On the Ranch Journal
(The story of one ranch's operating room)
By Cris Paravicini
Julius Caesar entered this world by means of a surgical procedure named for him - Caesarian Section or C-section. This technique might be referred to as one of the most significant lifesaving methods used by mankind.
Caesarian sections are not used exclusively for the safe delivery of human offspring. For many years ranchers have relied upon this procedure to ensure the safe and successful delivery of their most saleable product - beef cattle.
A lone heifer stands hunched beside the old pinewood barn. She wears the suspicious mask of one troubled by the labor of birth. Other ladies-in-waiting push their ballooned bellies into position at a nearby feeder for a timothy and clover breakfast.
From an obscure position, the rancher and I observe the nervous heifer. She starts to pace around the corral, rubbing her massive sides along the pole fence. Her tasseled tail twitches like that of a cat about to hypnotize the breakfast bird. A white, amniotic fluid-filled sack - her waterbag - can be seen protruding from the birth canal. As it ruptures, one very large hoof is seen projecting from the womb.
The rancher comments that one foot might be back. As the heifer lies upon the frosty ground, her contractions strong and fast in a futile attempt to give birth, a decision is made to manually aid the delivery of her calf. An experienced rancher acquires a sixth sense in dealing with many tough situations. He knows that within a short span of time, and after exhausting normal means of extracting the calf, he might be performing a lifesaving operation. The same procedure might have to be performed if the calf is being born in the "breech" or "head back" positions and couldn't be turned, or if the heifer's pelvic structure is too small to accommodate her progeny.
On this particular ranch, Caesarian sections occur on the average of one or two every ten years. On ranches that are up-to-date on modern technology, C-sections are rare occurrences. Application of a selective breeding program improves herd genetics with respect to bone structure, low birthing weights, high milk ratios, EPD's (Expected Progeny Difference). Common sense practices of sound herd nutrition and selective culling, as well as selective replacing of mother cows, serve to harvest a product with low maintenance and high yield (money and weight).
Struggling to her feet, the mother-to-be is now being driven into the dimly lit barn. Her quick, light steps and extended tail remind me of a dainty lady stepping over a mud puddle. I notice that her eyes are glazed and riveted in a fixed stare because of this new sensation of pain.
The operating theater is a sturdy boxstall in the far corner of the barn. Even though fresh hay has been fluffed upon the floor, I inhale the musty, sour smell of cow manure and urine that lingers in the damp, cool air. The rancher and his hired man move quietly as they escort her into the stall and snap the gate closed. A quick survey of our surroundings reveals cobwebs swaying in the chilling draft. On the far wall a calf pulling apparatus is suspended on 60-penny spikes. Old blood spatterings on its many parts give the impression that this contraption originated in a medieval torture chamber.
Now, the heifer must be maneuvered into an even smaller area constructed with a hinged wooden panel that will restrict all movement when properly adjusted.
Instead, she has plans of her own. Visibly irritated, the angered cow rushes forward attempting to run full length of the men. A charging locomotive would not instill more fear, so a rush of blood and a surge of adrenaline create the primitive "fight or flight" effect. One slip of a cowboy's boot while scaling the smooth logs of the boxstall walls cause a harrowing and painful predicament for the man. During a Kodak moment like this, the cowboy's backward glance reveals the image of the bovine animal that by nature does not have top, front teeth, but suddenly she appears to have sprouted fangs and is blowing fire from flared nostrils. Her long, pointed, sandpaper-like tongue is protruding from a cavernous mouth that bellows distress signals, heralding her inescapable predicament.
Unable to connect with human flesh, the heifer swings wildly into the waiting confinement. A horse halter fashioned to fit a cow's head is slipped into place and snubbed to the barn wall. Further movement is impossible.
By this time the rancher has rushed his hyperactive kids to alert his wife of the impending surgery. "Tell your mom to see if the Procaine, that numbin' stuff, is in-date. Bring lots of catgut and see that the knife (scalpel) is sharp. Oh, yeh, tell her to bring the antiseptic soap, the hemostats, some hot water and lots of clean rags; she knows what to get," he orders after them as they scurry over the last corral fence.
Electric shears slide down the cow's left side clearing soft puffs of hair in preparation of the path that the knife will follow. "All hands and the cook" arrive and enter the stall with brown paper bags and cardboard boxes filled with supplies - a miniature mobile hospital unit. A 250-watt light bulb is turned into a fixture to become the only source of light. Some ranchers know this procedure entirely by feel, so lighting is of little significance.
A quick pumping action of the tail locates the last vertebra in the spine where five to ten milliliters of Procaine is administered epidural style to halt labor contractions. My nose tingles with the smell of Lysol and other aseptic solutions. Strangely, these odors have replaced the strong scent of animal wastes.
The general surgical area is lathered with antiseptic soap and Betadine solution and rinsed with water. Several thrusts of a needle and syringe filled with Novacaine administered at the site of the "excavation area," will allow the procedure to accur painlessly.
The heifer begins to sway. The numbing agent is doing its job. The gate is released so the animal can lie down if she chooses. The rancher and his helpers grab the animal's tail and pull sideways to help her go down with the left side upward. (Some surgeons prefer the right side, and some prefer that the cow remain standing.) Her head is still halter-tied to the wall.
Now the air is filled with blood-pulsing tension as the pace quickens. I observe sweat beads forming on pinched brows. "Hand me the knife! Let's get this calf out before it drowns," commands the man.
I watch in amazement as the rancher works deftly, hands steady like those of a skilled surgeon slicing human flesh. I decide that both are equally committed to a common cause - the preservation of life. Beneath the mound of black hide exists a life-form that is at the mercy of the man with the knife.
Soundlessly and smoothly like a skater's blade gliding across a mirror of ice, the scalpel slides downward through the massive form. First layer - the hide. Done. The subdural level is next. Done. Muscle tissue. Okay! The uterus pushes upward from the pressure created by the surrounding organs and intestines. Care is taken so that the contents do not spill onto the boxstall floor. The uterus, normally a pear-shaped organ, is grotesquely misshapen by the unborn form waiting within.
The assistants stare unblinking as the final incision is made. With shirtsleeves rolled to the shoulder, the rancher plunges his hand into the fluid searching for a hind hoof. The liquid splashes onto the man's overalls and steam rises from the pool of life, as the search continues for a limb to retrieve the helpless calf. A final examination of the "birth bed" yields the much-sought leg. Tracing to its source assures the location of its mate. The rancher pulls both feet from the womb and hands one leg to his nearest helper. With an effort produced in unison, the two men pull the calf from its mother's side.
Voices shout, "Shake it up and down so the mucous can drain!"
"Is it breathing?
Will it need CPR?"
"No, it's alive!"
"Great! I really didn't want to give the slimy, little thing mouth-to-mouth!"
Although mouth-to-nose resuscitation is intriguing to witness and extremely successful in application, the new calf will not need it. The first, rattling gasp for life has occurred during the shaking process. Already, the little bull calf is trying to hold his head upright.
Attention is returned to the mother who will be sutured, filled with antibiotics and left lying where she can see and smell her new calf. If infection doesn't set in, and if she doesn't abandon her maternal instincts, she'll forget the pains of surgery and proudly bring her healthy offspring to the weigh scales in the fall.
On tiptoes we creep softly from the operating stage, like a parent proudly leaving a sleeping baby's room. I reflect on what has just occurred and conclude that livestock are a ranch's "bread and butter." They bathe in pride and revel in the satisfaction of the battles they win, and learn lessons from those that they lose. Chance makes them "jacks-of-all-trades." Experience makes them "masters-of-many."
|The Pearson Angus Ranch is located approximately 2 miles
northwest of Daniel, and 11 miles west of Pinedale, Wyoming. Cris can be
reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyrights: Photos and page text content copyrighted,
Cris Paravicini, 1999-2000. Drawing of Daniel Schoolhouse by Teresa Shenefelt.
No part may be reproduced without permission of the author/photographer.
Page graphics copyrighted, Pinedale Online, 2000.