Did you know cows can develop a condition called a uterine twist? Yes, those words make me cross my legs too.
Sometimes on a dairy farm things can get a little twisted. Like messages from one person to another or the PTO shaft on the manure spreader or when you jump off the tractor and twist your ankle. I can’t think of anything good that gets twisted on a dairy farm but my least favorite thing to be twisted is a cow’s uterus.
This summer we had a cow trying to calve. She started out showing the usual signs of calving. She had stopped coming out to eat, had her tail up in the air and was having visible contractions but after an hour and a half I wasn’t seeing her progress any further. I had my suspicions as to what was going on even though the problem I feared isn’t extremely common. So I pulled on the long glove and went in to check her. I had learned how to check for a twisted uterus a few years ago when I spent a day riding with Dr. Stork, one of our cow vets. He taught me to feel for a ridge with my hand, fingers bent as I pulled my arm back. When I did that checking our cow, sure enough, there was a distinct ridge.
A cow’s uterus isn’t shaped the same as a human’s. Instead of one pear shaped area, a cow has two distinct uterine horns. So a cow’s uterus is shaped like the letter Y. A calf will take up residence in one of the horns when a cow becomes pregnant. A uterine twist or uterine torsion happens when the horn with the calf in it flops over the other horn. It causes the uterus to twist. The ridge I was feeling was the uterus twisted over itself.
I may be able to diagnose the problem but fixing the problem is a whole ‘nother story. I called the professionals in and soon Dr. Jen was on the farm assessing the situation her self.
There are different degrees of twist and there are different methods of fixing a twisted uterus. If the twist is slight, you may be able to physically roll the entire cow and get the uterus untwisted. If the twist is a little more severe and your vet happens to be Hercules they may be able to reach in and flip the calf back over. Or in a moderate case the vet may choose to use a torsion bar and obstetric chains. In a severe twist or when the other methods aren’t working a c-section is the best option. However a c-section is very hard on a cow and we want to avoid it as much as possible.
Our cow 408, had a moderate twist. Dr. Jen elected to use the torsion rod and obstetric chains to help get the calf out.
In order to fix the uterine twist we have to roll the calf over in the uterus. This is not an easy task. The first step is to slip the obstetric chains on to each foot of the calf. I know chains sound horrible, but human babies get pulled out with salad tong things and baby shop-vac things and that sounds bad too but all of them are tools used by professionals to help babies make it into the world alive. So back to the story, chains are placed on the calf’s feet and wrapped around what’s called a “torsion bar” like the picture above shows. Then I set down my phone/camera so I can help Dr. Jen. As I slowly turn the torsion bar, Dr. Jen guides the calf and checks it’s position. At first the bar turns easy but once the calf reaches the critical turning point it gets really hard to hold the bar and keep turning it. Basically the turning of the bar is rolling the calf inside of the cow.
After the calf is rolled far enough that it flops back over to the correct side. We have a few more pulls and this …
Yay for a bouncing baby girl! After the calf was born Dr. Jen checks her over. A calf’s legs can get hurt in this process because of the twisting. But a sprained joint is easier to fix than a calf that’s born dead which is what would happen if we let the cow continue to try and calve without fixing this problem.
Because of the uterine twist complications with her birth, this calf was born with an injured ankle joint. Right after her birth Dr. Jen checked her legs out and determined that she had a severe sprain on the joint.
So what do you do when a calf has an injured leg?
You do the same thing as a human, you splint the joint to provide stabilization to the leg while it heals. Dr. Jen had the genius idea to use pipe insulation as a splint on a friend of mine’s calf and it worked great for her, so we tried it.
We put her leg into the pipe insulation and wrapped it with vet wrap. We had to change the splint out every 2-3 days to keep it clean and make sure her leg was still straight.
After a few days I added some support to the sides of the splint because I noticed that the pipe insulation was giving too much flex. This heifer was a pretty big girl and I think if her leg had been just a little smaller it would have worked without the extra support.
After 2 weeks of using the splint our heifer’s leg still wasn’t gaining strength. We weren’t positive that the leg was going to heal. We talked with Dr. Jen about our options. We could try to cast the leg. It would be expensive, possibly painful for the calf and there were no guarantees that after the cast came off our heifer’s leg would be fixed. Our other option was to euthanize the heifer. We talked about out options and decided to try to cast her leg.
After the first week we noticed that because her leg was swollen when we put the cast on and the swelling had gone down over the week the cast seemed loose. Dr. Jen came out and took the cast off and we discovered that the cast had rubbed her leg and we now also had a sore to deal with. So now we would have to take the cast off every week, clean the wound and recast the calf.
Again we had to make a decision. Was it better to put the calf down so she wouldn’t be in pain? Did it make economical sense to continue to pour money into a calf that may never get better? If this heifer’s leg did heal, when she was older and bigger would her leg support her weight or would we end up having to cull her because she just couldn’t get around very well? A three legged cow simply doesn’t work. We are a business and as much as we love our animals we also have to consider what makes financial sense for our business. After talking it over some more we decided that since we were already this far, we would keep trying.
After 6 weeks of being in a cast and lots of extra babying 697’s leg has healed pretty well. We still don’t know if she will remain sound on that leg as she gets older but I guess we will have to cross the bridge if we come to it. She is now the most expensive heifer we have on our farm.
Her mother’s name is Candy so when we had to come up with a C name for her we decided to name her Crooked. We hope that she will be known as Crooked the cow in about a year and a half.
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Our most recent twist involved the calf’s front being in one horn, and the back half was in the other horn of the uterus. Vet had to come at 10:30 on a Saturday, usually our vet can fix a twist by rolling the calf with just his own strength, but didn’t work this time. He thought we were dealing with a deformed calf, so did a c-section. Then he figured out the problem, and we had a healthy heifer calf. We have had good luck with c-sections, at least 3 in the last 5 years, with all cows surviving. This one did have a DA 2 weeks later, and needed an additional surgery, but is doing well now. Baby is now a month old 🙂 Hope your story has a happy ending for all too!
I watched (and helped a little) our vet use a set up just like this to turn a uterus and calf last summer and I was stunned and delighted. Simply amazing how quickly labor progressed when things were all pointed the right way
Ugh! Fortunately, I never had to deal with a torsion, but we did have 3 cows that prolapsed their uterus. One we found dead, one we got it back in (what a job THAT was!) and sewed her mostly shut with fishing line, but she busted the stitches and shoved the whole mess back out a few hours later (we couldn’t get the vet out to give her an epidural, dangit), so she became hamburger. We did save one cow, but she ended up being shipped to market instead of being bred again. Ah, the joys of dairy farming!
we farmed for many years and had a few prolapses and did quite well with them. Got so good at it that the neighbors call me when in trouble. I am 84 years old now but still miss the farm years. Would do it all over again.
Are there any big differences between the types of calving problems experienced by dairy cattle and beef cattle? I’ve grown up on a beef farm and helped deal with calving problems with my cows, but I have very little experience with dairy cattle. I don’t know if there is a certain type of calving problem that dairy cows may be more prone to or not.
Good question. I don’t know the answer but I will ask our vet tomorrow at herd health.
I was wondering this too….also grew up on a beef cattle ranch and where we did deal with a few prolapses, I cant ever remember a twisted uterus ever… Ive actually never even heard of it until now. We did have a few calves get sick and get a twisted intestine though.