Farm Ireland

Friday 22 June 2018

Farm vet: Vets expertise is essential when cows are in protracted labour

Most Irish farmers are generally skilled and able to handle calving themselves.
Most Irish farmers are generally skilled and able to handle calving themselves.

Niall McDonald

Calving cows can be a tricky business. Yet Irish farmers are generally skilled and well able to handle most calvings themselves.

This is due in part to increasing levels of education but also obvious economic pressures and cost management. There is however one particular calving case that really should be left to your vet - that of uterine torsion or twisted calf bed.

Early last Friday morning, I was called to a cow that was in for calving. She was well bagged up and had slackened pins. I was told the farmer thought she was going to calve Thursday night but "the interest went off her".

When I examined the cow she was restless, reluctant to lie down, and on vaginal exam I felt a dry tacky vagina with a spiral/corkscrew feel to it.

With lube and gently following the twist with my arm I was able to just about feel the calf's head and neck. I administered 10cc of intravenous Clenbuterol to relax the womb.

Most twists are anti-clockwise and by rotating the calf clockwise I was able to straighten out or undo the twist. Unfortunately the calf was dead, probably due in part to a prolonged labour and also impaired blood supply due to the twist.

If I had been called to the cow and calved her the night before the calf would probably have survived.

The spring can be a tiresome and gruelling time for all involved, including your vet, so tired and less than perfect cow observation will happen. Nonetheless, due vigilance in observing cows' behaviour around calving time must be maintained.

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Risk factors

Thankfully it's not that common as it accounts for less than 1pc of all calvings but births requiring veterinary assistance can be as high as 10-20pc in some surveys.

Cows are definitely more prone than heifers and often, but not in all cases, a big calf is involved. I could describe numerous ongoing studies into the internal dimensions of your cows abdomen, degree of rumen fill and how falling or slipping at certain times may cause it, but the bottom line is it's bloody bad luck.


Get your vet immediately when your cow's labour is protracted and interrupted in the case of a twisted calf bed.

In my view, manual per vaginum correction of the twist is the best and easiest option in most cases. However, it is impossible when the twist is more than 360 degrees.

Casting and rolling the cow is an option but has two serious drawbacks. First, you need two to three people, one of which could very easily get a hoof in the head, especially if she is a wild excitable suckler who won't lie down and roll over on command like a collie dog!

You may need strong sedation to help this, and put the cow under pressure, as if she wasn't already, neither of which is good for cow or calf.

If no progress can be made manually, then surgery is the best option and sooner rather than later. Note however that a Caesarean on a twisted bed is a different ball game to a normal one as the womb is already stretched and compromised and won't stitch or heal as usual.

Decision time

Often after undoing the twist, the cervix will not be fully dilated. Cold hard decisions in consultation with your vet may be needed here.

The conundrum here is leaving the cow for two to three hours may allow labour to progress and the cervix to dilate enough for normal delivery or it may not, and it is more unlikely with a dead calf. In the meantime, if the calf is still alive, it will already be tired and weak and may not last this three hours.

For dairy cows, economics would dictate her lactation will be better with normal delivery, however, leaving a valuable suckler calf for the extra time can be a daunting and questionable scenario.

Niall McDonald is a vet based in Co Meath

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