When not all calves are born equal

When not all calves are born equal


With the calving season comes calving deformities.

This calf was born with epitheliogenesis imperfecta - with an area of exposed flesh where skin and hair failed to grow.

This calf was born with epitheliogenesis imperfecta - with an area of exposed flesh where skin and hair failed to grow.

In the weeks leading up to calving season, it's not only farmers that are busy.

In the vet clinic, the mood becomes increasingly grim.

In the back shed, rust is being scrubbed off palm knives, the 'good' calving straps have disappeared and the big gallon drums of obstetric lubricant are rolling through the door.


In the front office, pleas for annual leave taken at this time of the year fall on deaf ears.

You'd better not get sick! It's all hands on deck when calving season comes around.

Soon, you're wearing long sleeves to the shops, in case the cuts and bruises lead to uncomfortable conversations.

The lack of sleep begins to show on your face, as you develop the thousand-yard stare approach to small animal consultations.

The stench of rotten calf hangs around you, ruining your attempts to find a romantic partner.

Your tolerance for confusing situations drops without warning, much like a heifer at her first calving.

There's only one bright side when it comes to calving season and that, of course, is the calves.

To be more specific, my favourite thing about calving season is the calving deformities.

I've always had a strong interest in congenital malformations (perhaps this is the other reason for my unsuccessful dating career).

There's nothing more exciting than expecting a boring four-legged one-headed calf to come out, and then being completely surprised by a double-header, or a three-legger, or even just a giant ball of flesh filled with teeth and fur.

Getting called out to see one of these is unusual.

They're uncommon anyway, and some of the more exotic deformities make calving very difficult - like schistosomus reflexus (or an 'inside out' calf) where the legs are curled backwards towards the spine and the organs have spilled out of an open abdomen - so you get to see most malformations firsthand.

But on one fine morning a few years ago, I did get a call.

I remember hearing uncertainty in the client's voice.

'Not quite right', I recall him saying.

'No, it was an easy pull.' Hmm.

The calf was in the paddock when I got to the farm, and she was bright and able to stand.

The problem was immediately obvious.

She seemed normal in almost all respects except for one: she was a missing patch of skin over her left stifle.

There was no blood or damaged tissue.

Just a pink, shiny, otherwise healthy exposed site of flesh.


I knew immediately that I was looking at a rare case of epitheliogenesis imperfecta - a fancy Latin term that simply means 'imperfect' (imperfecta) 'skin' (epithelio-) 'creation' (genesis).

It's when a calf is born with an exposed portion of flesh where skin and hair have failed to grow.

It is not caused by excessive trauma during calving - which is what my farmer seemed to be worried about - and is instead more likely attributable to a genetic defect.

There are two approaches to this situation.

The first is immediate euthanasia.

This is the kindest thing to do if a large section is missing.

Without access to skin grafts, our ability to manage a severe case is limited, and all that exposed flesh is painful and at almost certain risk of infection.

If it's too big and too much to handle, then it's best to let them go.

However, if the size of the missing piece is not excessively large and the farmer is willing to commit to careful management, then it may be possible to attempt treatment.

In this case, I administered long-acting pain relief and antibiotics and we treated the defect like an open wound.

She was put into a hospital pen, and the farmer did a great job of ensuring that the pen was clean, the wound was clean, and that the calf was happy and eating.

Sepsis caused by spreading infection is thought to have been the main cause of death in previously described cases.

The farmer was under strict instructions to call back if the calf lost condition, became depressed or refused to eat or drink - with a high likelihood of euthanasia in these circumstances.

After several weeks, the 15-centimetre defect contracted down to roughly 3cm in size without any associated loss of limb function.

Ten months later, the heifer was healthy and thriving with the other young stock in the herd.

The only sign of the defect was an abrupt change in the hair direction over her left stifle, where two opposing patches of skin had sealed together.

All in all, it was a satisfying ending to an uncertain situation.

If the heifer is a healthy and happy herd member, what does it matter what she looks like?

After all, nobody's perfect... and beauty only runs skin deep.

*Ee Cheng Ooi is a cattle veterinarian undertaking a PhD in fertility and genetics at DairyBio. All comments and information in this article are intended to be of a general nature only. Please consult the farm's vet for herd advice, protocols and/or treatments that are tailored to a herd's particular needs. Comments and feedback are welcome, email eecheng.ooi@agriculture.vic.gov.au.

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