Rural veterinary practice
Overlaying of piglets
Delivery of a goat
Foot and Mouth Disease
Bovine Virus Diarrhoea
3. Dissecting a calf (fetotomy)
A calf that is too large to pass through the birth canal is generally delivered by means of a Caesarean. It is a procedure that has been performed on farms since the sixties of the 20th century. Before that, a calf that was too big had to be dissected in the womb, after which the pieces left the body naturally. This procedure is called fetotomy and it took place quite often in the past. Nowadays, only dead and rotting calves are dissected in that way, as a Caesarean would entail a major risk of the mother cow developing peritonitis.
There are many things that veterinary surgeons find common that other people experience as distasteful. The daily activities of veterinary surgeons on the farm unfold amidst manure and urine and the daily tasks also involve treating infected wounds and abscesses. Many people will find stories of this kind unappetizing, but they do not spoil the appetite of the veterinary surgeon. A colleague with whom I was sharing a meal once put it as follows: "I am fine with them shitting next to my plate, as long as they don’t shit on my plate." Still, dissecting a calf that is in a state of decomposition is a procedure that earns respect, even in our professional group.
It is morning and I am on my way to the Kruisstraat, a hamlet that makes up part of Rosmalen, which is northeast of the practice. The farms are situated on a sand ridge along the street. Behind the ridge lies the clay of the polder, extending to the north all the way across the watercourse to Het Wild and further on to Maren-Kessel along the river Meuse. A long time ago, the polder served as a river drainage basin during winter: the area was used as a spillway when the water levels rose. During those times, the water of the Meuse extended from Beers, to the east of Grave, to Bokhoven, west of Den Bosch: a body of water dozens of square kilometres in size. An elderly farmer told me of the time when he was just a small boy and rode on the back of his father’s bicycle to Den Bosch. Upon returning home, he told his mother: "Mama, I saw the sea." In 1932, a start was made with raising the dyke along the Meuse and the so-called Beerse Overlaat (overflow) became history. But you still regularly come across the name Overlaat in the area.
A local livestock breeder has called. He has been keeping a heifer in the barn because she is late and shows no signs of calving. She is a meaty cow: well-muscled but with a small udder that is geared to nursing a calf, not filling a milk tank. This beef cow breed is called by the local farmers ‘blond Argentine’. But the breed is not originally from South America; the origin of this Blonde d’Aquitaine lies in France. The heifer is alone in the stanchion barn; the other cattle are outside. She is standing with her head between two upright wooden poles that are positioned in the ground behind the feed trough and that are fastened at the top to a beam. She is wearing a collar with two chains that are fastened to the poles. The gutter is behind her and behind that, there is a small pathway along the wall. The purpose of the gutter is to collect the manure and urine of the cows. It leads to the slurry pit in the ground outside the barn. The stanchion barn was common in Brabant up until the seventies, when the loose housing barn was introduced in the livestock sector. The stanchion barn was the ‘lean-to’ of the all-in-one farmstead. The farmer with his family lived in the front house. Nowadays, many of these farmsteads have been renovated into duplexes.
The gestation of meat cow breeds is sometimes somewhat longer than that of dairy cows, but still, this was taking quite long. When I walk into the barn, I see the heifer with an arched back, but she is not pushing. A bucket of water is ready for use and a clean towel and a piece of soap on a small dish are on the windowsill. The neighbour is leaning against the wall; the owner is standing next to the heifer, holding her tail to the side for me. I put on my work clothes: plastic trousers and a long apron. The short sleeves hug my upper arms tightly to prevent amniotic fluid from pouring inside beneath my armpits. I wash my hands and arms and apply a lubricant. Once inside the birth canal, I only feel a small tail. Further along, inside the uterus, I feel the back of the calf. It is shedding hair and gas is rustling beneath the skin: “This is not good” I say out loud. I pull my hand back and hold it under the owner’s nose. He jerks his head away: “No!! I believe you without that!” The calf is in a breech position, but its back legs are not pointing backwards in the birth canal, as is usually the case. They are pointing towards the head of the heifer: this is called a frank (extended) breech. And because only the small tail is actually in the birth canal, the heifer does not push and the owner has waited in vain for days for that to happen. The calf has meanwhile died and the process of decomposition has begun. Yet the heifer is not sick. It is unbelievable what cows can endure: a uterus filled with rotting flesh, but no signs of illness!
The birth of a full-term calf in such a breech presentation is impossible. Not even a normal, living calf would be able to get past the pelvis in this position. Repositioning the rear legs in this tight and poorly dilated uterus is out of the question. A Caesarean is also not an option: the uterus is a barrel of bacteria and an operation of that kind would inevitably result in peritonitis. No, there is only one way to save this heifer: The calf must be sawn into pieces in the uterus, each piece small enough to pass through the birth canal.
And slaughtering? The animal is not ill and is not emaciated. And so it may be slaughtered, according to the EU-guidelines. But I would not dare guarantee the quality of the meat. Honestly, I would not take even the smallest bite.
This promises to be a difficult task. And so the neighbour is fetching his son. The owner goes to find a wheelbarrow and I return to my car to get the embryotome. It is a device that somewhat resembles a double barrel shotgun, only without the butt. A steel grip is where the sight would be. A wire saw is led through the two, hollow steel pipes of almost a metre long. A wire saw is a thin and flexible cord of braided steel wires. It forms a loop at the tip of the embryotome. A handle is attached to each of the two ends that protrude from the pipes next to the grip.
The device is inserted in the vagina of the heifer, loop first. Inside the uterus, I slide the wire around one of the hind legs of the calf. Then, I press the point of the embryotome against the rudimentary tail of the calf. From there, the wire saw runs through the steel pipes, extending outside the vagina. This ensures that the birth canal is not damaged when sawing. I am bending over with my right arm deep in the heifer’s vagina as I hold the point of the embryotome firmly in place. If it shifts, that could easily result in a hole in the uterus. The neighbour is standing behind me. By forcefully pulling the wire back and forth by the handles, the wire saw cuts through the lies of the calf and amputates the leg. Because this kind of wire saw cuts through everything: skin, muscle and bone. And so you don’t want your hand to be caught in the middle. The sawing neighbour would not even notice, a few extra fingers.
The hind leg is now lying separately in the uterus and is deposited in the wheelbarrow minutes later. The smell of decomposition starts to spread through the barn. The other hind leg is removed, followed by the pelvis with a piece of the trunk. The intestines of the calf are floating through the uterus in the remaining amniotic fluid. And there are loose hairs everywhere: in the uterus and the birth canal; on the wire saw and the embryotome; on my arms and my work clothing, from my chin to my boots. The stench in the barn is meanwhile like a wall; it takes your breath away and makes your eyes water. We continue to work, in silence, almost grimly. It is a huge task. The neighbour and his son take turns sawing and the calf exits the heifer piece by piece. Once the head has also appeared, I dredge some of the calf’s organs from the uterus. Inside it is a mess: blood soup with bone, manure and hair.
sawed into six pieces
The uterus must now be rinsed out. Siphoning with a hose and funnel will not work: pieces of flesh and hairs will immediately clog up the hose. I spot a fire-hose on a reel in the corner of the barn. I rinse off the steel head with the handle and slide it into the vagina of the heifer: “open the valve and let it run”. The owner hesitates, but does what I ask. I use the handle to reduce the flow. Once the uterus is full, it will contract and push all of the filth out. But the uterus of a cow has a large capacity shortly after a delivery: around a hundred litres is not uncommon. And so it takes time to fill an organ of that size. The water continues to flow minute after minute. The owner is feeling uneasy. He walks around to the front of the heifer and stands there. He examines her head carefully and then asks: “Where does all the water go?” I explain that it will all gush out in a few minutes. It wasn’t until after I had answered the question that I realized what he had meant: he had been standing at the front of the cow to see if all of the water going in at the back had not meanwhile come out the front! After all, drinking water normally goes in at the front and comes out the back in the form of urine. So why wouldn’t the other way around be possible?
The uterus finally contracts and a bathtub full of hairy, bloody soup pours out over my work clothing. I repeat the rinsing procedure until the water that exits the heifer is more or less clear. And with that, mission accomplished. We have been working non-stop for two and a half hours. It is meanwhile dinnertime. The neighbours go home. I wash my arms and clean my equipment as best I can. I leave the heifer alone for now: no after-birth capsules. They would only be forced out of the uterus along with the remaining water. The owner ties a top cover on the heifer and she is given lukewarm water to drink. The animal is now somewhat hypothermic as a result of the internal irrigation with cold water. I will return tomorrow for the aftercare. No thank you, no coffee. I quickly go home for a shower and a thorough clean-up.
The stench has disappeared from the barn the next morning. The heifer is eating and her temperature is normal. I insert two afterbirth capsules into the uterus. The vagina is not damaged and only slightly swollen: the resilience of a cow never stops to amaze me. She can return to the herd out in the field if she is fit in the morning. Because an animal of this kind is not ‘in its nature’ alone in a barn. Still, an infection develops. No, not the heifer, I develop an infection. Red spots appear on my arm; they then become lumps and the lumps develop pus heads. A laboratory culture indicates the presence of bacteria: Actinomyces pyogenes. It is the dominant bacteria in decomposition processes in dead bodies. The lymph nodes in my armpit are somewhat swollen, but I am not ill. My appetite is fine as well. But I do eat with my left hand during the next few days so as to avoid the stench of decomposition with every bite. Which spoils the pleasure derived from the meal, even for a veterinary surgeon.
© Leo Rogier Verberne