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Sunday 23 July 2017

Spring fever - vets gear up for an exceptionally busy time of year

Eamon O’Connell gets ready for another day on the farming beat in Tipperary. Photo: Brian Gavin/Press 22
Eamon O’Connell gets ready for another day on the farming beat in Tipperary. Photo: Brian Gavin/Press 22

Eamon O'Connell

Spring has officially sprung and the calving season is in full swing in most parts of the country. Compact calving patterns means farmers now face a huge workload and a lack of sleep.

Calves are being born at such a rate that it prompted one of my clients recently to proclaim: "It's a fulltime job just keeping them tagged."

For us vets too, it's an exceptionally busy time of year. Difficult calvings, sick cows and, more often, sick calves fill our call book - and there's always the 3am caesarean on the horizon.

It is very easy to get caught up the whirlwind that is spring time. When problems arise, the workload increases and the pressure really comes on.

The endless list of jobs means we often cut corners just to get finished and move on to the next task at hand.

I grew up on a dairy farm and I have experienced first-hand the intensity of the calving season. Now, as a vet, that intensity is the same.

Bacteria can lurk in even the most immaculately kept of calf sheds
Bacteria can lurk in even the most immaculately kept of calf sheds

Every calving case is an emergency and it is often a race against time to save both the cow and the calf.

However, there are always some cases during the spring that are a break from the norm. These cases are often a learning experience for both the farmer and the vet. Some of these cases are outlined below.


My calves have a milk scour

I got a call recently to one of our neatest and cleanest dairy clients. The phrase, you could eat your dinner off the floor, was coined specifically for this farm.

He wanted me to have a look at some calves that were scoured.

His opinion was that they had drunk too much milk.

Now, it may come as a surprise to some, but calves will not become sick from drinking too much milk. In fact, calves can be fed ad lib milk without any issues in the right environment.

A quick calf side test confirmed that it was none of the major culprits. A more in depth investigation led us to the calf feeders.

On initial inspection, they appeared immaculate.

The tubs were washed thoroughly after each feed and water was sprayed through each individual teat.

However, when we removed a teat and cut into it, the source of the problem became clear. The valve of the teat was covered in a thick scum.

A swab was taken for culture and a number of bacteria were isolated. Even though the teats were only a year old, and washed each day, bacteria had built up on the inside. Every feed came with a nice dose of bacteria which was causing digestive upsets in the calves.

The teats were replaced and with a little TLC, the calves are now thriving well.

Up and sucking

The first call last Monday morning was from a very irate dairy farmer. "That vaccine you sold me isn't working," was the complaint.

An immediate visit was required. The farmer in question had vaccinated his cows with a well-known vaccine against Rotavirus, Coronavirus and e-coli K99. However, some of his calves now had scour. A quick test confirmed it was Rotavirus.

He was adamant that the vaccine had been administered at the correct time, the calves had gotten colostrum and they were being fed transition for the first 10 days.

Everything seemed to be in order.

On further discussion, it transpired that every calf was left with its mother for 12 hours and was observed sucking to ensure it received colostrum.

However, I took bloods from a few young calves and my suspicion was confirmed - the calves hadn't received enough colostrum.

A calf needs 3 litres of good quality colostrum in the first 2 hours of life.

It can be nearly impossible for a calf to do this if left to its own devices, especially if its mother is a first calving heifer or a cow with teat sealer. Stomach tubing is the only sure-fire way to ensure a calf has gotten enough colostrum.

The vaccine was working fine, and with just a small management change, the scour problem was resolved.

A spot of re-plumbing.

I performed Bull Breeding Soundness exams on a number of bulls for a pedigree breeder recently. We analysed a semen sample and completed a full clinical exam on each bull. All the bulls passed with flying colours.

I logged all the necessary paperwork and continued to my next call.

The following day however, I had to visit the farm again.

Two of the bulls had been fighting and now, one seemed very much off form.

A full physical examination revealed a very serious issue.

The bull had a very badly injured penis and prepuce.

The inflammation was so bad that he could not pass urine.

After discussing potential courses of action, we decided that the only option was to perform a perineal urethrostomy.


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This involves making a new opening for the urethra higher up along the penis, in this case, 6 inches or so below the anus.

The surgery was a complete success and now, when the bull urinates, he could be confused on first glance for a heifer.

He is of course, now completely unfit for breeding but at least we managed to save him and he will make a decent price in the factory.

It is worth noting that the only person qualified to complete a Bull Breeding Soundness exam is a vet.

As we have just seen, a lot can change in a few days.

Surgery, but with a twist

"She was trying to calve earlier today but now she's stopped."

This was the message I received from a farmer recently.

On examining the cow, it was immediately apparent what the problem was - a uterine torsion. Often referred to as a twisted womb, this condition occurs when the womb rotates upon itself, causing an abnormal tightening of the cervix.

A partial twist can be corrected by gently rotating the calf in the right direction.

A full twist, as was the case with this particular cow, can only be corrected by caesarean section. I began what should have been a fairly routine surgery only to run into trouble very quickly.

After removing the calf, which was unfortunately not alive, I found it impossible to stitch closed the uterus. The twist was to such a great extent that the uterus was no longer viable.

Now, a few years ago, the outcome of this case would have been very poor - the cow would probably not have survived.

However, thanks to some new surgical equipment and techniques, it is now relatively easy to perform a hysterectomy on a cow, which is exactly what we did. With help from one of my colleagues, we successfully removed the uterus. The cow is now making a full recovery.

Each spring brings with it a new set of challenges. There is always an unusual case or a new and often better way of doing things.

Just when we think we've seen it all, something unusual snaps us out of a sleep deprived haze.

As one of my oldest clients said to me recently - "Every day is a school day".

Eamon O'Connell is a vet with the Summerhill Veterinary Clinic, Nenagh, Co Tipperary.

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