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Drought-affected farmer performing caesarean sections on pregnant cows too weak to deliver

Shannon Corvo, Friday November 15, 2019 - 17:24 EDT
Audience submitted image
Vets across Australia are noticing pregnancy rates of cattle are dropping due to the drought. - Audience submitted

On rain-starved properties across Australia, farmers are having to make tough decisions to keep their stock and businesses alive.

For farmer and grazier Scott Richardson, that has meant euthanasing four cows before performing caesareans on each of them at his recently deceased father's property, 100 kilometres south-west of Dubbo in central-west New South Wales.

He said he had performed the caesareans to try and save the unborn calves.

"In the beginning they [pregnant cows] were going down and we were trying to water them, feed them, and keep them alive and we were losing the battle," Mr Richardson said.

"We've tried going down there with a crane on the back of the truck, lifting them up, getting some circulation back into their legs but they won't do it because they're just essentially too weak [to deliver].

"I'm not trained in anything like this; I just figure [after seeing] somebody do it on TV — if they can do it, I can do it.

"You're there to try and preserve the life of the calf."

In all four instances, the calves were already dead or died shortly after birth.

Mr Richardson's Pinegrove property is about 1,400 hectares of mixed farming, cropping, wheat, sheep, cattle, and oats.

Due to the lack of rain, there is no topsoil or plant mass, which means his cattle are not getting the nutrients like calcium and magnesium that they need.

He said this made it incredibly difficult for cows to fall pregnant, give birth, or survive in general.

"We had 204 head of cattle 18 months ago [and] we're now down to 25 cows and calves," he said.

C-section success rate dependent on health

University of Adelaide Veterinarian and member of the Australian Cattle Veterinarians, Mandi Carr, has been working with cattle for more than 20 years.

She has performed about 1,000 caesareans across the country and said the survival rate for calves delivered by caesarean depended on the health of the mother.

"If you have a really healthy animal that hasn't been calving for too long, your survival rates are very good," she said.

"We're talking well above 80 per cent survival rate of cow and calf.

"The longer the animal is calving, and if they're a little bit unhealthy, your survival rates are going to go down fairly significantly on the cow, particularly if the calf is dead or if it has a malformation.

"Those cows do it pretty tough, so their survival rates will drop pretty significantly to well below 50 per cent if you try to do a caesarean on a poor choice of animal."

Welfare of animal primary concern

Dr Carr said deciding to euthanase and perform a caesarean on a weak cow was an incredibly difficult decision for a farmer.

"That is a really mentally and emotionally taxing decision for them to have to make, a decision to euthanase their livelihood," she said.

"But they've got the welfare of the animal at the forefront of their mind and they'll always do what's best for the animal.

"A lot of them are very good with performing a c-section or opening the cow up and taking samples for us in terms of a post-mortem when we have a disease outbreak, so I would think that [farmers are] more than competent."

Preventative measures

Australian Cattle Veterinarians has 1,100 cattle vets stationed across Australia, based predominantly in rural and remote areas.

Executive officer Ellen Buckle said vets had told her the drought had caused pregnancy rates to fall.

"They estimate [pregnancy rates] are down somewhere in the order of 10 to 40 per cent," she said.

Ms Buckle said more information should be provided to farmers before they had to euthanase their stock because their animals were too weak to give birth.

"I think the aim needs to be to help producers getting caught in these bad welfare situations in the first place," she said.

"By the time they're in the situation where the cow is so weak that it is going to have to be euthanased, that's a terrible situation for the cow and it's a terrible situation for the farmer.

"Whether that is euthanasing early or destocking much earlier, these are all things that need to be looked at."


© ABC 2019

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