A ‘break’ during calving time

by Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum

Beth could tell something wasn’t right with the day-old calf. He was lying in a corner of the pen shivering, when just yesterday he was up frisking around the calving pen.

It had been a tough week. Cold rain the past few days meant Beth’s indoor calving pens were past full. She wondered whether those close quarters contributed to an injury.

As Beth approached the pen, the calf jumped to his feet. Well, three of his feet anyway. Beth’s fears were confirmed as she saw the calf’s dangling right front leg. Several inches above the hoof, the leg bent out at an unnatural angle. It was broken.

Just perfect, she thought as she pulled up the vet clinic on her phone. The receptionist told her Dr. Johnson could come over after finishing a calving call.

Once Dr. Johnson arrived, she and Beth quickly but calmly restrained the calf for examination. The vet carefully felt around the fracture site, and let out a breath of relief. “The bone hasn’t broken through the skin,” she said. She explained that broken skin at the fracture site lets in bacteria from the calf’s surroundings, invariably leading to infection. Bone doesn’t heal when infected. “We’re lucky. If we had an open fracture, we’d be discussing euthanasia right now.” Cattle environments and the lack of good antibiotic options mean extremely poor prognosis for such fractures.

“If you’re going to break a leg, you broke it in the right place,” the doctor said to the calf. Addressing Beth, she said, “These breaks right above the fetlock lend themselves well to healing. If it was higher up the limb, it gets almost impossible to immobilize the joint above and below the fracture, which is essential to good healing. I’ve tried pins and different external fixators a few times on fractures of the tibia or humerus, but they only rarely turn out well.”

“Also, feel the foot,” Dr. Johnson said to Beth. The foot felt normal, with a bit of warmth to it. “That tells me there’s still good blood supply to the leg below the break.” She explained that sometimes the injury causing the fracture ruins blood vessels, which are essential to the healing process. The calf’s calm demeanor probably helped reduce further damage.

“So this is as good a fracture as any to try to fix with a cast. Are you able to keep the pair by themselves while the calf heals up?” she asked Beth. After a deep breath, Beth told her, “Yes – we’ll make some room.”

Dr. Johnson retrieved a tray full of supplies and a bucket of warm water. As Beth held the calf’s limb straight, the vet applied a sock-like fabric and then OB wires inside old IV tubing – “So we can saw the cast off when it’s time.” She moistened a roll of fiberglass and wound it around the leg from toe to elbow. “I used to use plaster a lot, but this stuff is stronger and lighter,” she told Beth.

As Beth sat holding the calf, a memory popped into her head. “When I was little, I remember one of our cows breaking a leg. My dad told me the vet couldn’t fix it. That break was in the same part of the leg as this calf. Why couldn’t we fix that cow up the way we’re fixing this calf?”

Dr. Johnson thought a bit and said, “Well, I don’t know for sure, but I can tell you that broken bones are more problematic in larger animals. Their weight makes it hard to construct a strong enough cast. If the animal’s otherwise healthy, I often suggest salvaging them through slaughter. It can be the best thing for the animal in the long run.”

The vet told Beth that at least 4 weeks would be needed for good healing; more would be better as long as the calf tolerates the cast. Dr. Johnson then wrapped the outside of the cast with a bright pink bandage. “I’ve got a sharpie in the truck if you want to sign it,” she smiled to Beth.

“No, I’ll just be happy enough with a healed up calf,” Beth told her. “That and an emptier calving barn.”

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] or at 605-688-5171.