Assisted Birthing with Cesarean Sections

Published on Wed, 12/16/2009 - 10:55am

Many factors can require dairy producers to provide assistance to cows when the birth of a calf is delayed or complicated. The medial term dystocia is used to refer to this condition. Among general causes are oversized calves, calves that aren’t in the proper birth position (feet first) or an injured or sick cow. Genetics, nutrition and reproductive management are all important factors in reducing dystocia.

Even a slight calving problem has been shown to increase the odds of stillbirth by 2.91 percent in heifers and 4.67 percent in more mature cows. Forced extraction, pulling the calf, increases the chances of death in either the calf or the heifer by more than 4 percent in the first 21 days after the birth.
There is however an option to helping to sustain the life of the heifer and her calf. When you have a heifer that is in distress it is imperative to try and keep both the heifer and calf as comfortable as possible and look at all options for birthing.
Assisted Birth Options
Completing a cesarean section is an option when cows are not able to give birth. However, the attending veterinarian will do a thorough examination before making that decision. The birth process, especially for heifers, takes time and progress can be slow.
If a calf is not in the proper birth position (uterine torsion) it may be possible that manipulation can move the fetus into position and the birth can proceed without further complications. “Most often this is a salvage operation,” according to Dr. Jeff Arnold.
Indications that a cow is in an advanced stage of labor and may need immediate intervention include:
• Water sac is visible for two hours and the cow is no longer trying to give birth.
• Cow has been straining for more than 30 minutes and no progress has been made.
• After a long period of progress the cow has stopped trying to give birth.
• The cow is experiencing severe rectal bleeding and/or fatigue and/or the calf is showing stress signs such as fatigue or a swollen tongue.
• It’s obvious that the calf is backwards or only one leg has appeared.
The advantages of a c-section may be that it’s the only option for delivering a live calf. The surgery can also reduce the amount of time the cow and calf are traumatized in the instance of dystocia.
Among the disadvantages is the risk of infection in the abdominal incision. The disposition of the cow should be considered, as the surgery will be a traumatic experience. Resulting complications of the surgery can include adhesions and infections of the incision site.
Dr. Jeff Arnold with Town and Country Vetrinaty Center in Fort Dodge, IA tells us that, “Cost aside we recommend after a c-section birth that the heifer is kept until lactation and sold shortly after, because of the scar tissue most are unable to reproduce again. They may cycle but are unable to settle. Some of the larger facilities like the universities may be able to get the heifers to breed again but the average vet is going to recommend the producer sell that particular heifer.”
The Calves
When the calf is born, it may be necessary to clear its airway, stop navel bleeding or provide immediate warmth. Often, a finger inserted into one nostril and rotated is enough to initiate breathing. If not, the lungs may have to be cleared of fluid by hanging the calf by the hind legs and letting the lungs drain.
Towel drying, sitting the calf in sternal recumbency and shifting its body position to stimulate it will all help the calf survive. The navel should be dipped in iodine to prevent infection.
Any calf born through a dystocia scenario needs extra care. Regardless of the circumstances of the assisted birth, the calf should be observed to assess the full impact of the event. Among signs of compromise are delayed time to stand, delayed or weak suckle, reduced vigor and strength or low body temperature at any time during the first hour after delivery.
Within four hours of birth, the calf’s nose and mucus membranes should turn pink. If that isn’t observed, a veterinarian should be consulted as quickly as possible.
Veterinarians recommend that producers maintain records for the calf to monitor and manage any future complications resulting from the assisted birth.
Calves born with assistance can be assumed to have a higher than average level of metabolic and respiratory acidosis. These conditions can cause calves to be weak and depressed. IV fluids will help address the condition.
It’s possible the calf will struggle to generate enough body heat to maintain proper body temperature, especially in a cool or cold environment. Dystocia-affected calves are generally less active and have poor cardio-respiratory function so oxygen isn’t properly delivered to body tissues.
Because of reduced activity, dystocia-affected calves breath poorly, which further exacerbates all their problems. Keeping the calf warm and avoiding a chill is the best practice.
Obtaining necessary colostrum is also an issue for dystocia-affected calves because they don’t suck as vigorously. A calf should receive approximately 4.5 to 5 percent of its body weight in colostrum during the first 24 hours following birth. The calf can be tubed to deliver the colostrum. Poor gut function may also be a result of poor respiratory function and low oxygen. In this instance, absorption of immunoglobulins in the colostrum will be reduced even if the colostrum supply is sufficient.
Most calves in assisted birth circumstances absorb immunogloblulins poorly because they aren’t delivering enough oxygen to tissues. Extra colostrum feedings can help overcome the issue. The high degree of nutrition in the colostrum can only help a compromised calf.
Ways to Prevent Dystocia
Many of today’s dairy producers encounter dystocia at some point. The average cost of calf mortality from dystocia is $12/calving or $600 per year in a 50-cow herd. The cost of labor, veterinary care and a longer calving interval is likely to triple that cost.
Small cows trying to give birth to large calves account for the majority of dystocia cases. First-calf heifers are twice as likely to experience dystocia than older cows because they aren’t fully matured. Bull calves, because they’re larger, often cause more calving difficulties than heifers.
Winter calving conditions also increase the instance of dystocia. Lack of exercise in winter is a probably factor in the need for assisted birth. Multiple births and malpresentations of the calf also increase chances for dystocia.
There is a genetic component related to dystocia, however studies have shown it to be a factor in only 5-15 percent of dystocia instances.
A management plan that strives to produce live, average-sized calves from every cow with heifers freshened at 24 months has been shown to be effective and successful. Beef bulls are sometimes used because resulting calves are thought to be smaller. The practice may reduce dystocia, however genetic improvement is sacrificed in the process, which can actually increase costs significantly over the long term. In recent years beef breeds have increased in size and breadth, which diminishes the effectiveness of this strategy.
As producers select herd sires, it’s recommended that they review the dystocia record of the animal. If a sire produces small calves that are born without difficulty, the calves may grow to be heifers/cows that are small enough they experience a great deal of calving difficulty.
Excess fat will be a liability at calving time. Heifers should be growing at a pace that they are large enough to breed at 15 months and calve at 24 months. If they’re grown properly and bear a calf sired by the same breed, they shouldn’t experience calving difficulty. Recommended ages and weights for breeding heifers is available through the US Departement of Agriculture.
Maternity areas need to be clean, dry and well ventilated to minimize the possibility of a calf becoming infected with disease organisms. Cows should not be tied or restricted in the calving area. Straw bedding is preferable to wood shavings. Calves inhale sawdust, irritating the lungs and increasing mortality.
Producers should closely monitor the maternity area and frequently observe cows close to giving birth.
Selecting Service Sires
The National Association of Animal Breders (NAAB) publishes genetic evaluations for Holstein A.I. sires in the U.S. ranking them for the ease with which their calves are born.
Additional Precautions
• Feed heifers to calve with adequate size at 24 months and cows so they are in good flesh to calve once each year but not over conditioned.
• Give the cow adequate time to prepare for delivery.
• Observe strict sanitation procedures when examining a cow.
• Know your limitations in evaluating the cow’s condition. Call for veterinary
assistance when trouble occurs and before the cow becomes exhausted.
• Provide detailed, attentive neonatal calf care.
• Select service sires for heifers with calving ease proofs of 10 percent or less.