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The great imbalance

Jake Geis for Progressive Cattle Published on 08 March 2021

Here in the Midwest, we are the kings of small talk. I would venture to guess, nowhere else in the world does weather comprise the beginning, main subject and closing matter of nearly every conversation a person has during the day. I have no idea what you folks in mild climates talk about – probably religion and politics.

But, even the ever-changing weather gets to be old news at times, and at that point people search for a new topic. Being a veterinarian, most folks want to ask how calving is going. I’m probably the worst person to ask, because unless it’s my own calves, everything I see is fairly horrible. If it wasn’t, why would they call me?

So, naturally, I tend towards the stories that bear a resemblance to a train wreck. And, though there are many that happen each spring, this year I had one that stood out from the rest. Back in February, at the start of the great freeze, I got a call from a receptionist at one of our locations telling me a producer needed a cesarean section. I replied I didn’t know he was expecting and that I only work on cattle. Alas, the joke fell flat.

So, I hopped in the vet truck and went out to the ranch. I called the guy on the way there to get the full scoop. Now, this producer knows his stuff. When he called specifically for a C-section, I knew there wasn’t any question this calf would only come out the side. I asked him for specifics on the calf’s presentation and the cow’s current health status. Armed with this knowledge, I gave him an arrival time and asked him to start clipping for surgery.

I arrived at the ranch just as the producer finished with the clip job. Normally, I would check the cow from the backside before prepping for surgery, but as I said, I was confident in this producer’s description. I scrubbed, blocked, scrubbed again, gloved up and went in.

Before we get too far into this story, I should redefine “cow” for this situation. The truth was this was a first-calf heifer, a dandy little red first-calver that couldn’t have stood 14 hands high. She wouldn’t have tipped the scale at 1,000 pounds if she were soaking wet with molasses. So, when I cut into her side and grabbed feet like fence posts, I gasped. The producer replied with, “I wasn’t kidding you!” at my shock.

With the uterus incised, I dropped sterile chains on the calf’s feet for the hired man to take ahold of. Normally, we’d just pull the calf straight up, but with this Goliath, I had the guy stand on a lick tub first. We began to extract the calf, which was so huge it just kept coming and coming. It was like those joke magicians who start to pull a scarf out of their sleeve but pull and pull until 20 feet of cloth is on the floor.

With his hands touching the ceiling and sweating like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, the hired hand gave a tug, and the calf came free, alive and vigorous. The producer and hired hand dried the calf off as I sutured the heifer. Out of curiosity, they procured a scale to see how much that calf weighed. With nose and one foot still touching the floor, the brand-new baby tipped the scale at 153 pounds.

Though I’ve cut bigger calves from a cow, seldom have I seen a calf-to-cow ratio so large. That heifer had to be uncomfortable carrying a baby that was more than 15% of her bodyweight! The good news is both cow and calf made it through the procedure fine. The bad news is four days after the surgery, she laid down on the calf and smothered it. The better news for me is now when the conversation turns from the weather to calving season, I’ve got a doozy of a story to share this spring.  end mark

PHOTO: Though never ideal, at times C-sections on heifers are a necessary part of calving season. The good news is they make for great stories. Photo by Jake Geis.

Jacob Geis is a veterinarian and blogger in Freeman, South Dakota.

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