Week 49, 2018 | Kristin Kimball | Dec 7, 2018
Cream the Jersey cow was due to calve last week. She’s a favorite, and we were hoping for a heifer from her, but that was not to be. We knew something was off on Sunday afternoon. She was restless, mooing the plaintive moo you only hear at births, but she wasn’t making any progress. She also had a dull bloody discharge that looked ominous. Once a cow is in labor, birth should be complete within an hour. I put on a glove to figure out what was happening inside of her.
Difficult births are a physical puzzle, worked blind and one-handed, in tight, slippery quarters. This puzzle got tricky immediately. Just inside the birth canal, I felt a hoof, and a little deeper in, another. But there was no nose where it ought to be, tucked between two front legs like a streamlined diver ready for entry into the chilly pool of life. As I followed the legs back with my fingers I found hocks, instead of knees. Back legs presenting first? An unusual breech position. Beyond the hocks, I couldn’t find the right landmarks. Where were the hard bones of the rear end, the straight line of a spine? And why was there so much mush? I knew by then that the calf was dead, but for Cream’s sake, we needed to get it out. She heaved through a huge contraction, and I gave the hooves a firm pull. Nothing moved. I’ve had plenty of experience with lambs, but hard calvings on our farm are rare. I’ve only had to pull two calves in 15 years. So when Mark and Scott Hoffman arrived to help, I held Cream’s big head in my lap and googled difficult breech calving, reading out loud. Could it be a twisted uterus? A tangled pair of twins? Or something called a fetal monster? “Fifty percent of breech births occur in cows carrying twins,” I read. Fetal monsters – a terrible name for badly deformed fetuses or conjoined twins – are much more unusual, and difficult, for obvious reasons.
There are no local vets who make farm calls on Sundays, so we called Ben Christian instead. He’s seen thousands of calvings and assisted at hundreds. He arrived with his brother, Scott, and his nephew, Jon. With the Christians on our team, we had experience, and also more strength, and we needed all we could get. It was still several stressful, cold, and confusing hours before the brutal saga ended, the dead calf was extracted, and the answer to the puzzle was revealed.
It was a fetal monster after all, a type called schistosomus reflexus, which happens in 1 of 100,000 births. Due to a faulty division of cells very early in development, the fetus’s spine had fused laterally into a pinched U, the hind end right up next to the head, the legs all bunched together like a morbid bouquet. The fetus’s abdominal cavity does not close properly in these cases, so the intestines and other organs developed on the outside of the body. That would explain the mush.
When something goes so wrong, I marvel at how often everything goes right. The best news is that Cream is fine, recovered, milking like crazy. Cows really are tough as nails. We always tell you when we give an antibiotic, and we did have to give her one to prevent a uterine infection. As always, we doubled the time legally required before using her milk. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this chill 49th week of 2018. Find us at 518-963-4613, firstname.lastname@example.org, on the web and insta at essexfarmcsa, or on the farm, any day but Sunday.
–Kristin & Mark Kimball