I was mowing the lawn on a beautiful, sunny and warm Saturday afternoon when my phone vibrated in my pocket. I shut off the tractor and heard Stan, a herdsman on a local dairy, say he had a cow that needed to be seen. She was down. She had a uterine torsion that was so tight Stan could not get his hand through the cervix. She was outside, and Stan wasn’t sure how long she had been down. He had given her a bottle of calcium, and she did not respond. She did not look good. This was enough information to give me a bad feeling. Stan had worked with cows for his entire life, and his skills regarding everything cow were amazing. In fact, I often told him I believed he was at least one-half cow. So, when Stan said he didn’t think the outcome of this situation looked promising, I believed him. Nevertheless, I replied, “I will be right out. Can you move her inside, out of the sun?” He told me they would get the pay loader and get the cow in the intensive care pen.
    Stan was right. The cervix was completely closed. The torsion was likely a complete flip, or 360 degrees. She was a big, black cow, 1,700 or 1,800 pounds, and she was not very responsive. Someone wiser than me once said that the answer to the question, “How do you eat an elephant?” was “One bite at a time.” So, we started. We needed to roll her to untwist the torsion. Stan got on the radio and soon had rounded up an army of four or five strong, younger co-workers. I explained how we needed to roll her. Subsequently, there was a lot of grunting and heavy breathing as we made our first attempt. This made her wake up. She immediately put one of her front legs out to the side to create a strong triangle that much as we tried, sabotaged our efforts. We pushed the leg back and regrouped. Stan had one of the rear legs. Just about the time we were at the tipping point, she gave that leg a good kick, sending Stan flying. He landed on his butt in the sand. Pretty much everyone thought that was quite funny, as a roar of laughter erupted. On the next try, we got her flipped. I examined her rectally to see if the torsion was corrected. Nope. We did it again, and upon my exam, I determined that we had partially untwisted the uterus. We tried again. As she finished rolling she hit a portable feeding pan on the side of the pen, making it fly. All of a sudden, a cat jumped into the fray, nearly landing on the cow. We could hear soft mewing. Marvin looked near the pen divider and reached down to rescue two kittens, who had apparently been living under the feeder. Mom seemed to be relieved as she carried them away. This time we had corrected the torsion.
    We still had a long way to go however. We had only taken one or two bites of the elephant. With uterine torsions, often delivery of the calf is difficult even after the torsion is corrected. In this case, the head was twisted and folded back toward the front of the cow. Sometimes one has to use a head snare or an obstetrical chain to get the head pointed in the right direction. This can be difficult. It is especially difficult when the cow is down because there is more pressure on the uterus from the abdominal organs. Plus, trying to reach to the end of one’s fingertips to slide a cable or chain over the calf’s head is particularly hard when lying on your side in a pool of fetal fluids, even on a warm day. Try as I might, I could not get that cable over the poll. I switched to a chain, and after some time, thought I had it. Sitting up in the muck, I put a handle on the chain and pulled hard to a make sure the chain was properly attached. But then the chain slipped off, and I rolled backward, completely over onto my knees. The crew apparently thought seeing Old Doc do a backflip was hilarious, too, because there was another roar of laughter. Unfazed, I returned to the depths of the beast and replaced the chain. This time it held, and I was able to get the head straightened enough to attach the fetal extractor. We then carefully and slowly extracted a live heifer calf. This was an unexpected, happy outcome.  
    I had a lot of cleaning up to do. Once in the milkhouse, I removed my tbibs and top and hosed them off. Remarkably, I was reasonably clean and dry underneath. Just as I finished cleaning, Stan walked in and said, “She just got up.” This was even more remarkable. I walked back to the pen to see her licking off her calf, neither looking worse for the wear. Stan and I stood there for a bit, admiring the sight. I am pretty sure he was thinking the same thing as I; that we all had beat the odds today. A big, black, down cow, a calf living inside a uterus completely closed by a refractory cervix, and two old guys rolling around in the sand; we all came out unscathed. The elephant had been eaten. It was a great day to be on the farm.
    Bennett is one of four dairy veterinarians at Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center in Plainview, Minn. He also consults on dairy farms in other states. He and his wife, Pam, have four children. Jim can be reached at bennettnvac@gmail.com with comments or questions.