“Delivering calves is one of the most challenging things to teach people how to do,” he says. It’s as much art as science, and experience helps, because each one will be different.

“Even with experience, if you talk with experts who have delivered lots of calves, the reason they are experts is that they’ve made mistakes and have learned from those. You learn what not to do,” he explains.
The most important thing for producers to learn during calving is when to call for help. “If you’ve worked on a dystocia for 30 minutes and haven’t made progress, it’s time to reevaluate your actions. Fetotomies and C-sections are options, but in some situations euthanasia should also be considered,” Alley says.

“A common mistake people make with a calf jack is trying to pull a calf that can’t be delivered vaginally. The calf is too big or the cow’s pelvis too small. Another mistake is working too quickly, which can result in vaginal or uterine lacerations in the cow or injuries to the calf,” he adds.

First aid for leg injuries

Limb problems are one of many issues that ranchers face during calving season.

David Anderson, Kansas State University DVM, says broken legs in newborns usually fall into two categories – “mama trauma,” in which the calf gets stepped on, or injuries sustained in an assisted birth.

To prevent the latter, Anderson stresses the importance of correct technique in attaching OB chains: “Use a double half-hitch, with one loop above and one below the fetlock to spread the force, so it doesn’t all pull on one place.”

Regardless of the cause, some fractures are more easily repaired than others.

“If it’s broken at the growth plate at the end of the long bone, it tends to break straight across. If you can get the leg realigned and set the fracture, a calf often responds well in a cast or splint that prevents it from bending its leg while still allowing it to walk,” Anderson says.

How-To Video: When To Intervene When Calving First-Calf Heifers

When the fracture occurs higher up the leg, it’s more difficult to stabilize the weight-bearing force. “Assessing location of the break is important when deciding the type of appliance to fix it. If the fracture is above the growth plate, a cast can share weight with the leg much more than a splint can,” he says.

For fractures above the knee or hock, he often inserts pins before the cast is set to prevent weight bearing on the fracture area. This simple technique can be done onsite, the pins are inexpensive and the procedure usually gives the fracture a good opportunity to heal, he says.

There are some splints designed for high limb injuries and may immobilize the leg enough for it to heal, he adds. A dog splint wrapped with stretchy tape to hold it in place, for instance, may be adequate to support a hind limb injury on a newborn calf. But, the prognosis for an older, heavier calf with the same injury may not be as favorable.

Purdue University DVM Mark Hilton says PVC pipe cut lengthwise in half will work as a splint, with rolled cotton between the pipe and limb to pad it.

“When fixing a hind leg, we use a propane torch to heat the PVC pipe to bend it, so it will curve at the hock at the same angle as the leg. We heat the half-pipe at the proper spot and push the end of the pipe on the ground to get the correct angle. We hold it a couple minutes at that angle until it cools and then it stays that way,” he explains.

Anderson stresses the importance of immediate first aid for fractures, especially if waiting for an on-call veterinarian.

“Most fractures in young calves aren’t open wounds or compound fractures, so there’s no infection. But if you don’t protect that limb and it becomes open, that calf’s survival chances plummet quickly,” he says.

Preventing the calf from putting weight on the leg is important. “Sometimes we use slings to reduce movement. We have a Velpeau sling for front-leg use and an Ehmer sling for hind-leg use – to bandage the limb against the body. If a calf was mobile after birth, it can usually nurse on three legs. But if the fracture occurred during birth it usually won’t be able to stand,” Anderson says.

Editor’s note: For more information and photos on delivering calves, check www.drostproject.com.

Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, ID.


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