Saturday, December 27, 2014

Azza and Mimi

I have been really surprised at how often Azza and Mimi play together now. And they don't mess around--furniture is usually rearranged in the process. They rarely make any sound, except for grunting or panting. Okay, that sounds really need to get your mind out of the gutter! Even Mimi body-slamming the couch will shift it a centimeter or two.

Two female terriers just don't play together. Most of the time, they can't even occupy the same room at the same time. 

Azza isn't a terrier. But she is young and full of energy. Mimi is a terrier. She wants to be in charge pretty much all the time. And yet, when they play, she is perfectly willing to "pretend" to take a bone from Azza (getting the bone isn't the point of the game). Azza's most often employed wrestling tactic is to simply sprawl on top of Mimi, which only lasts for a second or two until Mimi squirms her way out from under and shoots across the room to another piece of furniture with Azza hot on her tail.

I've tried to video their hijinks but they get suspicious when I stop typing or clicking the mouse and they stop playing to see what I am up to--walk? treats? game of tug or fetch?

Anyway, here are some fun pics of them playing.

T3i initially gave this toy a rating of 2 out of 10. But after it lost both upper limbs and head, I tied a knot in its neck and it remains a favorite. Revised T3i rating: 8.

I have no idea what they are doing. I think they both have an antler chew. But really, there's no telling.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Cow Salting and Hay Fluffing

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I am doing some grunt work for a nutritional study of dairy cows. It's not like I have tons of free time at the moment. However, helping out with the study now means that I will be able to assist with the calving in a few weeks. Currently, my official duties are morning hay fluffing and occasional evening cow salting.

In a post I made years ago, I talked about the term "chute fluffer" which was common in dog agility circles at the time. Since the term "fluffer" has an off-color origin in the porn industry, it may have fallen out of use by the agility folks by now (most likely as a result of prudish hand-wringing and cries of "think of the children" but that's a rant for another day). 

But my regular morning job with the cows is perfectly described by the title "hay fluffer." 

The cows are being housed in a new barn on campus for the duration of the study. This is the first time the barn has been used since the construction was completed, and like most things, there are a few maiden voyage bugs that need to be sorted out. 

All of the alfalfa hay that will be used in the study was stacked into an enormous wall of bales under the barn roof. I can understand why they want this stuff to be kept dry...but the wall of bales was placed so close to the pens that it creates all sorts of problems: can't easily get the carts carrying weighed allotments of hay to each pen, barely any room to use brooms and forks and shovels, and most importantly, there is no room at all for feeding troughs or bins. 

I know nothing at all about cow husbandry but the lack of feeding bins was pretty obvious to me the very first time I went to the barn. 

As a result, the evening alfalfa hay and the morning grass hay are tossed onto the concrete floor in front of each pen. The cows tear into the alfalfa in particular with gusto. It's quite something to watch and to hear. They can't stuff it into their mouths fast enough. It smells sweet to me so perhaps it tastes sweet to them. The aisle isn't that wide but it is wide enough that the cows eventually toss and spread their feed out so much that they can no longer reach it. 

Cows love alfalfa hay.
Enter the hay fluffer. Every morning at 10am I have to go to the barn and fork and sweep the hay back up to the pens (in the aisle that isn't wide enough to use either tool very effectively). This is a job that would be completely unnecessary if some thoughtful planning had gone into the placement of the wall of bales, leaving room for feeding bins. But I'm not in charge, I'm just free grad student labor.

I'm also the substitute cow salter for 6 or 8 evenings a month. Some of the cows are eating special alfalfa and get normal salt, but some of the cows are eating regular alfalfa so they get special salt. We need each treatment group to consume a certain amount of each type of salt. The salt is loose and medium to fine grained, sort of like table salt, only it's pink because it is actually a salt+mineral mix. So the cow salter comes along behind the evening feeder and sprinkles measured allotments of each type of salt on top of the alfalfa piled in front of each pen.  

Besides positioning myself to help with calving, one of the other benefits I've reaped is a brand new pair of boots:

I went with the steel-toed version because, well, toes are pretty useful for walking and things like that. Steel toes are probably overkill but one thing I learned from a couple of my petroleum industry jobs is that attention to safety is not time or money wasted. And boy oh boy, they are toasty warm in that damp, drafty barn! Yes, they are expensive but the remarkable attention to detail would surprise you.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Two Photos

I found this photo when I was cleaning up the memory in my camera. It makes me sad to see it but the dogs had such a fun time that afternoon. This is how I want to remember Harry.

Happy times. Dhahran, January 2013.

This is also a photo of happy times, or at least sleepy times. I study at a table near the back door and it can be a bit cold there. The dogs refuse to stay in beds close to the gas stove; that was Harry's spot. So I moved the beds next to the table.

December 2014. HellBeast is tucked behind Azza.

Feathered Black Boxes and Licking Rocks

I can't recall if I've posted my musings on this particular topic before, and I'm too lazy to go back and check. Apologies if this is duplicate rambling.

In my last post, I wrote about helping with day zero blood draws on dairy cows in a nutritional study. I just got an email from Jean asking if I could drop by the barn every morning and push hay back into the feeders. It seems the cows push it out overnight. And she asked if I could sub in now and then for her grad student who oversees the evening feedings. Fairly menial tasks, sure. But it positions me well for the calving to come! I of course told her I'd be happy to take care of those tasks.

Visiting the cows every day is a great opportunity to learn more. In fact, over the summer, I made sure that every day I spent time in every pen with the chickens in my feeding trials. The chickens were feathered black boxes, the interesting chemistry churning away inside them. At the time, I observed subtle changes in feeding and excretion patterns that I only later understood when I was in the lab analyzing the tissues.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Animal science is a lot like geology. Let me list some of the reasons.

Black boxes. Rocks and animals don't speak. You must learn to use all of your senses: what you see, hear, feel, smell, taste, all can be important. What? You've never licked a rock?

Data. In the world of geology, you never have enough data, you never have it in the right location, and the data that you do get is in half a dozen different formats with extraordinarily variable scales (nanometers to thousands of kilometers, nanoseconds to billions of years). Except for the parts about kilometers and billions of years, animal science seems to put you in exactly the same position. 

Remote sensing. I'm using this term quite loosely. Besides what you observe, a geologist has to collect other data using tools and machines and computers. You may not have to design and build these things but you need to know how they work in order to use them appropriately. You can't transport yourself down to the bottom of a 20,000-foot deep well to see what is going on in the reservoir; even if you could, you'd need special glasses because what is going on is on a microscopic scale anyway. It's the same for animals. We can take xrays and ultrasounds and run blood tests but they are similarly small windows that are still at a remove from the whole organism.

Integration. As geologists, we make measurements in the field or collect samples or interpret data, and none of it makes any sense until we start building maps and other integrative displays, adding bit by bit until patterns emerge. Animals are the same. We can observe and record our observations but true understanding doesn't come until we start putting all the bits together. Interpretation requires rigor and method, integration requires creativity.

It was a risk but I included a very brief summary of this idea in the personal statement I had to write for the vet school applications. I am of course not saying that if you are a scientist of flavor x, you can willy-nilly start doing science of flavor y. I am drawing parallels between two specific types of science because I thought that the similarities were unexpected and interesting. I suspect that as I learn more about animal science, I'll find many differences that are just as unexpected.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


A couple of Saturday mornings back, I willingly spent several hours getting soaked by rain, cow slobber, cow shit, mud, and blood (bovine and some of my own). It was tremendous fun!

This wonderful opportunity came up when I found out that one of my committee members was starting a nutritional study on dairy cows, currently pregnant, and their calves, arriving in late January-early February. This will be a follow-up to a study she did last year. The paper on the first study was published a couple of months ago and we discussed it in our nutrition journal seminar. Upon my inquiry, I was told that no vet school students or students from the Animal Sciences department had participated in the first study. I was astounded. The study is certainly scientifically interesting. But it also represents a great opportunity to get large animal exposure--and it only requires a student to show up. Maybe vet school students don't need that kind of experience but undergrads who aspire to go to vet school sure do need it. I couldn't understand why they weren't elbowing each other aside to volunteer.

My vet school applications have long been completed but I figured that any chance to get some large animal exposure would not be a waste of time.

So I emailed Jean and offered my services. She was happy to have me come along. That Saturday was day zero of the study. We were going to get about 25 ml of blood from each cow. The blood would be analyzed to establish chemical baselines before the cows started eating the various dietary treatments. There are about 50 cows in the study so extra hands for this particular activity were going to be very valuable.

I met her on campus at 7am that morning. It was raining but not that cold. Three undergrads joined us, all sophomores (and all young women) in the pre-vet honors program. Besides taking a few special honors courses, they each have to complete a research project. I think at least two of them showed up with the idea that this project might be their honors research project. I began to have a few doubts about my fellow volunteers when one of them walked up wearing a pink hat knitted to look like an animal's face and ears, a pink rain coat, and pink rubber boots.  

We loaded up the equipment, piled into various cars, and headed out to the OSU dairy farm north of town. Four guys, students at OSU who work at the farm for money, wrangled the cows from pasture to barn to pen to chute. Two more men, one of them a vet at the OSU vet school, helped restrain the cows' heads. Jean kept track of the paperwork. 

It was up to me and the three girls to collect the blood samples. I was getting more and more excited--I had no idea that we'd get so involved.

Let me describe the chute. It was entirely contained in the barn, starting from a largish pen at one end to a narrow chute snaking around the wall that ended in what is called a compression chute. This is a special chamber with sides that can be ratcheted in and a two-piece collared door at the front. It is opened up to let out a cow, and the next cow, seeing open pastures in front of her (the barn had no wall on that side), would run forward. The wranglers pulled the sides in and slammed the collar together at precisely the right moment to capture the cow with her head sticking out. As you might imagine, this mightily pissed quite a few of them off. They were so close, just this close, to freedom. They bellowed and tossed their heads, spraying us with slobber and shit. Only the first cow didn't have poop on her head and neck so there was lots of poop spraying too.

A rope knotted in a sort of bridle was passed over their noses and foreheads then cinched down to a metal bar on the side of the compression chamber. This pulled their heads to one side. The vet then grabbed their nostrils and pulled their heads to the side even further, stabilizing himself and the cow's head against the side of the chute. Why all this drama? We were going to get the blood from their jugular veins so needed full access to the right side of their necks. We also needed them to be relatively still. 

Each volunteer was told to do 5 cows each then we would start the rotation over again. It was a complicated business. It wasn't until my 7th cow that I finally got the hang of jamming my hand in to the side of the cow's neck to make the jugular pop out. You really have to jam it in there. There's the complication of using a little cup with a double-ended needle on it; the collection tubes are pushed into the cup, filled, pulled out, next one pushed in, all while the needle remains in the cow's vein. Three tubes per cow. I managed to stick myself with a needle that had some anticoagulant on it and my thumb didn't stop bleeding for the rest of the morning. It was a very tiny prick and you could hardly see it with all of the mud and shit anyway. 

You jam your left hand into the vein low on the cow's neck, feel for the vein location with your right hand then, still with your right hand, jab the needle in and lock the first tube into the cup. This one-handed maneuver was tricky but I'm a quick study. I missed the vein only one time (have to start over with a new tube and sometimes a new needle if that happens) and managed to keep going even when a few of my cows started tossing around (hard to believe they could do so with all the restraints but some of them find a way). 

At this point I should mention that the front opening of the compression chute was positioned just inside the drip line of the barn room. We were bent over, sometimes kneeling in the muck, faces inches from the cow's neck, rain dripping down the back of our necks from the roof. 

Only one of the three undergraduates kept going. The other two were incredibly tentative, unwilling to jab the needle in and then they were so nervous that they missed the vein. Every. Single. Time. (In an adult, pregnant, pissed off dairy cow, it's about the diameter of a garden hose; not only can you feel it but you can see it.) One girl never completed the procedure on a single cow. As a matter of surprise to no one, pink girl was one of those two. They held the cup like a pencil, like they were going to write on the cow's neck. They weren't strong enough or not willing to jam their hands into the cow's neck hard enough to make the vein pop out. They were reluctant to stand in the rain, hesitant to kneel in the mud. They were scared when we got a particularly lively one, often dropping the entire assembly instead of bracing against the cow to keep the needle in and blood flowing. Jean and the other OSU vet were giving them step-by-step guidance, and the other girl and I made sure that replacement vials and needles were in their hands before they asked for them. They weren't left to flail on their own for very long (initial flailing is necessary of course), yet even with all that support, they still gave up.

Well, more cows for me and the other girl, I told myself. Turns out she had been raised on a farm and had done blood draws a couple of times on her family's cows.

I was on quite an adrenaline high from the morning. I managed to jump right in and find my stride. It gave me a lot of confidence to successfully repeat the procedure on so many cows. I know that in vet school, when asked to do a blood draw on a horse, cow, goat, or sheep, I will be able to do it. I will know what to do. 

I hardly even noticed the rain even though I was soaked. But, as we let the last cow out of the chute to trot off into the field, we all noticed that the rain stopped, the sun peeked out, and an enormous rainbow formed not 200 yards from us.

When reflecting on the morning on the drive home, I found myself a bit disappointed in the two girls who gave up. They claim they want to be vets, so you might reasonably assume that they know they will have to work with large animals at least in vet school if not afterwards. They showed up at 7am on a rainy Saturday morning so they either figured out or were told that this would be a good opportunity for them. Yet they were not able to follow through. 

Yes, I know, they are young. That was pretty obvious. But opportunities like this one don't drop out of the sky every day. It bothers me that they didn't seem to realize what a significant responsibility Jean was offering them. These kinds of activities build an "animal experience" resume.

Of course, I told Jean that I'd help with the calving in January-February. Freezing weather, nights spent in cold, drafty barns--it's going to be great!