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Fractured limbs can be casted or splinted for proper healing to save calves

Written by Saige

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.  

Bill Lias of Interstate Vet Clinic in Brandon, S.D. says one of the common ways legs get broken is when calves are being pulled with improper pressure.  

“If we are not careful when delivering calves during a dystocia, this can be a cause of fracture. Other common causes are being stepped on by the cow or the herd,” he says.  

If a predator or dogs go through the cattle and the cows are upset and running around, they may step on a newborn or young calf. Sometimes people aren’t careful when chasing cattle with a four-wheeler and may hit or run over a calf. A newborn calf hidden in the grass may accidentally get run over.

“The good thing about fractures in young calves is they heal quickly,” Lias said. “The bones grow so fast they are able to grow new bone and remodel very effectively.”

  “Calves are also hardy and stoic. They can withstand the pain issues better than a foal, for instance,” he continued, noting calves are likely to recover well, as a result.

Location

The location of the fracture is important, however.  

“This will dictate how easy or difficult it will be to stabilize the bone. Fractures higher in the leg are much harder to stabilize than fractures in the lower leg,” he explained. “We need to immobilize the joint above and the joint below the fracture, and this is easier to do on the lower leg.”

Open wounds

The other issue is whether or not there is an open wound and contamination.  

“If a sharp piece of bone has poked through the skin, this is what we call an open fracture, and the success rate for healing is lower because there is risk for infection in the bone,” he commented.

Producers should strive to immobilize and protect the fracture before it pokes through the skin.

“I’ve had some open fractures heal, due to the toughness of the calf and good care – with antibiotics and a good cast or splint,” he commented. “Surprisingly, some of those calves do fine, so I certainly don’t give up on them.  They sometimes amaze us on their ability to heal.”

End goal

The other good thing about treating a calf is that cattle aren't required to be athletes. Mainly, calves just need to heal and make market weight, so it doesn’t matter if a leg heals with a blemish.  

Lias added having the bone perfectly set is not as important, as long as the leg is functional after it heals, so the calf can get around and make it to the feed bunk.

Methods

There are many ways to stabilize a leg fracture.  

“I usually use a fiberglass cast because it’s handy, quick and easy to apply, and I am accustomed to working with this material,” Lias said.  

Many producers repair their own fractures, however, and are very successful, he explained. Material such as a good splint and duct tape can work, and PVC pipe with padding inside can be effectively used as a splint.

“Usually three to four weeks of immobilization is adequate time for the bone to heal. Then, we can remove the splint and the calf will do fine,” says Lias.

If the calf can be kept with its mother in a small pen where it doesn’t have to travel much to follow her around, the leg will heal nicely, he added.  

“If we get the fracture stabilized, usually the calf is pretty good about keeping up with mom, able to get up and down, and if it doesn’t have to travel a long distance, the leg will heal,” he said. “The calf needs to be in a place that’s clean and dry, though.”  

Calves that must walk through mud or manure can be negatively impacted if moisture gets into the splint or cast. Moisture may cause the calf to get dermatitis and sores. 

Challenges

Fractures on the upper leg are the most challenging, according to Lias. 

“If the fracture is above the knee or hock or above the elbow or stifle, it’s more difficult to manage because it’s harder to stabilize the joint that’s higher up on the shoulder or hip,” Lias said.  

“On a hind leg fracture above the stifle, we need to immobilize the hip joint, and that’s very difficult to do without an elaborate cast or what we call a Thomas splint,” he explained. “It can be done, but it’s very involved, and the expense may surpass the value of the calf unless it’s a valuable breeding animal.”

The only thing producers can do in the case of difficult fractures is keep the calf in a confined area where it doesn’t have to move much at all.

Lias said, while sometimes these will heal, often, they don’t.  

“Most fractures occur below the knee or hock, however, and these are much more manageable,” he comments.

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..