When calving difficulties occur for a first-calf heifer, often the solution is major surgery - taking the calf out by cesarean section (C-section).

But there is another veterinary alternative that can be less traumatic for the heifer and less expensive. It involves splitting the heifer's pelvis at the fibrous joint at the bottom of the pelvis. This allows it to "spring" a couple of inches wider, giving room to pull the calf through.

Like a cesarean, pelvic splitting is a procedure for veterinary professionals. While the practice isn't common, it can be an effective technique when dealing with first-calf heifers, says Heidi Smith, a veterinarian at Terrebonne, OR.

Because heifers are still growing, the joint at the bottom of the pelvis is not yet a bony connection. Therefore, pelvis splitting works well on two-year-olds, but won't work on three-year olds or mature cows, she says.

Gary Rupp, a veterinarian with the University of Nebraska - Great Plains Veterinary Center in Clay Center, recommends pelvic splitting only be used in special situations.

He says it can be a valuable tool if a calf is hip locked in the dam's pelvis. Or, if environmental conditions such as sub-zero temperatures would compromise the outcome of the heifer in a C-section.

Splitting a heifer's pelvis can be done with the heifer standing confined in a regular chute. The heifer should be given a spinal to anesthetize the area.

The veterinarian feels for the notch in the back of the pelvis - lifting up the lip of the vulva and feeling underneath to find where the two sides of the pelvis meet on the bottom. In heifers, this is a fibrous connection and is not yet fully calcified, so it is easily split apart.

A 2-in. vertical incision is then made in the skin below the vulva, according to Smith. This incision is used when inserting a special wedge-shaped chisel with a long handle to chisel the pelvic joint apart. Two people are needed for this procedure, since it requires three hands.

After being inserted through the incision, the chisel is directly under the skin of the birth canal. The chisel has a blunt prong on top that enables the veterinarian to feel where it is from inside the birth canal. The vet can keep the chisel aimed properly over the bone, by feeling the blunt prong on the chisel as a guide.While the vet guides the chisel with the other hand, the other person pounds on the chisel with a wooden hammer, says Smith.

Less Stress, But Still Some Risks

Splitting the pelvis does not handicap the heifer because the pelvis is fairly rigid, even with the joint split apart.

"This just springs it open another inch or two, and it tends to go back into place afterward like a clothespin," Smith says.

There's no damage or scarring in the uterus, Smith adds. The heifer may be wobbly for a few days, but she can walk. And, because it is less traumatic, the heifer is better able to mother her calf immediately after giving birth.

Although most heifers require minimal care for several days following pelvic splitting, Nebraska's Rupp cautions that complications can arise following pelvic splitting.

For example, he says, if a calf is too large for delivery in a young heifer because of a small pelvis, the birth canal is frequently not dilated. If the pelvis is split, time and care must still be taken to deliver the calf slowly to avoid damaging the birth canal. This puts the calf through additional stress with the possibility of losing it during delivery.

Therefore, he says, although a cesarean is somewhat more expensive, it offers a better prognosis under most conditions.

Smith agrees that a heifer having a large calf should have a C-section. But she adds, "in cases where the calf is a little too big to come through the birth canal, splitting the pelvis will do the trick."