said. “I really don’t know what is going on with her. She was fine last night. I haven’t been down there to check her out, but looking at her, she might be calving.”

“The problem, Bob, is sometimes when you think a cow is down, and the vet shows up, she is up and running,” I said. “You don’t want to have to pay for me to chase a cow.”

“Yes, I know that, but this morning I don’t have any choice,” Bob said. “The wife and kids are away visiting her folks, and I can’t miss work this morning. So I am just going to have to risk it.”

“Just so you understand,” I said. “I will get out there as soon as I can this morning. Then, I will either give you a call at work or leave a note for you when I am done.”

•••

I could see the heifer as I drove along the field below the road on the way to Wilson’s house. She definitely looked like she was in labor. And she looked way too young to be delivering a calf.

I got out and opened the gate to the lower pasture, and closed it behind me. I could never bring myself to leave a gate open. My grandfather’s words always rang in my ears. “It is better to close the gate than to wish that you had,” he always said.

I pulled the truck up beside the heifer. She struggled slightly but flopped her head back down when it is evident that she couldn’t get up. 

I got out of the truck and got a rope around her neck, just in case she did get up. Of course, I knew better than to tie a cow to the truck, but I had no other choice in the case.

Once I had her tied, I got a look at the problem. And what a mess we had. She was in labor. The calf’s head and feet were present at the vulva, but obviously, the calf was oversized for this young heifer. But there was more to the story.

The and feet and most of the muzzle on the calf had been eaten away, likely by one or more coyotes. “

I hope that the calf was dead when that happened,” I thought to myself. It must have been gruesome for the heifer to endure the feast and be unable to do anything about it.

I surveyed the far edge of the pasture. There, at the far corner, stood a lone coyote. He was watching the heifer and me, probably hoping for a little more of a breakfast.

I carefully examined her tail and vulva. A couple of bite wounds on her vulva, and the end of her tail were damaged beyond repair.

I scrubbed her up and explored the birth canal. Everything seemed okay. I hooked up my calf puller to the foot legs of the calf and applied a moderate amount of traction. They came along well until the hips contacted the pelvis, and then it was all stop.

According to my training and opinion, a fetotomy was the only acceptable option with a dead calf in hip lock. Using a fetatome, it was a simple chore for me to divide the calf in front of its pelvis with a right-angle cut. Then, stringing the OB wire over the calf’s rump and bringing it out between his legs, the fetal pelvis could be easily divided. Once the cut was accomplished, the hindquarters were pulled out by hand, one quarter at a time. Her membranes followed in a gush. 

I cleaned up the tail wound and injected a little lidocaine for local anesthesia. There was not much tissue left to cut to amputate the tail several inches above the switch. I left the wound open.

I medicated her with some tetracycline powder in her uterus and gave her some long-acting sulfa boluses. Then I gave her a hefty dose of dexamethasone to reduce the inflammation around the nerves in her birth canal and hind legs.

I set her up on her sternum, and she looked much better. I gave her a good slap on the butt, and she tried to get up. Her efforts were not successful, but it showed that she had some function in her hind legs. Hopefully, she would be up by this afternoon.

I was concerned that the coyotes would be back with the calf parts lying next to the heifer. I had never heard of a near-adult loss to coyotes, but if she could not get up, the coyotes might be temped to attack her.

I drug the calf parts about twenty yards off to the side of the field. I wasn’t going to do that to the membranes. 

•••

“Bob, I took care of your heifer,” I said when I called Bob at his office. “It was a real mess. She was down, unable to get up with the calf stuck in the birth canal. Coyotes had eaten the nose and feet off the calf and most of the end of her tail. The calf was dead, and I had to cut him into a few pieces to get him out. She was looking better when I left, but she was not quite able to stand. I am hopeful that by the time you get home, she will be on her feet.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Bob said. “Sounds like a real mess. I will try to get out of here a little early and get home to check on her.”

“I moved the calf parts away from her, just in case the coyotes returned. But I would be best if you disposed of them if she is not up when you get home. Give me a call, and I will run by this evening and check her if she is not on her feet.”

“Do you think she is going to be okay?” Bob asked.

“I think so, Bob,” I said. “When a calf is stuck in the birth canal, the heifer gets some nerve damage. That is often temporary, especially when it is not complicated with a lot of traction. I think that she will be up by the time you are home.”

•••

The heifer was on her feet when Bob got home in the early afternoon, and Bob could get the calf parts buried.

Bob called the county trapper, and they were able to eliminate some coyotes from the farm. It was probably not enough to solve the coyote problem, but enough to make Bob and his wife feel that they had got some justice for the calf.

Photo by Dylan Ferreira on Unsplash

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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