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Pets Large & Small

Cow Calls

Dr. Kimberly Brokaw
Walkersville Veterinary Clinic

(9/2012) I don't usually care for working on cows. Usually, the cows as well as the farmers are nice but economics tends to dictate the care provided as opposed to the well being of the animal. I also like cleanliness, and the typical dairy farm is dirtier than I would prefer. Couple that with the facts that cows tend to be large, strong, and sometimes not very cooperative. These factors add up, and can cause unpleasant and dangerous working conditions. Due to those issues, I have chosen to not have regular dairy clients of my own. Instead I limit my regular work to horses, cats, dogs, goats, and the occasional chicken, sheep, and llama. However, if I'm on call, or one of the other vets is on vacation, I have to work on cows.

Recently I have had to go to two different farms. One was for a beef cow and the other a dairy cow. I'd never been to the beef farm before and had yet to meet the farmers. One of the challenges of beef is that unlike dairy cows which get handled multiple times per day, beef are often un-handled. Because of this, beef cows tend to be a little more flighty and difficult to manage. While this cow couldn't be led in a halter like a horse, she was friendly and it didn't take much coaxing to get her to walk into the shoot so she could be examined. This was good evidence that the farmers had treated her well and that she was accustomed to a gentle hand. She had prolapsed her uterus and it needed to be placed back inside of her. The farmers were excellent and freely offered their assistance as I worked.

At one point I had to ask the farmer to put on gloves and hold the uterus in the cow so I could stitch around to keep it from prolapsing again. While I had given the cow an epidural, she was still trying to push. As the farmer continued to hold the uterus in place he laughed that he bet I couldn't have asked a horse client to do that for me. He was right. The typical horse client is a bit squeamish and hesitant to participate in procedures. As it was, his assistance was essential in the surgery. I even have to admit that while replacing a prolapsed uterus is usually a very unpleasant experience, his continued joking and requests that I not sew his arm into the cow, as well as watching the cow trot off after the procedure made it gratifying.

Dairy cows are usually easier to work on. While the dairies these days are large with numerous cows, some of the farmers still give their cows individual attention and call the cows by name. I have gone to one particular dairy farm on several occasions. Each time I go, the barns are tidy and the cows are clean and friendly. Not only do the cows live in a cleaner environment than the typical dairy cow, the farmer cares about them as animals and not just as a commodity. It took a few visits out there for me to fully realize that. The first hint was when the farmer told me about a cows clinical signs, and called her by name rather than number. My next visit out would be when I truly learned just how much this farmer cared for the cows.

One dairy cow had been trying to give birth and was getting weaker. The farmer had managed to get one calf out but there was a second that was stuck. When I got there and did an exam on the cow I discovered not one, but two remaining calves inside. At this point the cow was barely able to stand, and very weak. The calves unfortunately were dead. They had been dead for awhile and were emphysematous, making them extremely difficult to remove from inside the cow. Unfortunately, it was decided that it would be best for the cow to be humanely destroyed. In this sort of situation some farmers would elect to take a cow such as this one to slaughter while others would elect to just shoot her and compost her on the farm. However, this farmer requested that I euthanize the cow. The cow had been with the family for a long time and always been sweet and productive. For those reasons they preferred that method of death. While it may seem odd but that act of kindness has stood out in my mind over the years. It was a clear act of compassion where the farmer proved to me that the cow was much more than a commodity. Not only did the farmer lose the potential meat price of the cow, but also paid for an euthanasia. As I reflect on that choice it saddens me that in making the right choice from a humanitarian side, the farmer had to suffer an economic loss.

Luckily my next and most recent visit to that dairy would be happier. I was directed out to the heifer barn. As heifers haven't had a calf yet, they haven't been milked. As such, they haven't always been handled a lot making them frequently fractious. However, at this farm that was not the case. The heifers were friendly and handled better than some of the horses I see. The sick heifer was easily caught and haltered and brought to the side of the barn. While the farmer was explaining the heifer's clinical signs, several other heifers came over and started licking and searching for rubs and attention from the farmer. It was obvious that the farmer had spent lots of time with them, giving them care and affection. The one heifer that had been off her feed and was partially bloated making her the shape of a pear on one side and an apple on the other (a papple). The heifer's clinical signs were consistent with vagal indigestion. Treatment options were discussed with the farmer and medications were administered.

Every time I go out to that dairy farm I see one more example of how much that farmer cares for the cows. It is shown through all the little blankets that the calves wear in the winter to the interactions observed between the cows and people. If all cattle operations were run like the two I described above, I'm pretty sure that not only would I not mind working on cows, but I'd probably look forward to it.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw