Cows: not expecting the Spanish Inquisition

The large animal vet experience is medieval, yet quintessentially modern. Imagine a session with the Grand Inquisitor, all sharp, scary smoking implements of torture … assisted by a fast-talking pharmaceuticals sales rep.

I had to bring my best heifer calf in to the vet not once but twice last week. My neighbor trailered her in for me, and took the opportunity to have some work done on a couple of his cows, including one that he had dehorned. That was a singularly stomach-turning procedure. The cow’s head was tightly secured by squeeze gate and taut contorting ropes; then, without any anesthetic, a high-powered sawz all-type contraption sheers the horn off at the bud. The horn clatters to the concrete as blood spurts in all directions. And then the cauterizing fills the air with a sickening smell of singed hair, bone and blood.

Not long after that cow made it home, she miscarried.

My calf’s procedures were less nauseating. She had been in the first time because she was bloated and frothing. The vet crammed a pipe down her throat and then ran a plumber’s snake through, pushing a large chunk of a hedge apple out of the esophagus into the stomach. We thought that was the end of it, but the next day she was bloated again. The second procedure involved screwing a trochar and cannula into her side, puncturing the rumen, and letting the gas escape. She deflated like a balloon, and seems to be doing well, eating, nursing, pooping. She still has a hole in her side. She seeps and makes funny wheezing noises through it. Eventually, it is supposed to work its way out. Crossing fingers on that.

Cows are not pets, I know, but even so, having seen what I’ve seen, I would have to draw the line at dehorning. Why not just raise polled, i.e. hornless, cattle? I was however impressed by the trochar procedure, and will be even more so if it saves the life of my calf. Not so keen on the numerous medicaments suggested (and sometimes given without being requested) by the vets.

In my two years as a novice cattleman, I have yet to see my fundamental ideas disproven: that keeping cows healthy is a matter of keeping my herd apart from other cattle, moving them often when the grass is growing, feeding them exclusively grass and hay, and letting the mamas do most of the doctoring.

Having said that, I know I have learned only a tiny fraction of what I need to know. I am still a dilettante at this farming business, and will likely remain so until I’m too old to do the work.

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