I’m beginning to wonder what time of year it is. Firstly, the weather is so nice, you could easily mistake our current date for the middle of May. I’m sure it will change shortly, but we will enjoy it while we can.
Secondly, and this is a major shock to my system, we are being called to quite a few calvings at the moment. In a predominantly dairy part of the country, it is rare to be called out of bed at this time of year.
Unfortunately, this year has been the exception. There are a handful of dairy farmers calving at the moment, but the majority of problem calvings are from the suckler fraternity.
There’s been a mass exodus, amongst our clients at least, from suckler farming recently. Dairying has been the obvious attraction, but some have changed to calf-to-beef enterprises or contract rearing for other dairy farmers.
Those that have stayed suckling have moved up a gear. The Hereford or Angus cross out of dairy cows are getting scarce and top-quality continental cows have taken their place. The calves arriving on the ground are sheer quality, sure to be E/U grade in the factory or well over the €1,000 as weanlings next year.
These high quality cows and calves come with their own problems unfortunately. This year, with grass in such good supply, these cows are very much over-conditioned. The already sizeable calf in their womb is bigger than usual and now has to enter the world through a birth canal that is narrower than normal due to the excess fat down there.
When the cow is too fat, she doesn’t have nearly as much energy as she should have to push out the calf and this can be complicated by milk fever as well. Consequently, we are being called to deliver a lot more calves from these cows.
I was called to one such cow last week. It sounded simple enough over the phone — she was a big, fat Charolais cow and who wasn’t making any progress calving. The farmer had a quick feel and only one leg was coming. I arrived on farm in good form as I had a fair idea that this should be a handy enough job as she was in calf to a Shorthorn bull.
The cow was lying down and sure enough, when I put my hand in, all that was required was a quick flick up of his fetlock and he was ready to go. It was a tight enough pull, but thankfully, a smashing roan heifer calf was delivered. The farmer pulled the calf around to the cow’s head and as the cow licked her, we discussed the obscene prices being paid at present for such roan heifer calves. It was then that my evening took a turn for the worse.
The cow gave a few quick grunts and I heard the dreaded flopping noise — the noise of the cow’s uterus hitting the floor behind her. She had, within a few seconds, prolapsed her entire uterus. This is more common than you would think, especially with these types of suckler cows.
The cow, after pushing out the calf, can continue to push. This can be due to vaginal pain after a ‘tough pull’. It is definitely due to the excessive fat laid down in the birth canal, causing the cow to feel like there is still something there to push out.
Replacing a prolapse can be a quick job or it can equally be an absolute nightmare. This one wasn’t too bad as it literally just happened, so we set about replacing it immediately. Sedation and an epidural are the first ports of call.
The attached cleanings are removed carefully and the uterus is washed clean. Then, inch by inch, it is pushed back in until it is back to where it should be. A stitch is then placed in the vagina to prevent it reoccurring.
Pain relief is a given and antibiotics are also administered due to the high risk of infection.
Things can become problematic as time ticks by. The longer the uterus remains prolapsed, the more it becomes engorged and, ultimately, the more difficult it is to replace.
I heard one vet describe replacing a particularly huge uterus as “like fighting the sea”. As one part was pushed in, another came back out again in its place. It can be a physically draining task, so help is definitely required.
I have often used salt to make the uterus ‘soak up’ a little. Positioning of the cow is very important. Once sedated, the cow’s legs are pulled behind her, putting her into a “frog leg” type position. This tilts the pelvis upwards, allowing gravity to help the uterus fall back in.
In some cases, the uterus can be damaged beyond repair. I have seen incidences where other cows have stood on the prolapsed uterus and I have also seen cases where weather conditions have meant the prolapsed uterus quickly becomes ice cold. Replacement of such a compromised uterus would result in certain death.
A salvage hysterectomy can be performed to save the cow’s life. The uterus is completely removed from the cervix, with extra care being taken not to damage the cow’s bladder, which can often have become prolapsed too within the inside-out uterus.
The stump of the uterus must be carefully clamped to prevent bleeding and entrance of any bacteria that could cause future infection. The cow obviously will not ever breed again, but at least she isn’t heading away in the fallen animal truck.
There are some things that can be done to prevent a cow from prolapsing. The main one concerns the pre-calving diet. A suckler cow, similar to a dairy cow, should be fit, not fat at calving. This can be particularly difficult to achieve at this time of the year.
One farmer said to me lately: “Sure those cows get fat at just the smell of the grass.” A completely bare paddock should be the starting point. The absence of lush grass reduces the risk of the cow continuing to get fat. Also, the cow will get a lot more exercise in the field than cooped up in a pen.
Hay is quite good to keep cows relatively trim and oats (in small quantities) have been shown to be very beneficial. Pre-calving minerals are also important. Many farmers find lick buckets to be the easiest way of supplying these minerals.
The margins in suckling are tighter than ever at present. A few easy changes could keep you r favourite cow in the herd for a few more years.
Eamon O’Connell is a vet with Summerhill Vet Clinic, Nenagh, Co Tipperary.