Yesterday we had to assist with a heifer for the first time. It was a learning experience all around, which I guess is what people say when things don’t go as well as they should.
Like all emergencies, this one actually began its course long before.
This heifer was not supposed to have been bred when she was. I bought her as a 13-month old last winter and didn’t get back home with her until the middle of the night. I unloaded her into the pasture with the other females and a loan 6-month old bull calf that was still nursing. I figured that I would separate that calf the next morning. I have since figured out that the weaning was about 12 hours too late.
In that small window of time, a number of things had to go perfectly (or perfectly awry, from my perspective). The bull had to be old enough and physiologically mature enough to do the job. I thought, obviously incorrectly, that he was too young. The heifer had to be in heat as well. She was showing some signs of heat, but it’s really hard to tell on an animal that has just traveled across the country and I attributed what I was seeing to travel stress. Again, I was wrong.
The next morning I removed the bull calf for weaning and the new heifer settled in nicely with the rest of the girls.
Fast forward 8 months…
The heifer was obviously heavy-bred, meaning that she was due soon. It was now October. My thoughts were basically, “Dammit.”
There were a couple of problems I could foresee coming. First, the heifer was bred 6 months before I intended her to be and although she has good size for a heifer she was not as big or mature as she would have been with another 6 months of growth on her. Second, the bull calf that impregnated her is not a low-birth weight bull like our other bull, the one I had intended to use on her and that I ran her with over the summer for a spring 2016 calf. Above-average calf size and young heifers are not a good combination.
So I backtracked to the date of the cow crime, circled the due date on the calendar, and began to watch the heifer carefully.
The due date came and went.
Two more weeks passed.
I began to think, “Maybe she’s not really due until spring and she’s just showing a lot of udder development.”
‘Twas not to be.
I came home from work to a heifer in the middle of a prolonged birth experience.
The calf was stuck.
First I inspected the calf. It was oriented correctly, at least the front end. The front feet were pointed in the right way and the nose and mouth were out of the birth canal. Sadly, it looked like the calf was dead. The tongue was still and the calf was not breathing. The heifer was cooperative, possibly due to sheer exhaustion.
I tried hand-pulling the calf, in rhythm with the heifer’s contractions. It would not budge. At all.
Luckily Lindsey and Tyler, a student from our high school, were both around. I grabbed them for help and brought a set of calf pulling chains, a rope and come-along, and the tractor, just in case.
I tried the calf pulling chains first, sliding them around the front feet of the calf. I placed my feet on the heifer’s rump to brace myself and pulled on the chains, again in rhythm with the heifer’s contractions. Still the calf would not move an inch. The head, neck, shoulders, and entire rear portion of the calf’s body were stubbornly stuck inside the heifer.
At this point, the calf had still shown no signs of life. My focus now began to solely be about getting the calf our and saving the heifer.
I ditched my gloves, rolled my sleeves up, and stuck my hand in the birth canal feeling around and searching for the source of the problem. I couldn’t make it to the back legs; I couldn’t get my hand past the calf’s shoulders. It was too tight.
So we attached the calf pulling chains to the rope and come-along, attached that to the loader on the tractor, and tried to pull the calf out using the come-along. No movement.
We reset the equipment and tried again.
At this point I’m trying not to panic. It’s getting really dark. The calf is obviously dead and not moving out of the birth canal. The heifer is exhausted. We’ve got to get this calf out.
So I hop on the tractor and ever so slowly start reversing it away from the heifer. The heifer starts to slide along the ground towards the tractor. Tyler and Lindsey basically hop behind the animal and throw all of their strength and weight against the heifer to stop the sliding and provide more resistance.
Finally the shoulders come free.
I stop the tractor and run up to the heifer to feel around inside for the calf’s back feet again. I don’t want to pull any more without them being in the right position. If they were pointed down we could really hurt the heifer. Thankfully the back feet were perfectly positioned. The calf was in position all along. It was just a very big calf in a young heifer.
Satisfied everything was in the right spot, I jumped back on the tractor and Lindsey and Tyler took up their positions at the back of the heifer. This time, the calf finally came free. I gave Tyler and Lindsey big thanks and let them go.
I inspected it by checking for breath and pupil response, but it was dead and had been for some time. I quickly turned my attention to the exhausted heifer.
She had me worried. She didn’t seem to be able to even sit up on her own. For 15 minutes she would lay still and periodically try to sit up.
I realized that we had her back pointing downhill. I’ve heard/read/something that cows can’t always. Get up if their backs are pointed downhill, so I grabbed her front hooves and spun her around. That’s a little harder than that sentence made it sound, but it solved the problem. The heifer was able to sit up.
I brought her a 5-gallon bucket with water and a kelp/vitamin B/electrolyte concoction we use when an animal is stressed. She was very thirsty and downed the whole bucket in a moment. So I brought her another, of plain water this time. She downed that, too. So the individual bucket brigade continued. The third bucket she didn’t finish, so I sat down and waited with her for a while to see if she would or could get up.
After about an hour, she made an attempt. She almost acted like her back leg was asleep, which would have been understandable. She laid back down.
Satisfied that she was looking better and was at least fighting, I left her be for an hour as I finished chores in the dark and got a bite of supper. After eating, I came back to check on her and she had gotten up and moved to the trough we here she was downing more water.
The next morning I found her at the hay. Ring with the rest of the herd, munching contentedly although with a slight limp when she walked. I thought that the limp was to be expected.
Two days later, no limp.
It appears we have saved the life of the cow, which may have been the best outcome we could have hoped for that day. The saga will continue for another 18 months, though. We will attempt to rebreed her this summer and see if she can deliver a calf in the spring of 2017.
***PSA: Don’t put heifers that you don’t want in with bull calves, even if you think the calves are too young and even if it’s only overnight. If you forget, read the above story again. /PSA***