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OSU Extension’s Model Cow Helps Ranchers Deal With Difficult Births

By Jenifer Cruickshank

Alberta the cow waited patiently while ranchers crowded around to help her give birth.

This wasn’t just any delivery and Alberta isn’t a real cow, however. She’s a model that gives lessons in how to help a cow overcome a difficult birth.

Jenifer Cruickshank, Oregon State University Extension Service dairy faculty and Charles Estill, OSU Extension veterinarian, recently used the model at Calving School workshops on the OSU campus in Corvallis and in Tillamook.

OSU Extension acquired Alberta, a life-size black model cow without a head or legs, four years ago and the model has been traveling the state teaching people how to deal with dystocia, a difficult birth that usually manifests itself in a turned calf or a calf that is too large. Alberta, who is also used to teach artificial insemination, has worked well.

“Alberta and her reproductive tract aren’t the real deal,” Cruickshank said. “But they are good replicates so folks can practice helping the ‘cow’ have a successful birth. The person can feel the reproductive parts and can get a good feel for how to help the cow go through a difficult birth or how to perform artificial insemination.”

"I learned a lot and today showed me there are things I’m doing right. That feels good.”

Difficult births can lead to a hefty reduction in a calf crop. Out of a herd of 100 cows, 85 of them pregnant, an average of 18% or 16 cows are likely to lose calves and another eight cows will die. With those kinds of figures, ranchers are looking for ways to save their herd, including Calving School.

Morgan and Chad Criss, who have 50 head of cattle at their ranch in Bonanza in southwest Oregon, attended one of the workshops at OSU. Both said it expanded their knowledge and they planned to use the tactics they had learned. Both grew up around cattle and were passionate about starting their own herd. Four years ago, they did.

“When I have a cow in labor, I check her every two hours,” said Chad Criss, who has beat the odds with only a 3% calf death rate. “I stress through the night. I want things to go right. Anything I can learn that makes me a better rancher, I do it. I’ve done my research. I learned a lot and today showed me there are things I’m doing right. That feels good.”

Brady Sweat, who has 100 head of cattle also in Bonanza, donned shoulder-length gloves and readied himself to help Alberta give birth. His face intent, Sweat reached in and began a tactile path through the reproductive tract to the artificial calf inside. With Cruickshank looking on, Sweat adjusted the calf, pulled firmly and guided the calf out. His face broke into a smile.

“That was cool,” Criss said. “Cows can get really big and have big calves. It’s more technical to deliver big calves, and I want to handle the births on my own. This helps me know if I’m doing it right because if I am, I won’t lose calves.”

As the ranchers took their turns, Cruickshank took a moment to assess the day.

“I think hands-on helps,” Cruickshank said. “Participants at Calving School are learning information and techniques that will help them be more successful in having healthy calves and cows through the calving process. If you can add to the ways people interact with the information, it adds to the experience. We told them things, showed them pictures, had them try it in a hands-on way – we’ve tried a multi-modal teaching approach, and it seems to be effective.”

Whether teaching techniques for difficult births or artificial insemination, Cruickshank is happy to help ranchers reach a new level of financial security.

“It gets at the black box where you really can’t see,” she said. “It’s good practice to feel with your hands and interpret what your hands are telling you. People go away from Calving School with some really good hands-on experience and Alberta is a big part of that.”

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