The Terrible Breech, From the Archives

D. E. Larsen, DVM

“Doc, this is Peter, out on Brush Creek,” Peter says on the phone. “I have been working on trying to pull this calf for two hours now. I am not getting anywhere. Do you have time to run out here and give me a hand?”

“Sure, I can come right away,” I said. “You caught me just at the right time. What is going on with her.”

“This morning, I noticed her with her tail up and sort of standing around a little odd,” Peter said. “When I ran her into the barn and got her tied up, I saw this tail hanging out of her. I cleaned her up like you always do and started working. There is just this butt of the calf in the birth canal. I can’t get ahold of anything.”

“Sounds like you have a calf in a full breech position,” I said. “I should be able to take care of that with little problem. At this point in time, almost all of these calves are dead. I mention that just so you know. When the calf is in a full breech, there is nothing to engage the cervix. The cow doesn’t usually go into hard labor for a day or sometimes two.”

“I can understand that,” Peter said. “But we have to get it out of there. I would guess you might have to do a C-section.”

“That all depends. Most of the time, I can get the hind legs up and just pull the calf. If not, I usually do a fetotomy. I don’t like to do a C-section on a dead calf unless there is no other option.”

“I have her in the barn. There is no need to stop at the house,” Peter said.

Peter and his young son, Tom, were waiting at the barn door when I pulled up in my truck. Peter was in his late 40s and usually looked too well dressed to be a rancher. Today, that was not the case. His hat was sitting crooked on his head, and it failed to conceal his uncombed hair. He had a swab of blood and mucus across his forehead. Both sleeves of his shirt were bloodied to his shoulders.

“Tom, it looks like your dad has been working hard this morning,” I said.

“He is pretty tired,” Tom said.

“I don’t know how you guys do it?” Peter said. “I have been at this for two hours, and the only thing I have accomplished is to wear myself out.”

“There are a few tricks to learn,” I said. “The most important thing to learn in bovine obstetrics is to set a clock on yourself. If you haven’t accomplished anything in 20 minutes, you need to do something else. That means you should have called me about an hour and a half ago.”

“That’s what Mom said,” Tom said.

“Well, that is enough of the storytelling. Let me get a look at what we have going on,” I said.

Working on a cow that the owner has struggled with for two hours has its own set of hazards. The untrained hands can do all sorts of damage. I have seen ruptured uteruses, broken legs on the calves, and gross contamination of the whole track. That meant I had to check for all of that first, or it would fall on my shoulders.

“I see you have her cleaned up well. That is a good thing.”

“I have watched you before,” Peter said. 

I washed the cow one more time and ran my hand into her vagina. The vagina and what uterus I could easily reach were intact. The calf’s rear end sort of worked like a cork in the birth canal. I stuck a finger in its rectum. No response; this was a dead calf.

“The calf is dead like I explained on the phone,” I said.

“How did you determine that so fast?” Peter asked.

“I stuck my finger in his butt. If he was alive, he would have responded to that. No response equals a dead calf.”

I ran my hand down under the calf. I could reach the hocks with no problem. Peter had stretched out the birth canal in his earlier efforts. I had no trouble getting down and grabbing a cannon bone. With a firm grip on the middle of the cannon bone, I pushed the hock forward to provide room to pull the hoof up into the birth canal. In one motion, I pulled the leg back, and the foot popped out of the vulva. I quickly reached in and repeated the process on the second leg. Now it was a simple extraction in posterior presentation.

“Doc, you embarrass me,” Peter said. “I have been working on her for two hours, and you come along and have the feet out in two minutes, and that includes time for some idle conversation.”

“It is just a matter of knowing a few tricks of the trade,” I said. “Give me a hand. I think we can pull this guy out of here with no problem.”

Tom was quick to jump in to help. At twelve, he was getting strong enough to consider himself almost a man. With the two of us, we quickly pulled the calf. It flopped lifelessly on the ground, and the membranes followed with a splatter of fluid. Tom jumped back, trying to avoid the mess, but it was too late. His pant legs were covered with fluid and mucus.

“One more lesson for today,” I said. “You always want to go back and check the cow. You check for another calf, and you check for any injury to the birth canal. Today, because you worked on her for so long, I will put some antibiotics into that uterus. That probably makes me feel better than it does her any good. Whatever I put in will drain out in a couple of hours.”

I finished up and cleaned up, and we turned the cow out.

“You want to watch her closely for a day or two. Just in case she develops an infection in her uterus.”

“And Tom, it was a good experience for you to be surprised by that splash of fluid. When I was in the delivery room with our first baby, I was surprised at the gush of blood that came with the membranes.”

Tom didn’t say anything but looked at his pant legs with a frown.

“Can I put another calf on her?” Peter asked.

“Sure, most cows will take another calf,” I said. “If you have an orphan or buy one at the sale. There are all sorts of tricks. Keep them in a small pen for a few days. Maybe take the skin off that dead calf’s back and tie it around the new calf, or smear the new calf with the membranes.”

“I will give it a try,” Peter said. “And thanks, Doc. You are good at the things that you do.”

Photo by Erik Mclean 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.

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