Livestock Extension


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What in the World Happened?

Bryan W. Neville, Animal Scientist, NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center reflects on the many things that can go wrong delivering calves.

You aren’t into a new calving season for very long and you think you have seen all the things that can go wrong (big heads, small pelvis, leg back, head back, handful of tail, etc.). But the one thing you never expect to find is a calf with parts outside that are supposed to be inside. That is exactly what we found a week ago.

Cow and Calf in Front of Wooden FenceOf course, anytime something wrong happens, you have to ask, “What in the world happened?” Was this a birth defect? Is it genetic? How many heifers did that bull breed? These are all questions that run through your mind. More often than not, we should start with: “What did I do wrong?”

In this particular case, while getting the heifer into the calving barn, the aroma was our first clue that something was wrong. Getting the calf out was an adventure all its own. One front leg appeared to be partly back. Upon investigation, it was back but easily brought forward.

The real adventure ensued while trying to get chains onto the front legs to assist with delivery. In the process of getting the chains on, my finger happened to end up in proximity to the calf’s mouth. With one good push, a narrow pelvic opening and some simple physics, the calf ended up biting my finger! Unfortunately, the bite was not a sign of life, and when the calf was on the ground, the real adventure began.

If you have been in the cattle business for any length of time, you probably have seen umbilical hernias in newborn calves. You also probably have seen more stillborn calves than you care to admit. But you may not have seen calves with Schitosomus reflexus (SR). Schitosomus, in simplistic terms, means lack of closure of the abdominal wall. Flexus means curving of the spine resulting in the proximity of the head and tail.

Some of you may remember the cartoon on Nickelodeon years back called “Inside-Out Boy.” That sums it up rather well. In our case, the consensus from pictures we sent to the veterinarian at the diagnostic lab was that the calf had suffered a severe abdominal hernia and not SR.

What happened to make a calf herniate to that degree is something we never will know. What I do know is that I never will get used to losing a calf. It doesn’t really matter if it’s the first or just the latest calf that didn’t make it; stomaching the fact that you may have done something wrong makes calving difficult.

Forrest Gump’s mom said, “Life’s like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.” In a lot of ways, calving is the same way. We win some, we lose some and we try to learn from our mistakes. We take consolation from the fact that we tried, learned and will keep trying. But in the end, it’s another lost calf, and the title says it all: What in the world happened?

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