My Placement at an Alpaca Farm

Over the course of my 3 month summer vacation I worked on an alpaca farm. I went to the alpaca farm on my days off from my job and other placements. There was just over 100 alpacas and crias—they are extremely friendly and curious creatures! Previously I had not completed a lot of work with this species so I found my time there quite informative.

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Some of the older boys patiently waiting for me to finish cleaning their pen.

We spent a lot of time trimming nails. This is done a couple of times a year. Alpacas are not necessarily prone to foot problems but depending on the type of ground they are living/walking on their nails can get quite long. After catching an alpaca (By hugging it around the neck) we would halter it and tie it to a fence. Once tied, one person would continue to hug the alpaca around the neck while the other person used shears to trim off the excess and uneven areas of the foot.

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Some of the older boys patiently waiting for me to finish cleaning their pen.

All of the alpacas received intramuscular vitamin D injections. There is not a lot of research backing up the use of this vitamin in alpacas. But due to the shortage of sunlight in Alberta throughout the winter the farmer was hoping that the injection would allow the alpacas to gain better condition and higher quality fleece.

Diatomaceous earth was used on this farm (and many other placement farms) as a means of parasite control.

We also gave many of the alpacas microchips. These were inserted into a pocketed area just below the ear. The microchips are required in any alpaca that the farmer wants to register. Register alpacas are also required to have a DNA test completed. We collected blood from the ear by sticking a needle into a vein until it spotted blood. The blood was then collected onto a card. Both breeding males and females are produced on this farm and they need to be registered for sale and competition/show.

We would trim hair out of their eyes so they could see better—it doesn’t matter how much fleece/hair you trim around their eyes as this is part of ‘seconds’ (lesser quality sections of fleece) during shearing.

I also learned a lot about grading of fleece. You grade alpaca fleece on a scale of carpet-1-2-3-4 based on fineness. Ideally you would like a ‘blanket’ (fleece from the neck and torso of the animal) to be dense and fine. Unfortunately these phenotypic traits are not directly correlated. Hence, breeding plans are extremely important in the alpaca world. Black is a recessive color in alpacas and is hard to obtain. Even if you breed 2 of the same colored alpaca together you might not get the same colored baby—quite the guessing game!

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This is one of the livestock dogs teaching me about grading fleece. Assessing and cleaning all of the fleece is done by hand. It looks like a ton of work! 

The farmer would either knit/spin her own fleece products and sell them at local markets or have the mill that does the processing create products for her. I now own my own pair of alpaca socks and mittens; they are very warm and soft!

I believe that this is the last placement I needed to complete for my pre-clinical requirements. I received previous credit for time I spent working at a zoo and a wildlife rehabilitation facility (possibly some throwback blog posts are in order?) before my acceptance to vet school.

One last thank you to all the amazing people I have met during this experience, and the people I was able to reconnect with. It really is a small world out there!

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I loved working outside on this farm and gained a ton of knowledge about alpaca husbandry and production. 

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My Placement on a Robotic Dairy Farm

This last week I completed a placement on a robotic dairy farm. I was very interested to see how a dairy functioned/filled up their time if there wasn’t 2 or 3 scheduled milking times a day. Through this week I learned that dairy operations are all about routine and cycles.

Each day starts and ends with feeding calves. We would use diverted milk from the robots and milk from the bulk tank to fill a portable pasteurizer. The machine would warm the milk to a sufficient temperature for calves. Specific amounts of milk could be dispensed from the pasteurizer into nipple buckets for the calves. Older calves were group housed and also received pellets. Sometimes calves have not learned how to drink off the nipple buckets and we have to help/teach them. Newborn calves are taken off their mothers and bottle fed (or stomach tubed) 2L of colostrum 3 times in the first 12 hours. The babies also receive a preventative scours pill.

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This calf is settling down for a nap after her bottle of colostrum. 

Other regular chores include moving animals around the farm depending on what stage in their lactation cycle they are at. Cows that are kept outside will grow a winter coat so they can keep warm. Once the cows are brought inside (because they are fresh) they will be too hot and sweaty in the barn. One day I spent a bit of time trimming a cow so she would be more comfortable. (I hope they aren’t planning on showing her anytime soon!). Checking young stock for foot problems, pink eye, gait, signs of estrus, signs of abortions in bred cows, etc. is also a daily task. Three times during the day the mattress beds are raked clean and bedding spread out. This helps to keep the cows clean and comfortable reducing the risk of infection.

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These are memory foam beds with a rubber mat on top and gypsum bedding. DYK that cows produce more milk if they are lying down and ruminating? This is great incentive for farmers to make sure their cows are as comfortable as possible!

It is always essential to make sure the robots are working properly. This involves checking stats and alarms on the computer in the office. Sometimes cows that go through the robots are marked as ‘incomplete’ because not all 4 quarters of their udder were milked. Each of these cows needs to be found in the barn and checked (possibly mastitis, kicking off cups, bad conformation, etc) and then milked out. I stripped a quarter of an udder by hand in a cow that had mastitis (we did a CMT test first) and then gave her treatment. Each time we medicate a cow that treatment needs to be entered into the computer system so that when the robot milks her the treated milk can be diverted out of the bulk tank.

Outside of the regular routine on the dairy we artificially inseminated (AI) a couple of cows based on the observation of estrus behavior (mounting), activity levels recorded in the computer, and days in milk.

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This is a liquid nitrogen storage container for semen straws used for AI. 

Every 2 weeks on the dairy a herd health check is completed by the veterinarian. On Wednesday the vet was doing pre-breed checks and preg-checks. I grabbed a glove and palpated along behind the vet trying to feel the things he was describing. (For my non-animal friends this does mean that I was sticking my arm up cow butts). Next, we went to another barn and preg-checked heifers to assess if they were open(not pregnant), bred (pregnant), or needed to be started on an ovsynch protocol. When the vet comes he sedates some of the older calves so that we can go through and dehorn them with a hot iron dehorner. Cattle need to be dehorned to make the farm safer for other animals and staff.

On Friday I was lucky enough to be put in contact with the farm’s nutritionist. Well managed farms will typically consult with a nutritionist to formulate appropriate diets for the different groups of animals. It was a farm call day for the nutritionist so as we drove around we chatted about feed, agriculture, dairies, school, etc. The first dairy we visited was a simpler operation than the one I was on all week. The most interesting area was the nurse cows. Cows that were not good milkers were removed from the herd and put in a pen with calves. The calves suckled naturally from the cows until they were about 5 months of age. We visited a second dairy after lunch as well. I found it interesting that not only did the nutritionist complete Pen State Shaker tests, discuss rations, and evaluate feed–he also consulted the farm on all other areas of management.

Professional hoof trimmers will visit dairy barns a few times a year. Lameness/gait issues are often a major problem in dairy barns. To treat cows with foot rot, ulcers, and other problems the regular staff can do touch ups on the cattle. I learned that sometimes the hoof trimmer will add a wooden block to the hoof to reduce pressure on certain areas and promote healing.

 

The farmer I spent some of my time with this week is extremely forward thinking and willing to try new things to move his farm business forward. One of his latest trials included feeding yucca as an additive. According to the workers the yucca seemed to be increasing the dry matter intake of the cows and stabilizing intake over the week. I’ve seen many cool feeds for dairy cattle on other farms including: brewers grains, candy, oranges/lemons, grapeseed, etc.

I got to practice my cattle clinical skills this week with IV injections through the jugular, drawing blood through the tail vein, giving intra-mammary infusions and several intramuscular injections, palpating, and even trying my hand at dehorning!

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These friendly ladies supervised me as I worked all week. 

 

I apologize for the long post! I had a lot of fun on the dairy this week; it reminded me of my time in my undergrad studying dairy science, preparing for the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge and competing at the regional and national competitions in California and Indiana. I would highly recommend this competition to any pre-vet or vet students in North America!

Dairy farming is quite different in North America than it is in Australia! I would love to chat more about the differences in the industry with anyone interested.

For a brief overview of the robotic farm I was at check out this quirky video a few of my previous classmates made:

 

My Placement on a Purebred Beef Operation

I am having so much fun doing my placements, spending time outside, networking, learning from people, and working with animals! I’m glad so many people love to read my blog and keep up with my adventures as well. Anybody who knows me knows how much I like cows, so I was really looking forward to this placement! This past week I was completing a placement on a beef farm. My friend from vet school in Australia was visiting Canada and came out to the farm with me.

Each morning on the farm starts with chores. Each group of cows or bulls receives different amounts of feed (and sometimes different types). On this farm we would load the tractor with corn silage. Some animals would also receive haylage, mineral, or grain. We also added salt blocks to each pen so the cattle can lick essential minerals and salt that they need.

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My view from the tractor seat, on the left you can see the corn silage pile, straight ahead are bales used for feed and bedding. 

Another tractor with a ‘bale buster’ attachement would drive into each pen and shred a bale up for bedding. Fresh straw and bedding was added daily to keep the cattle warm, clean, and dry. New bedding is a great way to improve herd health and decrease risk of disease.

 

Its calving season! This is usually a pretty busy time of year so I was happy to help out and experience many different activities on farm this week. Because this farm was a purebred beef operation they calve out (have their cows give birth) in Jan and Feb so that the yearling bulls (bulls that are 1 year old) are reading for breeding and sale in the spring to commercial operations.

Nightly checks on the cows and their calves occur every 2-3 hours depending on how cold it is. The colder the weather the more often checking the cows is required. If a calf is born outside (instead of in the barn) it could freeze its ears off or even freeze to death! It is also important to make sure that no cows are having trouble calving over night and need assistance. This week, my friend and I saw 2 calves that had to be pulled. The first calf was a very large heifer calf. The dam’s vaginal wall was not dilated enough and was putting too much pressure on the calf. The second calf we saw pulled was a very long and large bull calf.

Every night before heading back to the house we looked at all the cows in the pre-calving and calving pens to separate them out and bring them into the barn if they looked like they were ready to give birth. The barn is also heavily bedded down with fresh straw. One morning we found twin heifer calves born outside in the snow. They were quickly brought into the barn to warm up–no frost or freezing damage! It was very exciting to see that both calves were females, as this means there was no risk of freemartinism.

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The two heifer calves snuggled up in the warm barn; only 24 hours old.

This farm has a bull sale at the end of Feb so we spent a decent amount of time preparing the bulls for sale this week. One afternoon we ran the 2 year old bulls through the chute/squeeze to change out their ear tags and trim up their back hair. The hair on their back’s was cut shorter so buyers can better visualize the conformation of the bull. In winter, animals that live outside will grow a ‘winter coat’–lots of extra hair to keep warm! We used a torch to get rid of the long hair on the bull’s backs. We didn’t trim or groom this much, but if you are interested in torching and preparing for show please watch this video. (Note: this is NOT the only technique of grooming and cleaning cattle).

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This Simmental bull is caught in the head gate of the squeeze. This equipment is used for both the bull and our safety. 

 

The bulls are also filmed before the sale so that the clips can play during auction. This means the bulls do not actually have to be walked into the sale–this decreases stress and handling for both the farmers and the bulls. Working with bulls (especially when we separated them out singly for filming) can be dangerous. You need to be aware and on your toes at all times! My friend was charged by 2 bulls and had to jump the fence!

 

On the last day of the week we spent the majority of our time helping with semen testing bulls. It is important that the bulls are fertile and producing effective semen before they are sold or bred. The vet is called out to the farm for the test. The vet will measure scrotal size, palpate and stimulate secondary sex organs, insert electroejaculator, and then collect and analyze semen. For a more detailed (but brief) overview of semen testing please read this blog post from an Australian cattle station. While this was happening my friend and I ensured each bull had an RFID tag and vaccinated for pink eye and foot rot. Injections in cattle are given in the neck to protect the good cuts of meat from trauma, bruises, or broken needles.

After a fantastic week of placement I rushed back to the city for a short shift at the vet clinic! (ahhh the life of a student…)

Thank you again to the families who treat me as their own and teach me their way of life!

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P.S.:Some fun side activities this week involved visiting a Boer goat (meat breed) farm and a rabbit farm. The rabbit farm was quite small but still interesting to see as my grandparents used to farm rabbits but I haven’t experienced it in many years.

Dookie Trip

A little while ago my whole DVM1 class packed up and went out to the University of Melbourne’s Dookie campus as part of our Animal Health and Production Systems class. I was excited, because who doesn’t like a couple days without lectures?

In the morning we caught the bus from our regular campus bright and early and began a drive out into the Australian country side. As we move from spring into summer, the rainfall has decreased and the pastures are not growing as fast and are beginning to dry up and turn yellow. Our first stop was at Chatswood, a thoroughbred horse stud.  A stud farm is a farm that focuses on breeding of animals.

The horse racing industry is huge in AUS, especially in Melbourne. High class and very famous races like the Melbourne Cup take place only a few minutes from my house! Unfortunately the Melbourne Cup is on one of the same days as my final exams this year so it doesn’t look like I’ll be going.

The farm was built on 1000 acres and is very impressive looking. We talked a bit about the process behind bringing mares to be served by 1 of the 3 stallions on the property and everything that process included. Thoroughbreds are only allowed to have natural breedings  (instead of artificial insemination) and this brings along a new set of challenges and things to look out for. My group was lucky because we got to watch some vet checks on the horses, each horse would come in for an ultrasound to look for follicles on her ovaries. If the follicles are a certain size the vet will say she is ready for breeding soon. The ultrasound is also used to detect if the horses are pregnant and if they have twins. It is very hard for twins to be carried to term in horses and so if 2 embryos are detected one of them will need to be terminated. We also got to watch a Caslick procedure being preformed and undone (this is a very common and minor surgical procedure that equine vets will do).

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Reward for Effort; Taken from: http://chatswoodstud.com.au/stallions/reward/

Our group then went to the breeding area; it is very nice, clean, quiet, and covered. Here we watched a teaser stallion come in and prep a mare for her breeding. I then quietly peaked through a hole in the gate to watch Reward for Effort (one of Chatswood’s best stallions) breed the mare. Thoroughbred breeding on a stud is very expensive ($11 000 for a service) and an important procedure that can be very dangerous for the handlers.

The foaling area has a 24 hour watch over all of the paddocks as each foaling is assisted. After each foal is born a blood sample is taken and assessed.

Next we went to Kennedy Creek, which was our professor’s own polled Dorset farm. I found it actually really cool to create a connection between someone we are learning A LOT from in lecture and his actual life experience in agriculture. Dorset sheep are used for meat but not wool. This does not mean that they do not need to be sheared! The wool from these sheep would only generate an income of 5% or less for the farm.

Polled Dorset Sheep: Picture provided with permission

Polled Dorset Sheep:
Picture provided with permission

While on farm our prof (who is also a vet) identified a sick sheep. The animal was moved out of the hot sun to recover. The sheep was likely sick with either thiamine deficiency or pulpy kidney (no way to know unless diagnostic tests were done). While we were on farm the sheep began to improve and look better. Talking about this individual sick sheep was a great learning opportunity on the differences between single animals and herd health.

The second day started at the sheep farm on Dookie Campus where we were able to assist with the marking of lambs. Marking included putting elastic on the tails of all sheep (tail docking) and testicles of male sheep (castration), vaccination (for Clostridial diseases), applying fly strike spray, and applying an ear tag for identification.

This is a 'cradle' it is a piece of equipment that helps the farming with marking

This is a ‘cradle’ it is a piece of equipment that helps the farming with marking

After we were finished marking the lambs we went inside the shed to look at the rams. We discussed important things to assess at a ram sale (teeth, toes, temperament, testicles, and skin). We also spoke about crutching and muesling and the advantages and disadvantages of each husbandry practice. I thought it was interesting that Dookie is one of the only farms in VIC that does not muels their sheep; the practice was supposed to be banned in AUS around 2 years ago but fell through because of the fly strike problems. We practiced catching sheep and how to safely tip them over so we can look at them (always fun!).

Our last stop was to the dairy calves and then the Dookie Campus robotic dairy! Here is some coverage from when the dairy opened:

This is the same dairy we visited during my first week of vet school. Cows can be milked whenever they please, the robot will take a sample from each cow to test for infection and milk quality. The robot is able to keep track of all cows treated with medications and what the withdrawal periods. Detecting when cows are ready to breed is very complicated in the dairy industry—the robots can help with this too!! The robots will keep track of all the steps each cow takes (each cow wears a pedometer) and the amount of rumination/chewing to create a graph that will give a good indication of when the cow is in heat (ready to breed)!! How cool is it to see science and farming come together like this?!

I really enjoyed getting out of the city for a couple of days and seeing these high quality and top class farms was very interesting! 🙂