The science and art of calving a cow out is being lost because there are fewer and fewer cows that give us problems these days. The new generation on the farm generally will have much less exposure to cows calving, calf pullers and the application of a calving chain.
The fact that the genetics of our present herd and improved selection has significantly reduced the need to assist cows is really a wonderful thing for our industry. It decreases the labour requirement significantly at calving time. And there is no doubt calves born unassisted have much less stress on them than those born with a hard pull.
The issue now is how do we gain at least some calving experience for new producers, hired people, and young veterinarians so when a tough birth does come along they have at least some understanding on how to get the job done. The problems that do crop up albeit infrequently usually are very difficult ones.
A similar dilemma exists with getting hands-on experience in doing caesarean sections for final-year veterinary students. Again we are breeding cattle that do not need caesareans (a desirable trait). When you do need to do one to remove a fetal monster, relieve a heifer calf bred by mistake, conjoined twins, a schistosomas reflexus (inside-out calf), or the very rare fetal oversize where do the new graduates get the necessary experience? We veterinarians who are a little longer in the tooth went through the era when we needed to perform lots of these calving-related caesareans and deal with pro-lapses created by fetal oversize and hard deliveries. Those days are hopefully gone and won’t return because of the proper bull and heifer selection practised by producers today.
Over the years the veterinary colleges have been trying to come up with new models to try and teach these skills to budding veterinary students. Some of their ideas could also apply to new producers. My guess is in the future because the problems are few and far between at calving time producers will more frequently turn to their veterinarians to try and “save the day.” This is where we as mentors of the next generation of veterinary students need to still give new graduates a feel for this part of large animal practice. The rest of the article will describe some of these ideas. If you or someone you know needs experience calving perhaps they could incorporate one or two of these ideas.
The WCVM (Western College of Veterinary Medicine) in Saskatoon has been sending students out to select veterinary clinics during the peak calving season. Although calving season for us is now just a blip on the radar a large clinic can have the students jump from one obstetrical case to another to experience going on call and assisting the veterinarian with any infrequent C-sections that come in. When they aren’t on call teaching videos and time spent just handling a calf puller provide valuable experience going forward.
On occasion I have had a few new producers ride with me to get a little calving experience. Just feeling inside the vagina of a calving cow and applying the obstetrical chains properly goes a long ways to building confidence and improving dexterity. They also learn to use proper restraint with a calving cow and how to keep both yourself and the cow clean. In the past producer seminars on calving have been very popular, even the powder puff ones (with so many men now working out, the farm wife often calves the cows), but with fewer issues showing up in herds today the need for these seminars has diminished.
The University of Calgary Veterinary Medicine faculty (UCVM) has taken a newer approach by creating very lifelike models. These involve a type of rubberized calf that has flexible joints so fetal malpresentations can be created for the students to solve.
This technique gives the students a great start in obstetrics and if they have difficulty mastering a procedure the same fetal malpresentation can be repeated again and again. Dr. Gordon Krebs at UCVM Calgary created these models and is working on others to make this hands-on experience as realistic as possible. Beyond that the students will go on a calving rotation at two large cattle operations that calve a large number of cows in a short period of time. Although they will in all likelihood see only a few major problems they gain experience handling normal calving cows plus the follow-up care for the calf that will give them a good start on their veterinary careers should they pursue a mixed or large animal practice. Once the basics of calving are gained the other subtleties can be explained and at least make sense.
Practising things like fetotomy (cutting a dead fetus in parts to facilitate delivery) on cadavers gives students a really good idea about what to do if or when they experience it in practice.
Fortunately we don’t have the straight Belgium Blue cows where literally every calf needs to be born by C-section. Much like the bulldog in the canine world this is not a path our commercial cattlemen want to go down and I can’t blame them. All of these selection decisions over the years have gone a long ways to maintaining a healthy cattle industry in Canada.