Raising Cattle: Complications After Birth

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One of the worst conditions a cow or any other animal that has just given birth can exhibit is the turning inside cut or prolapse of the uterus. In severe bovine arses, the exposed mass of tissue can be 8 to 12 inches in diameter and two or more feet long.
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Treatment consists of supporting the uterus on a large towel, cleaning the organ as well as possible, lubricating it well and gradually inverting and replacing the mass through the vulva. Care must be taken not to puncture the tissue nor damage its surface.
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If a cow must be down for any length of time, a shallow trench should be dug under her hindquarters to relieve pressure on and improve circulation to the animal's rear legs,
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Iodine swabbed on the navel of a new-born calf will often give the baby a head start in life.

Beginning farmers usually do pretty well with gardens, chopping wood and building outhouses. . . but the birth of that first calf or litter of pigs generally sets ’em back a couple of notches. R.J. Holliday DVM, a veterinarian in Missouri and MOTHER contributor, intends to remedy, the situation.

The birth of any animal on a homestead is a joyous occasion. It’s best if the new-born arrives unassisted, of course, but–if not–there’s a great deal of satisfaction for the dedicated herdsman in the knowledge that he has the skills to enable him to help bring a new life into the world.

In any event, it is sometimes easy to get too caught up in the wonder of a new delivery. So caught up that we tend to forget that the event marks both the end of the gestation period and the beginning of a potentially critical term in the life of the mother and new baby. For it is at this time, in the case of cattle, that the cow is very susceptible to complications arising front parturition and the metabolic conditions that result from the rapid changes taking place in her body chemistry as she meets the demands of her new role. The calf also is more prone to certain disease conditions immediately after making the drastic adjustment he has to make in order to survive outside the safe confines of his dam’s womb.

In the natural state then, the period immediately following birth is a time of testing. The death of the weak and unfit serves to strengthen the hardiness of succeeding generations, and many of the livestock problems we now encounter are the result of man’s interference with this natural selection.

It should be the primary goal of any good herdsman to try to manage his animals’ environment so as to prevent the development of high-stress conditions . . . but, when such situations do arise, the animals involved should gradually be eliminated from the herd. Your homestead will never be so ideal that it will not be necessary for you to be aware of the problems that may be encountered, their causes, their seriousnessand–most important of all–a suitable ecologically sound remedy for them. In this chapter we’ll consider the complications that can arise after a cow has given birth.

Calving Paralysis

Calving paralysis or postpartum paraplegia. can occur as the result of an unassisted births but more often than not is the result of the forced extraction of a relatively large fetus. The large nerve trunks that carry both sensory and motor impulses to and from the mother’s hind legs have the misfortune of lying along the inside of the pelvis where they are easily damaged by the passage of a large calf. Injury to the nerves themselves or pressure caused by injury to surrounding tissue can quite effectively halt the flow of nerve impulses past the affected area.

In a mild form of nerve trunk damage the cow may be able to rise after calving but will have so little control over her hind legs that walking is difficult, if not impossible. At the other end of the spectrum is total paralysis from the pelvis down. This paralysis involves not only the motor impulses going to the hind legs but also the sensory impulses arising in the hindquarters. The animal cannot move the legs, nor can she sense pain.

All degrees of severity between these two extremes are possible. In mild to moderate instances symptoms might persist for only a week or two . . . but the injury may be permanent in severe cases. The outlook is improved if the animal responds, however slightly, to the stimulus of a pinprick on the lower extremities.

‘Treatment is discouraging. Every effort should be made to keep the “down” animal as comfortable as possible and to maintain normal body functions while applying plenty of “Tincture of Time”. . . time for the nerve fibers to rejuvenate. Specifically, this care should consist of a nutritious, slightly laxative ration to keep the bowels open . . .an adequate intake of fluids and minerals to avoid dehydration . . . and deep, absorbent bedding (such as straw or sawdust) to minimize the occurrence of “bedsores”.

In long-term cases, it may be advisable to dig shallow trenches parallel to the cow’s rear quarters for her hind legs to fit into. This improves circulation to the legs, reduces pressure on the muscles and givers the animal a chance to exercise her rear extremities as function returns, If you cant hollow out such relief channels, be sure to turn the animal from one side to the other a couple of times a day. Better yet, try to avoid calving paralysis altogether by careful management of the mother before parturition and proper manipulation of the fetus at birth.

Hemorrhage and Tears

Another common sequel to forced extraction of a large calf is a torn vulva. Such injuries are usually not too serious unless they extend deep into the birth canal or into the rectum. In severe cases, extensive suturing of the area may be required to salvage the animal.

Occasionally, apparently massive hemorrhage is noted from the vulva immediately after birth. This normally comes from ruptured umbilical vessels and will decline in a short time as the physiological contraction of the blood veins take place. If the bleeding vessels are exposed, the hemorrhage can be controlled by simply tying them off with a cord. Other bleeding from deep within the cavity does not lend itself to any but radical treatment. This situation will remedy itself–one way or the other–in a short time.

Prolapse of the Uterus

One of the most alarming conditions to be seen soon after calving as is a prolapse of the uterus. In this condition the uterus is turned inside out and partially or completely exposed through the vulva. The mass is of firm consistency about 8 to 12 inches in diameter and–if completely exposed–can be two or more feet long. It will normally be covered with various-sized bits of the fetal membranes, blood and other debris.

Treatment of a prolapsed uterus consists of manual replacement, which is difficult at best. If the cow is standing, the entire mass should be raised to or slightly above the vulva to make replacement much easier and to help avoid more swelling. (Two assistants – one on each side – can support the uterus on a large towel used somewhat as a hammock.) The organ is cleaned as well as possible, well lubricated and gradually inverted and replaced through the pelvis so that it assumes its normal position hanging in the abdominal cavity. Care should be taken not to puncture the tissue nor to damage any of the 100 or so button-like structures on the surface of the organ (more about these later).

Replacement of a prolapsed uterus is a very difficult procedure and I suggest you call a vet immediately when, you recognize the situation. I mention it mostly to help you avoid any confusion between a prolapse of the uterus and the normal expulsion of the fetal membranes. It will also enable you to appreciate the seriousness of the condition where you see it.

The membranes that surround the calf before birth are attached to the uterus by means of small (2 inches in diameter) highly vascular tufts of tissue called coytledons or, in layman’s language, “buttons”. The cotyledons shrink rapidly after birth and release the placenta, which, is normally passed soon after calving. Should this fail to occur, the membranes are commonly removed or “cleaned” manually in about 72 hours, although the procedure is thought by many authorities to be entirely unnecessary except when the cow becomes feverish or goes off feed.

Unless you have had some experience at cleaning a cow it is probably best to let nature do the job. If you must remove the membranes, however, use strict sanitary procedures. The tissues must be gently peeled from each cotyledon and none of the buttons must be pulled off or damaged or massive hemorrhaging into the uterus may result.

Milk Fever

High production dairy cows are beset by three primarily metabolic conditions not usually experienced by their more beefy sisters. However, under poor nutritional or environmental conditions these same conditions in modified form can also occur in cows of predominately beef breeding.

Milk fever, very simply, is caused by the lack of enough calcium in the blood. The heavy demand placed on the system to produce large quantities of milk immediately after calving frequently overwhelms the parathyroid-regulated calcium transport system of the body. In another sense, it can be described as the inability of the partially dormant system to “shift gears” quickly from a low to a high rate of calcium metabolism.The result is post parturient hypocalcemia…the 25-dollar word for milk fever.

Since calcium is required for proper muscular function, the symptoms of milk fever are muscle weakness, incoordination and–finally–complete paralysis. The first indication is a weakness of the hind legs that–typically–produces a wobbly, almost drunken gait in the affected animal. As more muscles become involved, the cow will become recumbent and, in untreated cases, death may result in a few hours from respiratory paralysis.

Milk fever can occur at any time from several hours BEFORE calving to several days after. Any dairy cow that has calved in the last three days and is suddenly found to be unable to get up should be suspected of having the disease . . . especially if her ears droop and the pupils of her eyes become widely dilated. Actually, the term “milk FEVER” is a misnomer since the stricken animal’s temperature will be below normal due to the lack of muscle tone. Incoordination of the muscles of the neck may cause the neck to assume a shallow “S” shaped curve when viewed from above. In very severe cases the cow will usually be found lying out flat on one side, breathing will be very shallow and some bloating may be apparent. At this point, death is imminent unless treatment is started quickly.

The old-timers’ remedy for milk fever was to inflate the udder with air by whatever means at hand . . . bellows and a goose quill or tire pump and a blunt inflation needle. Distending the udder in this manner increases its internal pressure and causes the secretion of milk to cease. This slows the rapid loss of calcium from the blood stream and, hopefully, allows the supply of calcium to catch up to the demand.

Even though the treatment just outlined may sound rather primitive, it does seem to help alleviate the symptoms of milk fever. However, it is unfortunate that a cow treated this way will almost always succumb to a case of severe mastitis . . . and even if she survives the second disease, her udder will usually be ruined. Milk fever is now treated quite successfully by the intravenous injection of soluble salts of calcium.

The idea that milk fever can be prevented is a controversial subject. Nevertheless, here’s a few hints that wilt help do this very thing.

1. In your original choice of a cow or a whole herd of cattle stay away from extremely high-production animals and from the genetic families of cattle that are known to have an incidence of milk fever. You really sacrifice nothing in this choice because the moderate producer is healthier and will be in production for a longer time.

2. “Dry-off” a cow several weeks before she’s due to calve. This gives her body a chance to recuperate from the rigors of the previous lactation and some time to build up a reserve of strength for the next one.

3. Nutrition is the most important factor affecting the health of your animals. Pay particular attention to their intake of vitamins and minerals, with particular emphasis on the balance of the minerals consumed.

4. Don’t milk a cow out completely for at least three days after she calves. In borderline cases, this practice alone will help to prevent many incipient cases of milk fever.


Ketosis or Acetonemia is another metabolic and/or nutritional disease that can occur at the time a cow reaches her peak milk production, usually about a month after parturition. Many of the symptoms are similar to those of milk fever, so the time difference is important to an accurate field diagnosis. Symptoms include inappetence, a drop in milk production and a change in personality. The cow may become either very lethargic . . . or hyperexcitable to the point of being dangerously aggressive.

There is some disagreement in professional circles about the exact cause of the condition, but ketosis is generally agreed to be a combination of poor nutrition and a faulty adrenal or pituitary hormone production, The incidence of this imbalance is more common in high production dairy cows or in those on a poorly balanced diet.

The list of ketosis treatments reported to be effective is long and varied and most are directed toward raising the afflicted animal’s blood glucose level. Recommended remedies range from complete fasting for three days through the intravenous injection of glucose and the feeding of special high sugar diets to the use of highly potent synthetic adrenal cortex hormones. It’s interesting to note that the benefits from all these treatments are highly inconsistent.

Recommendations for the prevention of ketosis are strikingly similar to those for the prevention of milk fever:

1. Buy a moderately productive cow.

2. Provide an ample dry period between lactations.

3. Feed a good naturally balanced diet all year long.

4. If symptoms do occur, increase the sugar or carbohydrate level in the ration by the addition of molasses or other natural sugar.


As if milk fever and acetonemia weren’t enough, the average dairy cow still has to deal with mastitis (swelling or infection of the udder with the production of abnormal milk. This very complex topic is worthy of a chapter of its own, so only a few remarks will be made at this time.

Some of the factors involved in mastitis are excessive production, faulty nutrition (too much protein), trace mineral deficiencies, injury to the udder, lack of sanitation, improper milking procedures and other forms of mismanagement. Attention to the above factors will reduce the incidence of mastitis, but will not prevent all cases.

Should mastitis strike, treatment should include:

1. The use of mild liniments, hot-packs, and massage to help eliminate the swelling.

2. Milking out the affected quarters several times daily.

3. Lowering the protein content of the ration.

4. Acidifying the cow’s system by the addition of 1/2 to 2 cups of vinegar to the daily ration. S. As a last resort, the use of sulfas or antibiotics. Before you do this, though, consider the word antibiotic. “Anti” means “against” and “biotic” means “life”. That should tell us something!!

Care of the Newborn Calf

If a cow is healthy and has enjoyed good nutrition throughout her gestation period there is no reason for her calf to be sickly. If you were prompt and thorough in your application of iodine to the baby’s navel you’ve probably already eliminated one of the most dangerous diseases of the new-born: navel infection. Inattention to this detail will allow the entry into the calf’s body of many bacteria that may later cause arthritis, heart trouble, abscesses and–possibly–even death from blood poisoning. If you can’t be on hand to use the iodine, then, at least let your cows give birth out in the pasture away from the unsanitary conditions usually found around barnlots.

You can usually clear up calves that develop mild scours merely by reducing the amount of milk they receive. Those suffering from more severe cases of diarrhea may rewire dosing with boiled milk, raw eggs or a culture of Lactobacillus Acidophilis to restore their normal balance of intestinal bacteria.

Baby calf dehydration resulting from excessive loss of fluids can be helped if small amounts of baking soda and table salt are added to the mills they drink.

Pneumonia and other respiratory conditions in baby calves are difficult to treat once they occur. Good nursing is essential and hyperimmune serums are beneficial both in treatment and prevention.

Orphan calves can be raised easily if the rules of good nutrition, sanitation and management are adhered to.

At several points in this chapter I have purposely omitted any mention of the therapeutic effect of sulfas, antibiotics and other so-called wonder drugs in the conditions we normally refer to as infectious diseases. The use of these drugs definitely has a place in good animal husbandry but–while it’s true that their application will occasionally enable us to salvage the life of an animal that is dying–in the long run, I believe, such drugs usually cause more problems than they solve. Perhaps we should rely less on such “tragic bullet” cures and more on the following guidelines to enhance the health of our animals:

1. We must choose our genetic stock (both animals and plants) for an ecologically sound balance between productivity and disease resistance.

2. Insofar as possible, we must provide a natural environment for our animals . . . one that is compatible with their genetic inheritance for productivity.

3. Any animal health program must start at the soil level. If we have healthy soil we will have healthy plants and, in turn, we’ll have healthy animals and healthy human beings.

4. We must recognize that our animals are individuals and that they have physical, social, and emotional needs just as we do. For highest productivity we have to satisfy those needs.

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