Dealing with Broken Bones in Calves

By Heather Smith Thomas An Interview with Dave “Doc” Barz

Occasionally cattle suffer fractures, and it’s generally a leg bone. Often it’s a young or newborn calf, and the fractured limb should be cast or splinted for proper healing.

Dr. Dave Barz, Northwest Veterinary and Supply, Parkston, South Dakota says the good thing about a broken leg in a calf is that young animals heal better than older cattle because there’s less weight to support, and the bones in a young, growing animal can create new bone growth rapidly. “Your expectancy for recovery is a lot better in a small calf than a 1000-pound animal,” he says.

Causes include being stepped on by a cow, injuries from too much force on a leg by improper use of a calf jack, accidents such as getting caught in a fence or the chute, hit by a vehicle, run over by a 4-wheeler, a curious calf getting into a predicament. Calves are like little kids that try all kinds of things; they haven’t learned their limitations.

Sometimes bones are not as strong as they should be, due to nutritional deficiencies. If a rancher is seeing more than the occasional broken leg, something like copper deficiency might be suspected. “You need to check mineral levels, because if cattle are deficient in certain minerals the bones may not develop as rapidly as they should,” he says.

The bones of any young calf are fairly soft and less mineralized, however, and not as strong as the bones of an older animal. “With maturity, the bones gain density, and can withstand a lot of force. Fractures are fairly common, however in young animals, just because the bones are not as strong.”

If a calf breaks a leg, it needs immediate attention. The rancher can often support the broken leg and keep it from being damaged farther until the veterinarian can examine it and put on a cast if needed, and sometimes what the rancher creates as a splint will be adequate without a cast. “We often talk about using something we call a soft cast—a way that the rancher can take care of it. Generally those injuries are in the lower leg and can usually be supported fairly easily. It’s more problem if the fracture is in the upper leg like the hip or shoulder. We can make a specialized splint for those but the rancher would need help with that.”

Barz recommends having a calf first aid kit in the calving barn or at hand during calving season. “This should include materials that could be used to help immobilize a broken leg, such as roll cotton. It makes good padding to put between the leg and the solid splint material, and can also be used for cleaning up the hind end of a cow that you need to assist or check during calving. You can soak a piece of roll cotton with disinfectant and use it to clean up the cow and then throw it away,” he says.

“I also like to have Vetrap in the first aid kit for horses and cattle because it stretches. You can wrap the leg with roll cotton, and wrap around the cotton with Vetrap. Then, to immobilize it even more, I like to use a piece of 2-inch plastic PVC pipe (cut to the proper length to support the leg) and cut it in thirds lengthwise and use one of the thirds. If it’s a smaller pipe I cut it in half. This creates a trough for the leg to lie in. You lay that piece of pipe behind the soft cast and then wrap more Vetrap around the whole thing.” This adds stiff support to the homemade “cast”.

“Don’t just wrap the broken spot. The splint/cast needs to go all the way to the ground (to help take the weight) and up past the next joint. If it’s a broken front leg it should go from the ground all the way up to the elbow so you can keep the whole leg stiff,” he says.

It is important to get this onto the calf as soon as possible. “Often we are dealing with calves that are very young and need to suckle. They must be able to stand up, to suckle the cow. If you can get them up, they will manage. I’ve seen calves where both front legs were broken and they can still get up and suckle if you immobilize the break.” Calves are agile and can get and down and move around with a cast or splint on a leg, if you can keep the fractured area protected and immobilized.

Measure how long you need the plastic pipe to be (from ground to elbow) and saw it off at that length. For a hind leg, you can heat the plastic pipe at the proper spot with a cutting torch so you can bend it in the area of the hock joint, and have it go from the ground to the stifle.

“If you get that on properly, that may be adequate and this is all the calf will need, if it’s not a compound fracture coming through the skin. On a simple fracture on the lower leg, these have more than 80% chance for full recovery if you can get them immobilized enough. The main problem would be if it’s an injury from calving chains being too tight around the bone. This disrupts the circulation if there is too much crushing and tissue damage, and this may hinder proper healing. The circulation in the bone is different from other areas of the body. It takes a lot of blood flow around it, to enable it to heal,” he explains.

“What I see a lot of time when ranchers try to attempt a splint is that they’ll use a short piece of board that’s not long enough, and electrical tape. There’s no stretch to that tape and it essentially shuts off the circulation too much. Sometimes this does more damage than if they’d simply left it alone,” says Barz.

Simple first aid is the goal. “When I was going to vet school and we were talking about a temporary splint to immobilize a horse’s broken leg, one option was to wrap a magazine around the area (opening up the magazine and wrapping around and around the leg).” That will create a soft cast because it provides some support but there’s also some give. This would also work for a calf’s leg, but the plastic pipe works a lot better because it’s a lot easier to secure.

“The advantage of using plastic pipe (padded with cotton or even a soft towel around the leg itself) is that you can wrap pretty tightly around it because there is soft padding between it and the leg. The pipe is usually wider than the leg and allows for circulation,” says Barz.

“When I put a cast on little calves, I always incorporate a piece of plastic pipe to add support, putting padding around the leg, the pipe over the padding, and the cast around the pipe. It stays on fairly well,” he says.

“I recommend leaving the cast or splint on for a month. Even if you can get three weeks before it starts to get loose, the leg will generally be healed enough, but a month is better.” This gives more guarantee that it is fully healed. Young animals heal rapidly.

If it’s a compound fracture (parts of the bone coming through the skin), it’s very important to get it cleaned up and attended to very quickly. “You probably need a splint even more in this situation, because if the calf walks around there will be more damage and contamination; the bone may be stepped right into the manure,” he says. If the wound becomes contaminated and the bone gets infected, the calf’s chances for recovery are not as good.

“It is important to keep the calf up and going, if you can, using calf-barn first aid. It’s good to have some materials on hand that you can use,” he says.

“Even for me, cast padding is relatively expensive. If I am putting a cast on, or if the rancher needs some padding for a splint, one thing that I use a lot is the felt from a cheap saddle pad. You can take those apart and there’s 3/8 inch or so of felt inside. You can cut that in strips and wrap it around the leg,” he says.

Another key to successful healing is limited exercise. “You don’t want a lot of activity and weight-bearing until it heals. Baby calves, even though they like to run and buck, are also content to lie in a certain spot where their mother parks them. Like a young fawn, they will spend their day lying there until mama comes back. A very young calf with a broken leg will be content in confinement. Thus the best success is with a good splint or cast to immobilize the break with good padding that doesn’t restrict blood circulation, and limiting the calf’s activity for the first days while it starts to heal.” Most of these fractures heal perfectly, and the calf will go on to lead a normal life.
The broken bone ends don’t even have to be perfectly lined up; they will grow back together and remodel. Even if it has a lump on it after you take the cast off, by the time the animal grows up you will never notice it.

“I had a client many years ago that bought some bred cows at a sale. These were purebreds and very expensive. When one of the cows calved, the calf had a femur fracture that must have occurred during pregnancy. The bone ends were overriding each other, but had already healed back together. That had to be something that happened during handling or trucking that cow, to injure the fetus’ leg and break it. The bone was fully healed at birth, but that leg was shorter by 6 inches!”