Olé, Silver Anniversary Edition
By Bill Stork, DVM
Some lessons should last a lifetime. You may recall that while still in school doing a midnight calf check, I was distracted by a friend and classmate. Only to be rescued by the very source of the distraction, after a Hereford cow unceremoniously tossed me against a wall. Every 25 years, an opportunity for a refresher comes along.
Monday, June 17, started like any other. Alarm sounds at 4:43am, 3-year-old Australian Shepherd-Blue Heeler crawls next to me for a little head scratch, and feet on the floor. No need for a snooze alarm: a 48-year-old bladder takes care of that just fine.
As a clear manifestation of “nature vs. nurture”, my chosen wake-up time is anything but random. First, my dad and grandpa were early risers. Second, the specific time is thanks to one of my most favorite farm clients. Marilyn Claas farmed for the better part of 50 years with her husband and kids, the last few of which were solo, as her husband passed early of leukemia. “Stubborn” isn’t so flattering; my dad calls that defining trait “German Persistence." Being a strong woman and wife, she vowed to keep working until the farm was paid for. Marilyn got to the barn early, so when cows had trouble, she would call by 5:00.
I consider myself generally a person of good nature, so long as I get two bowls of Corn Flakes, a glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee on the front end of whatever happens next. Leaving nothing to chance, I tried 4:30, but was exhausted by the end of the day. If I lay around until 4:45, I find myself playing catch-up all day. After careful research, I concluded that Reveille at 4:43, and I am out the door and ready to roar.
Mrs. Claas has not milked a cow in nigh on to 20 years, but old habits don’t die. When the phone doesn’t ring, if you're up early, you have a built-in piece of unobstructed time to work on medical cases, split firewood, fix the tractor or ride your bike.
On June 17, the phone did ring, just as I rinsed my cereal bowl. The first known destination for that mid-summer morning was to have been a herd health check, 40 minutes north and east. There was a moment of consternation when Butch Spiegelhoff called. His farm is just south of Columbus, 40 minutes to the north and west. Butch hasn’t milked a cow in over 20 years either, but he has two herdsmen who do, and he had a cow struggling to deliver twins.
The 2011 Cummins Turbo Diesel is capable of speeds in excess of what the law prefers. I try hard to come close to what’s posted, in the absence of emergency, hoping that on days such as these, I will be looked on favorably or, by grace, not at all. On this day, time was at a premium, and unbeknownst to me as I flew past houses farms and fields, the morning would get more urgent, even before Butch’s twin heifers calves were on the ground.
I made the hard left into Butch’s drive a little hot, the ¾ ton truck fishtailing in the muddy drive like a late model on a dirt track. The breast pocket zipper on my coveralls was incontinent, so rather than risk a “Dr. Clark” and drop my cell phone in the stainless steel bucket full of disinfectant, I rested it on the flat spot on the dash board. Whatever came next would have to wait until Butch’s cow had birthed.
Most cows that struggle to deliver twins do so as a result of presentation. Like brothers fighting over a toy truck, they compete for who gets the first birthday. The hard part is usually figuring out which feet belong to the head you’re feeling. In this case, it was all about size. Both calves were half-grown.
The delivery went smoothly. Equipment was cleaned and back in the truck in short order. Butch’s dad was a WWII Veteran and professional bike racer, so there are plenty of opportunities for distraction on the Spiegelhoff farm. Today we moved with purpose, so that the herdsman at the Griswold farm 50 minutes away would not have to wait for his herd check.
As I fell in behind the wheel and tore out the drive, I was pleased with progress. That euphoria would prove to be short-lived, as the little green message light was flashing on the phone.
Wherever I was going next was south, so I chose to wait for the first straight piece of road to retrieve the messages, rather than hang by my seatbelt in the middle of a plowed field. The bad news, there were four of them. The good news, they were all from the same rather excitable farmer. In order to preserve anonymity we will only say the calls were from our most tenured technician. She and her brother milk 50 cows near Watertown. Both are quite capable, yet prone to panic when the wheels start to wobble.
Every herd has a personality. Here is a farm where, were it not for tradition, one would be well served to trade coveralls and boots for full on NHL issue goalie gear. That said, and with little exaggeration, this day was to be different. It was a heifer attempting to calve, in the open face building near the barn. She had yet to join the gang. Sheila, being cautious by nature, and deeply concerned about he who signs her paycheck, identified the expectant heifer as a pet.
As we approached she was lying in a deep pack of corn stalks, peacefully straining every few minutes. In the event she should stand, I suggested we put a halter on her head. If she decided to roam, we could anchor her. As predicted, she ambled slowly as we positioned the rope behind her ears and over her nose. The calf was already out to the neck and shoulders. The delivery would be straight forward, but would require that I be behind her.
As I picked the post where I would tie her, I spoke gently and tugged at the rope like she was just back from Westminster, and would follow right along. Instead, she continued her amble with little regard for me or my halter. Not a surprise, as most cattle not halter trained for the county fair don’t exactly sit, stay, or heel. So, I braced my boots in the bedding and commenced pulling her to the wall.
That is when, in an instant, the game changed.
She turned like a rodeo bull. Her left eye turned to find a target, while I faced the business end and the dangling calf. She let go with both back feet. Thankfully I am blessed with the reflexes of a glacier, so I stood-stock still. As it turns out, the best fortune of the day, as her hocks parted the wind like a whiffle ball bat, and whooshed past my ears.
By now Sheila had tapped out. From the over the gate she cackled like Edith at Archie, “Git outa they’a, she’s gonna keel you!”
What I thought, but did not take time to verbalize, was that getting out seemed appealing for the moment, but would by definition create a secondary dilemma: how to get back in the pen. After all, she still had a calf flailing from her vulva. Not to mention, I had folks waiting on me, and this was getting personal.
“Those who ignore the past, are doomed to repeat it.” Having established that any tension would escalate her, I clung loosely to the end of the rope and made subtle movements backing her up until I had enough slack to fish the rope around a sturdy post, which was tight to the tin skin of the barn.
Once accomplished, there would be one last round. The goal was to snub her nose tight to the wall, so Sheila could inject a half mL of sedative she had gotten from the truck to slow her down and level the playing field.
Mrs. Hyde pawed the stalks, head low and cocked. The staff of Aesculapius embroidered on my chest was squarely in the middle of her 300-degree field of vision. I wrapped the rope once around my upturned palm for maximum power and easy exit, and squatted low. Like tackle tug-o-war at the Labor Day picnic, I heaved… and so did she: out of her stance like Clay Matthews on an all-out blitz. I was more thankful than ever for dehorned cattle, as she uppercut my ribs in sequential blows, just as I planned. With each thrust she gave me more slack to pull her closer, and in seconds, she was nose to nose with a 6x6.
Sheila injected her with the Xylazine. Within minutes the calf was born. That evening and to this day, she walks in the barn and milks as peacefully as a nun.
Sheila will be quick to say, and I find it hard to disagree, as she is usually right, that on this day, threats of death by heifer were grossly exaggerated and thankfully inaccurate. Four sore ribs, 800mg of Ibuprofen and we were back at it; an hour and a half late for the herd check, but no worse and maybe a bit wiser.