When it comes to livestock, learning curves are often steep…

By FarmingGeorge
23rd June 2022
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As I wrote my last article detailing the dead first calf, followed by a healthy bull calf, I assumed that my calving bad luck should be over.  But how wrong was I!

At the beginning of March on my morning checks I saw that we had a lovely little heifer calf (Jasmine) and noted that both Cow-101 and Cow-81 were due to calve – intriguing since they calved on the same day last year also: obviously very in sync.

Cow-101 began calving in the afternoon, with front hooves visible from the cow’s back end.  Having had the issues a few days prior I was even more anxious than usual.  I returned at one point with the calf half out, and the dam (mother) on her side and straining.  This was another big calf.  I don’t usually like to interfere, but elected to give a very small amount of assistance just using my weight to lean back whilst holding the calf’s hooves when the dam pushed.  A super bull calf was the result (Roquefort).  The cow remained down and prostrate though.  Nervously, and with Mia (my live-in vet!) away on a course, I rang Westpoint vets and spoke to Monique.  Apparently, there are some nerves that run through the birth canal that can become temporarily damaged during a difficult calving, causing paralysis on the underneath leg.  Precisely what had occurred here.

In order to help persuade the dam to get up, I pulled the calf around to her nose so that she could lick it and tried hard to get her up.  I did pop back to the medical store for ten minutes to get her a pain-relieving injection though, and on my return with a bit more coercion, she got up – very unsteady on the nerve damaged leg.  Thankfully Roquefort was soon enough feeding, and her leg got back to full use over the next twelve hours.

Then there was still Cow-81 – showing all the signs, but no hooves.  And as an experienced fourth calver, calving shouldn’t be an issue.  I kept on checking on her, and at 11pm with Mia on the phone, I scrubbed-up and with a lot of lube put my hand into her vagina.  I’ll be honest, this is not something I ever thought I would be doing, and being my first time I had no idea really what I was feeling for.  As far as I could tell I was feeling the closed cervix of the cow (i.e. she wasn’t ready to calve).  So, somewhat satisfied but still concerned, I went back home, had a very thorough wash and left her for the night.

The next morning I went back, fingers firmly crossed that she would have popped out a calf in the night and my worries would be cleared.  But instead, she was still showing all the signs of pushing without any avail.  With Mum’s help I put my hand in again to have a feel and my worst fear was realised – a tail.  The calf was backwards.

I immediately rang the vets, realising that time was of the essence and gutted that Mia was away on her course.

Forty minutes later, Olivia turned up – one year less qualified than Mia, but a really superb vet.  Before she arrived I had taken some cattle hurdles (gates) down to enclose Cow-81 (not that she was looking to go anywhere).  Liv put her hand up and confirmed my belief that the calf was breech. What’s more, the back legs were pointed inside the dam.  The first thing Liv did was (having given a drug which relaxes the muscles) put both hands in and, with a lot of difficulty, manipulate the calf such that the back feet were both out of the cow.  She then put ropes on the hocks of the calf (above the hoof) and we pulled. For about ten minutes.  To no avail.  One hip of the calf just wouldn’t pass through the pelvis of the cow.  It was at this stage that Olivia warned me the calf might well already be dead, and that the only option now was a caesarean.

Suddenly I was thrust into the role of a nurse – certainly not what I had expected when I woke up that morning!  The site on the left side of the cow’s body was injected with a number of syringes of local anaesthetic, and a large 40cm x 40cm square of hair was shaved off with a razor.  The entire site (and then Liv) was scrubbed clean with a thick brownish-yellow liquid and surgery commenced.

First the skin was cut, followed by two layers of muscle – Liv demonstrating exceptional care to ensure she didn’t cut into the rumen (one of the cow’s stomachs). Then there was the uterus.  A large incision was made, and more ropes attached to the calf’s front hooves, then given to me to hoist the calf out of the hole. The calf, as Liv expected, was dead. I set it to one side, and Liv began to stitch her up.  First the uterus, then the two layers of muscle in one lot of stitches, and finally the skin.  An incredibly neat job, which was over remarkably quickly and was very clean with hardly any blood.

At this stage, the wound was sprayed with some blue antibiotic spray, plus she was given pain relief and antibiotics, as well as some oral calcium to help her get her strength back and replenish her low calcium levels.  She then guzzled down several buckets of warm water which Mum trekked down for her.  Unlike the dead calf I wrote of in the last article, I chose to keep the calf with Cow-81 for a while in order for her to understand that the calf had died. Interestingly, she hasn’t made any sound at all calling for her calf.  So I think in the future, where possible in the situation of a dead calf, I will let the dam understand that the calf has died before removing the corpse (not that two cases make for a scientific study!).

This event unsurprisingly led me to a large amount of soul-searching, and I naturally beat myself up about my lack of experience.  With more experience, I think I would have detected the breech calf sooner. However, learning curves are often steep, and I am happy that I at least picked it up early enough to save the cow (who stoically put up with me herding her into a pen over the next four days to give her daily antibiotics and long-acting pain relief every two days). As it happens, breech calves rarely survive in any circumstance.

Some days later the results came back from the lab about the first calf, who had been born dead to Cow-238, and was then post-mortemed by Mia.  I had fully expected the cause to be neospora, but all the tests came back clear, leading to the conclusion that he had died from stressful calving, and I should have interfered and pulled the calf. This was gutting to hear.

My problems still weren’t over though…

One Saturday morning when Mia had gone home for the weekend, I was greeted by two new calves.  It was a glorious sunny day and I felt tickled.  A lovely bull-calf, Wensleydale, and a heifer, Petunia. Wensleydale, despite still being wet from his birth, was merrily at his mum’s udder, but something seemed off with Petunia.  I hadn’t seen her suckle, and on closer inspection her nose and mouth were freezing. It is critical for calves to have colostrum (first milk) ideally in the first six hours, and absolutely within twelve when the receptors in the calf for receiving immunity from the dam via colostrum switch off.  She seemed perky enough, but I wasn’t satisfied.

I carted hurdles down again to make a new pen, and with a lot of swearing finally got Cow-612, the mum, in with the calf.  This cow is one of the ones who aborted through neospora last year, and consequently was over-conditioned – she didn’t have to produce milk for a calf to drink, so put weight on instead.  There is therefore a chance that the birth could have been difficult, and perhaps this was leading to issues with the calf.

I presented the calf to the teat but there was nothing – no desire to suckle whatsoever.  This is known as a dummy calf.  Fretting about the colostrum time issue, I sped in my motor to G & J Staines agricultural shop in Billericay (arriving minutes before closing) and managed to pick up a bottle (complete with fake rubber teat) and rope halter.  On returning home, I milked off a litre of colostrum by hand into the bottle, and tried to get the calf to latch onto the bottle. Still nothing!  Exasperated I spoke to Mia again, who told me to fetch the tube feeder from her kit.  This is a semi-rigid tube, attached to flexible hose, with a zip-lock bag at the top.

With only YouTube as a guide, I held the calf in my legs, sat her up, and gently forced the tube into her oesophagus (food pipe), mostly allowing her to swallow it.I was petrified about accidentally going into the lungs, but it is possible to feel the tube in the throat (which is not the case if you get the trachea!) so I figured it was right and let the litre of milk flow into the calf’s belly.

A few hours later, with the two still penned, but still no suckling, I milked off another litre and tubed her again, before letting the pair out so that the mum could graze and drink.  I hoped that they would figure things out.

A couple of days later, I was still not convinced that Petunia was feeding. Visually she looked quite tucked-up and her tummy didn’t feel full.  I had seen her attempting to suckle, but in all the wrong places (including the cow’s armpits, and the white fluffy tip of her tail!).  With a lot of effort, I penned the dam and calf again and got my milk bottle and tube feeder ready.  With the new halter, I tied the cow to the corner of the pen.  Since Petunia looked like she was now trying to suckle, I guessed she at least should have her suckle reflex.  To help the calf work things out, I then shaved the cow’s tail (making it look very silly indeed), hoping that this would break the habit of suckling that.  I got the milk going in each of the four teats by milking them out a bit.  Then, holding the calf between my legs, I positioned her mouth near the udder and fumbled a teat into her mouth.

And crumbs didn’t she go for it when she worked out where the milk really came from! One teat – drained.  Then the next.  Then another!  Her tummy ballooned, and I felt ecstatic.  At least this calf wasn’t going to die (as had been my fear a couple of days previously).  To be sure, I kept them penned for another few hours and helped get the calf latched on again.  I was relieved to let them both out, and the next morning saw Petunia drinking freely from Cow-612 without any interference.  Phew.

Given the issues I was having, I was worried about two of the cows I had left to calve.  One was an older first-timer, and the other, Cow-619, also lost her calf to a neospora-abortion last year and was as over-conditioned as Cow-612.  Kestrel the bull needed removing from the herd (since the earlier calved cows were getting close to actively cycling, and I didn’t want them being impregnated yet), so I took this opportunity to move a couple of due cows and the bull into a shed where I could keep an eye on them.

Thank goodness I did!

On returning from a day out, I saw that Cow-619 was just beginning labour, with the hooves poking out.  With this season’s salutary lessons ringing loudly in my head, I monitored her carefully, and it was clear that, despite the calf being presented correctly, the cow wasn’t getting on with her labour.  This time Mia was about to lend a hand and instruct me in person.  I tied the calving ropes onto the front legs, and we began to pull.  The cow was lying down, but the aim is to pull in an arc (in a downwards fashion if the cow were standing).  We only pulled when the cow pushed, and after about five minutes of effort were greeted by a lovely little bull calf (Egbert!).

Unfortunately, Eg was afflicted by the same dummy issue of not feeding as Petunia. It feels far too coincidental that both cows had active issues with neospora last year, and I deduce that this lack of a suckle reflex must be something neurological from the neosporosis. The next morning, with time ticking on colostrum, I tubed him but was delighted that by the afternoon he was keen to suckle.

It then transpired that his mum was a bit rubbish and didn’t seem to like having a calf at all – kicking him off the teat each time he latched on, and regularly headbutting him over!  Not the sort of traits you want.  Luckily he was very persistent, and after a few days I felt confident enough that (despite his mum still being poor) he was getting enough food, so I let dam and calf out with the rest of the herd.

Besides March being very busy with livestock, we managed to get all our Spring wheat and lentils in the ground, including a Spring variety of heritage wheat, April Bearded, which I am very excited about.  Hopefully I can keep the pesky slugs at bay; they have been a real nuisance this year.  One additional tool in the slug arsenal turned up this month and we were able to put it instantly to use – a new set of rolls.  Our previous ones were over 25 years old!  The new set are a grass-style ballast roller, featuring large cylinders which can be filled with water to make them heavier – great for squashing slug eggs!  The old style featured a number of separate rings, 22” in diameter and approximately 1.5” wide, which would somewhat contour with the ground with the idea of crumbling the seed bed.  The new rolls should be perfect for where I am moving the farm to now – organic with lots of grass.  Besides consolidating after seeding, the rolls can be used to roll established grassland and Winter-sown cereal crops in the Spring.  The act of rolling makes the plants push out additional shoots (tillers).

I hope that April will be quiet.  There will be a small amount of field work to do, lots of preliminary work for this year’s fencing projects, and too many odd jobs to think about.  But with only one more calving to go, I really hope it is a problem-free one!

Contact details:

George Young

07792 508 611