Cow-calf commentary: Calving difficulty

Calving season is winding down.
We bought two groups of bred cows this winter. The first group (mostly red, mostly SimxRed Angus) were set to calve beginning March 1 for 70 days, so May 10 will be the end of that period. The second group (mostly black whiteface) were set to begin March 20 for 60 days, so May 20 will close out that period.
There are always some that come early and some that come late. But the end of May should be the end of calving. We’re down to the last 15 or so and they’ve been coming very slowly indeed.
This has been a very different calving season. I developed a bone infection last fall, which kept me off my feet through long courses of antibiotics and surgery. I wasn’t able to actively manage cattle so we sold off the herd. As February arrived I was well enough to get back to work, so we bought the two lots of cows described above.
Both sets of cows were sold and shipped in the last trimester of gestation. For some it was the last couple of weeks of gestation. This is a lot of stress on cows and late-pregnancy isn’t the best time for stress.
They were good cows, though, and they weren’t shipped far, so it was a risk we were willing to take. But I knew we were likely to see some problems and lose some calves.
The first calf was born dead. A week or so later a low-energy calf was born and got chilled. Later still a premie was born (birth weight only 35-40 lbs). Those two calves died. Then the weather warmed up, grass started growing, and calving began to go very well.
On Friday I checked cows and calves early and all was well. The weather was excellent, with clear, cloudless, deep blue skies, little if any wind and temperatures climbing out of the low 40’s and headed toward the upper 70’s.
I decided to go for a hike and scout both fence and grass along the way. By the time I finished I’d logged about six and a half miles and I was pleasantly tired. It was then that I noticed that a couple of cows were busy having babies.
The first two did just fine. The third one, however, had a problem.
The calf was born backwards. It was a big calf born to a three year-old cow that hadn’t quite reached full maturity.
A big calf, born backwards to a cow not fully grown yet, is not the best combination.
My hike had taken about 100 minutes. As I finished I saw the cow in question get up from having the calf. She was about a half-mile away and I couldn’t see details but something looked wrong. As I got closer I could see that the calf had come backwards. He was shaking his head a bit, but he was laid flat out and wasn’t moving his legs at all. He was alive and seemingly alert. He looked at me when I drove up, and he moved a bit and weakly cycled his legs when I touched him, but he didn’t seem to have enough energy to get up. I didn’t like the way he was laid out so flat, but there didn’t seem to be any obvious major problem.
To my mind there were a couple of possibilities. The birth could have been exhausting for the calf. He might be low on energy and just resting up until he was strong enough to get up and nurse. That’s what I hoped for. If he were just in a low energy state, I might have to tube him with some colostrum replacer to get his metabolism going, and that would be easily done.
On the other hand, he might have had a hypoxic brain injury. When they come backwards their head and forelegs are the last thing out, and the umbilical cord detaches while those are still in the birth canal. If there’s no real delay between umbilical detachment and head emergence, it’ll usually be fine. But if there’s much of a delay from umbilical detachment to head out and breathing, it can be a real bad deal.
The calf didn’t act like he was brain injured. He acted more like he was out of energy.
I went to the house and collected a couple quarts of freshly mixed colostrum replacer and a stomach tube. I got a quart into his belly and he seemed lively but weak and unable to get his legs under him. I was still concerned but the best course seemed to be to give the colostrum time to work and Mama time to do her mothering thing.
I checked back several times throughout the rest of the day. The calf was clearly moving around a bit for he was in a different position each time I checked. But he hadn’t moved far -- no more than a foot or two -- and the cow hadn’t been nursed. More disturbingly, the calf was still laid out flat each time I checked.
I gave him another quart of colostrum as sunset approached. He was able to move his head a good bit, to swallow, and to bite the tube. He could also just about hold himself upright, and could almost stand on his own, but his back legs didn’t seem to be working very well at all.
I left the pair overnight and when I drove up the next morning he raised his head and seemed to be making an attempt to get up. But he only tried for a few seconds before
giving up.
I was glad to see that he was still alive. But I was disappointed, too. I would have been giddy with delight if he’d been able to get up. The head raising followed immediately by giving up and just laying there on his side foreshadowed a bad outcome. I was beginning to realize that he’d most likely had a brain injury. I hoped I wouldn’t have to put him down.
I gave him a quart of milk replacer via the stomach tube and tried to get him up, but I wasn’t successful. He seemed to have some weak control of his front legs, but no control whatever of his back legs.
If you’ve ever seen a cow or calf get up, you probably noticed that the back end comes up first, then the front. When they lay down it’s the opposite. Front end goes down, followed by the back end. So if a calf can’t get his back end up, he’s probably not going to get up at all.
He was conscious and alert. When I approached he heard me, then moved his head to look at me. The fact that he was alive and conscious and alert was good, but the fact that he couldn’t get up was not good at all. If he couldn’t get up he’d develop pressure sores and pneumonia and die of illness and infection, regardless of how much nourishment I gave him.
Illness and infection equates to suffering. Sometimes you have to make life and death decisions to end or prevent suffering when the prognosis is hopeless. It’s one of the heaviest parts of the responsibility that comes with owning livestock.
As the day wore on there were promising signs and not-so-promising signs. The calf seemed stronger and seemed to be moving his legs with more strength and coordination. But around noon the cow gave up on him. She left him where he lay and rejoined the rest of the herd at the other end of the pasture. Something told her that the calf was a lost cause. Most of the time in cases like this the cow has a better understanding of reality than the man.
The man, however, saw that the calf was still alive and alert, and appeared to be completely normal except for the whole getting up thing. So I picked him up and took him to the barn. I put him down on a soft bed of hay, then tube fed him again and worked with him a bit to see if he was gaining strength in, or control of, his legs.
He seemed a tiny bit better, but not much. My assessment of progress was probably just wishful thinking. I thought that if he survived the night I’d rig up a sling and see if he could learn to stand and walk. If he could do that he might be okay in the end, but it was a long shot. You can’t know if you don’t try though.
In the morning he was dead. While I was sad that he’d died, I was also very grateful that I wasn’t going to have to put him down. It’s a very hard thing to do. It’s my responsibility and one that I’ll never shirk. But it’s a responsibility I’m happy to leave to nature so long as there’s no suffering going on.
Several non-agriculturalist friends asked me a lot of good questions about this case specifically and about ranching in general. Aren’t there animal hospitals and rehab centers? Can’t you do more for brain-injured cattle? Can’t you keep them in a barn and monitor the cows around the clock?
Some might think those are silly questions. But how could a person know unless they’ve lived the ranching life? There’s essentially zero mainstream information available to non-agriculturalists about the real world of farming and ranching. Not on television or on the radio or in most newspapers.
You can find a few things on the Internet, but they’re obscured by propaganda and false narrative. None of this is taught in school past the “Old MacDonald” level. Sometimes we agriculturalists scoff at the stupidity of our non-farming, non-ranching peers. But how could
they know?
Explaining these things is tough. Most of our fellow Americans have exactly zero frame of reference when it comes to agriculture. Moreover, teachers, journalists, government authorities and self-appointed experts have taught them a great deal of misinformation. They end up believing or assuming things that make no sense at all.
So how do you explain the way you handle a brain-damaged calf? It’s hard. I usually say that it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind.
First, the calf’s destiny, had he survived, was to eventually be slaughtered and turned into food. Secondly, calves are my cash crop, the commodity I produce to trade for money to sustain my life and lifestyle. So there’s a two-way profit motive in there. I can’t sell a dead calf, so I have a motive to keep calves alive.
Equally important, though, if I overspend my profit in keeping a single calf alive, I’ll go out of business. So that profit thing is always in the background (and not that far back!) when these situations arise.
But nothing in life is merely profit and loss. I believe that I have a responsibility to the animals I own, to provide for their well-being and to prevent them from suffering. To be a principled, ethical and moral man, I believe that the well being of my livestock has to carry a great deal of weight.
The money thing is an adviser in the decision-making. I have to look at each situation and weigh all the possible courses of action, then pick one based on a best match with both principles and profit in mind.
There’s never a single best answer. I don’t always make the best possible decision. I don’t doubt that in some cases, other people would make better decisions. Maybe even in
most cases.