C-Sections And The Family Cow: What Every Farmer Should Know This Emergency Procedure

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A new calf on the family farm or homestead is always a cause to celebrate, but when the birthing process goes awry, surgical intervention is often required in order to save the life of the cow and her calf. Unfortunately, operating on a cow is usually very different than veterinary surgical procedures performed on smaller animals, such as dogs or cats.

This is because the sheer size of the animal. For example, a fully grown Holstein cow can weigh 1500 pounds or more, which can make it difficult or impossible to transport them to the animal hospital when an illness or injury occurs. Instead, surgical procedures, even those that require anesthesia for the animal and have the potential for serious complications due to their invasive nature, such as a Cesarean section, are often done on-site, often in a livestock barn or shelter on the farm. If managing a pregnant cow on your farm or homestead is a new experience for you, the following information can help you learn more about preparing for an emergency Cesarean section and how to determine when your cow may require this type of veterinary surgery. 

Understanding the most likely risk factors

Like humans, cows can also sometimes be at higher risk for certain types of health emergencies and conditions. A recent study of Dutch dairy farms provided several years of data that has helped to identify certain risk factors that could indicate a higher risk of a difficult birth that could result in the need for a Cesarean section.

These risk factors include: 

  • a first pregnancy, especially if the cow is a young heifer bred to a bull with the potential for larger than average offspring
  • a gestation period that extends longer than the normal length of 283 days 
  • a cow that has had a longer than average length of time between successful breedings and deliveries

Since the male calves are also typically heavier and larger framed than female calves in most cattle breeds, a cow who is carrying a single, male calf may also experience a higher than normal rate of calving difficulty due to the extra girth of the male calf. In addition, a calf that moves into the birthing canal while in an abnormal position often results in a need for a Cesarean section, especially when the hindquarters of the animal cannot progress through the birth canal successfully. 

Understanding the need for anesthesia

When the cow is laboring to deliver her calf without making steady progress, the calf can be in danger of suffocating, especially if it is lodged inside the birthing canal or the cord that supplies oxygen has become tangled. In this situation, a farmer who is unable to assist his cow in successfully birthing the calf must quickly call for veterinary care for their cow in order to reduce the risk of losing both cow and calf. In many such cases, a Cesarean section will be required. 

Because of the invasive nature of the C-section procedure, coupled with the stress and hormonal releases associated with the cow's struggle to birth the calf, the veterinarian will usually opt to utilize anesthesia before making the incision. This is done on the farm location through the use of portable veterinary anesthesia machines that can be set to deliver a pre-determined amount of the desired sedative to the cow both before and during the actual procedure. Since the procedure must be done quickly to give the calf the best chances of survival and lessen the strain on the cow, the anesthesia chosen will typically be one the wears off quickly. 

To learn more about your cow's risk for Cesarean section, as well as how the procedure is performed and the anesthesia your vet will use, take time to discuss your cow's health with your veterinarian or animal health care team well before the expected calving date.