Freezing Fingers & ‘Cutting Deads’

Its a balmy -10C outside today as I write this and think fondly back on my last week. I drove out to Calgary to work at Veterinary Agri-Health Services (VAHS), a practice that does a lot of feedlot work. They also service cow/calf operations. It was below -20C almost every day–what a way to kick off the year!

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It is not the best time for cattle work in Canada–a little too early for calving season which is usually in the early spring and can be quite busy. So my mornings at the practice were spent in the offices either helping with drug orders or studying. I sat in on a webinar about a new vaccine in Canada, attended a pathology presentation for feedlot workers, and listened to a presentation on Johnes disease in beef cattle from a previous summer student. I really enjoyed the discussion about that topic.

This practice is completely ‘ambulatory’ which means that farmers/producers will call the practice and the vet drives out to their farm (or feedlot) with all the equipment they need. All the exams, treatment, and surgery the vets do happen on the farm. So each afternoon I hopped in the truck with a vet and we headed out.

I worked with a couple of female vets this week. I really appreciated this experience as it allowed some conversation about how to survive as a female in the world of large animal vetting and agriculture. We discussed confidence, work/life balance, how to protect your body from breaking down, and how to pee when you haven’t seen a washroom in 100+km…

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I honestly have missed seeing that big Alberta sky, but that doesn’t leave a lot of spots for privacy…

Feedlot vets do a lot of post mortems (autopsies); while this might sound a bit morbid to some of you I actually quite enjoy them.  The colloquial term a lot of vets use is ‘cutting deads’. It is very exciting to be able to open up an animal and look at 1 or 2 organs and diagnose why the animal died. We did post mortems everyday– they aren’t easy work but it will keep you warm outside!  Its not the safest work either—when you can’t feel your hands and your standing on ice—it just takes a few tries to learn some of the tricks! At the beginning of the week I struggled with finding where to put my knife and remembering all my respiratory pathology from first year–by the end of the week I felt a lot more confident about what I was doing and what I was seeing. But I’m sure I’ll be getting a lot more practice with this.

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Twice this week we looked at some cattle for export. This means that they are being transported across the border from Canada to the United States before they are slaughtered. This involves walking the pens and looking at the animals– and holding back any animals that look sick or have sore feet/legs and who would not transport well.

We got asked to check out a cow on a feedlot that had been acting a bit weird–when we got there the cow had neurological signs. There is a lot of things that can cause a cow to have neurological problems. We often don’t investigate these problems in cattle the same way we would in small animals — with x-rays, CT scans, and diagnostics. Sometimes you can figure out what is going on in cattle but it is quite hard.

On the Thursday the vet and I went out to a large feedlot where they had two bloat surgeries for us to do. Depending on what cows are eating sometimes their stomachs can fill up with gas or bubbles and become really bloated! This can actually be lethal for a cow if the problem isn’t discovered and treated and prevented. If you are interested, this is a really good article from Alberta Agriculture about bloat. The vet did the first bloat surgery and then I did the second one. We were in a shed and there was a heat lamp but it was still so cold! Loosing feeling in your fingers, freezing suture, and frozen blood on the suture is a whole new level of difficulty. Very simply speaking, a bloat surgery puts a hole from the stomach of the cow to the outside world so they can safely release gas!

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This was a great placement! Despite it being cold and a little slow I felt that I gained a lot of knowledge (or topics to study up on) about the Canadian cattle industry and common diseases in feedlots. I appreciated a chat I had about being a practice owner and what that could look like–this is something I have always aspired to! Lastly, and not related to cattle…. I now know which little town to stop in and find the best peanut butter pie on the prairies!

Thanks again to all the wonderful vets and techs at VAHS!!

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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.