Friday, January 30, 2015

Midwifing With the Cows

So the cows are now having their babies. It takes a lot more than a village, more like a small town, to manage a project this large. There has to be at least 2-3 people at the barn 24/7 now. One of those people has to be a supervisor. He/she tells the student volunteers what to do and hopefully they will do most of the grunt work. But many of the students have little experience so the supervisors need to get pretty involved.

It's not quite correct to call the students volunteers. They are taking the winter term "calving class" which is purposefully offered when there are research experiments involving pregnant cows. 

And the supervisors are only distinguished by our status as graduate students, vets students, or faculty involved in the study. We might not have any more experience than the students!

At the start of this week, there was a final head count of 45 pregnant cows, five cows per pen, three pens per dietary treatment. While the whole herd was artificially inseminated within a few days, their due dates are spread out from the last week of January to the first week of March.

The supervisors have long shifts, four to six hours, in order to keep some continuity of information flow, while the students have 1- or 2-hour shifts. It was pretty clear that the PI was going to have a very difficult time filling the supervisor shifts in the dead of night (in theory, the students can be compelled to sign up for those slots by their instructor). So I agreed to take the 2am to 6am supervisor shift. 

I left quite a few slots at that time open for others to sign up, but not surprisingly, almost nobody took me up on it. Out of the five to six weeks we need to be at the barn, I'll only get a break half a dozen times.

Most days, it won't be a problem. But on MWF, I have a class at 8:30. It's a bit rushed for me to get home, feed CircusK9, shower, and get to campus for class if I am delayed at the barn after 6am.

It's wintertime here at latitude 44.5 degrees north. Dark, cold, often foggy, and very quiet. My thinking was, the cows are going to be ruminating and resting at 2am, so nothing will happen during my shift. Think of all the studying I can get done!

Well. Two shifts into it, and I don't think that was the best rationalization for taking this shift. Things have so far not quite worked out as I had planned.

Thursday morning. I had been alone from 2am to 5am (no students had signed up for those hours) and cranked out a pile of assignments. I was checking on the cows every 3o minutes. Two students showed up at 5am so I turned the cow checking over to them. All was quiet in the pens. At 6am, I packed up my books and computer and was heading to the car to go home, to feed the dogs, shower, get warm. We have a room in the barn with a heater, tables, even a crappy old couch, and there are bathrooms, but still, it's a barn. I pack two bags: one is my backpack with school stuff, the other is a bag with essentials to survive at the barn for four hours in the dead of night: blanket, warm hat, slippers (can't wear shit-covered boots into our war room), flask of hot, sweet tea, and of course the power supply for my laptop. After you read what happened during my first two shifts, I have added to that list surgical scissors, knife, and extra work gloves. I no longer even consider leather gloves. Only cheap cotton so they can be washed or discarded as needed.

As I was leaving, one of the students stopped me and said, I think you need to come look at this cow in pen 10. I think her water bag is coming out. So I went to look. Sure enough, she was in the first stages of labor. We got her into the pen designated for birthing, then we started calling and texting people for assistance. Turns out, nobody was assigned for the next supervisor shift! I couldn't leave until someone else showed up!

In about an hour, the PI and then the calving class instructor showed up. But I was a bit dismayed to learn that neither of them could stay! The cow completed labor in a couple of hours. Once we collected data and samples from the calf, I ran home to feed the dogs then returned to the barn. The PI and the instructor left. It was just me and a handful of students from the calving class for the next few hours. 

Yes, hours. I wasn't able to get another supervisor to the barn until 11am. I had been at the barn for 9 hours with only that short break to feed the dogs. 

Not an auspicious first day.  

I headed to the barn again this morning. The shift before me (10pm to 2am) had a supervisor and he asked me to help them get the calf weighed--they didn't know how to get it away from the mother! Once that task was done, I settled in to work on some French homework. There were two students there, but they left at 330am. No other students had signed up until 5am. So I was on my own again. 

And sure enough, when I made my 415am check, I found another cow who was dropping her water sac. I got her into the birthing pen on my own--not easy but not hard if you take your time and plan it all out in advance. She had to be separated from the other cows in her pen, moved into a back passage that stretches the length of the barn, moved along that to the birthing pen, and then into the birthing pen, already occupied by the other mom and her calf. Then I spread out about 40 pounds of grass hay to give mom a good, clean footing for labor and baby bonding.

Of course I texted the relevant people but who the hell is watching for texts at 4am? After the fact, some people are a bit surprised that I managed it on my own (not because I'm incompetent but because, by their own admission, they would not have even tried). Like I said, a little common sense, a little patience, and keeping my eyes open seemed to do the trick.

The next student showed up at 5am as scheduled. I was doing some random hay fluffing in front of other pens when she said, I see the feet! And sure enough, one hour to the minute after that cow dropped her water sac, an enormous male calf was on the ground next to her. Mom is black with a white face. Calf is black with a white face but he has these enormous black rings around his eyes, like a panda or a raccoon. (When she was cleaning him, I slipped into the pen and lifted a hind leg--yep, that's a scrotum!)

One of the incentives that the instructor gives to the students to get them to sign up for shifts is that they get to name the calves that are born during their shifts when they help identify that the mother is in labor and assist with preparations and sample collection. The calves of course get an ear tag right away so have an official ID but she said the students could give them names. No students were around when she went into labor so I claimed this one for myself. I named him Rocky.

Meet calf 5021 aka Rocky. He's adorable. Of course he didn't look like this when he came out of mom. He was covered in slime and blood and not too photogenic. I came back after my classes were finished for the day to get this picture. Males get tagged in the right ear, females in the left. The mnemonic is "He was right so she left." I'll let the reader ponder the meaning of that.

Rocky with mom. The little pink thing on his belly is his umbilical cord. We dip it in iodine when we get his birth weight. Sorry for the glare. Of course it was our first clear sunny day in weeks. The barn has a roof and rooms along one side. The other three sides are completely open.

Mom is super protective and as soon as I stuck the camera into the pen, she was right up in my face. Extracting him from the pen for blood samples and weights is a challenge. At least one person has to body pressure mom away from the calf, another has to lift the calf over the front barrier, and a third has to receive him on the outside of the pen.

Once we had some extra hands  (another student and the supervisor for the 6am-noon shift), we got him weighed. A whopping 85 pounds! He's a big boy! And I fully expect him to have gained weight when I go for my next shift.

The 10pm to 2am supervisor texted me and said, well, you've been the midwife to both of the calves born so far! That's true, of course, but it shatters my theory that my supervisor shifts are going to be quiet.

I texted the calving class instructor and suggested that the 2am to 6am shift may not be looking so bad now. A subtle hint that I wanted her to "encourage" students to fill those dead of night slots. All went well this morning but I don't want to depend on luck.

Thursday, January 22, 2015


I write this with a heavy heart. My mother and her husband had to let Dyna go last week. It was horribly unexpected and all the more of a shock for that. Dyna had just reached her 16th birthday (born in mid-January 1999). 

Taken in spring, 2002.

I got Dyna when she was about a year and a half old. Like all beloved pets, she has an origin myth. Dyna came to me as an AKC-registered, pure bred smooth fox terrier. Her owners had been quite successful with the breed a couple of decades before but they were elderly. Dyna was from their last litter. When the owners died, all of their remaining dogs were dumped into the rescue network in Pennsylvania. I agreed to take Dyna and she was duly put on a plane to Utah. I really had no idea what to expect when I arrived to pick her up. What I found was a tiny little white bitch with a black head, faint black ticking on her legs, and an amazingly calm demeanor.

Taken just days after Dyna joined CircusK9.

Harry and Iz and Dyna immediately formed a unit. Most of my pictures of Dyna are of all three of them. They were close in age, with Harry and Dyna separated by about six months, and Dyna and Iz separated by about 5 months, and similar in temperament.

Harry, Dyna, and Iz sunning themselves.

Except that Dyna never displayed the extreme nuttiness that is fairly typical of the breed. Don't mistake that for an absence of enthusiasm for life. But Dyna was never very impressed with flyball or agility or even basic obedience. She much preferred to follow Iz around. Whatever Iz was doing, Dyna was not far behind. This quickly earned her the nickname "Mini-Me." I used to joke that an invisible elastic string connected Iz's butt to Dyna's nose. 

Harry, Iz, and Dyna had many adventures together. They were a blur of motion and energy and fox terrier love of life.

Iz, Harry, and Dyna in Teasdale, Utah, December 2002.

I became quite involved in animal-assisted therapy activities with the Delta Society/Intermountain Therapy Dogs located in Salt Lake City. I quickly learned that because of her calmness, Dyna was a perfect visitor for frail seniors. For two years, we made weekly visits to a hospice. Not all the clients there were seniors, but as they were approaching the ends of their lives, they were all frail, frightened, angry, confused, resigned, tired, in pain. This was the most emotionally exhausting animal volunteer work I have ever participated in. I cried every single week on my drive back home. The nurses told me that often Dyna and I were the only visitors some of the clients had received in weeks. Dyna was solid, calm, accepting of any and all touches and caresses, and charmed her way into the hearts of nearly everyone we approached. 

One of my favorite anecdotes from that period concerns a woman who initially refused a visit from us. Because Dyna was very small even for a female smooth fox terrier, I would pick her up and stand in the doorway to ask if the client wanted to spend some time with us. A bed-bound woman took one look at Dyna and emphatically refused. I don't like dogs! she said. But she kept on talking so I kept standing there holding Dyna. Then I edged into the room. Then I sat by the bed. Then I placed Dyna on the bed next to the woman. The entire time, she was telling me stories about the brown dog she had as a child, about the adventures she and her siblings had with that dog, about other dogs she had as an adult. Once Dyna was settled in next to her, the woman began caressing Dyna on the chest (that's the magic spot for smooth fox terriers). Dyna fell asleep and I had to prop her up with my knees to keep her from oozing off the side of the bed. That woman was the only client we visited that week. The next week, she was gone. 

I submitted Dyna's story for an AKC award for therapy dogs. We got beat by a three-legged poodle (seriously), but Dyna got a very nice medal for her honorable mention. 

This is the photo that I submitted to AKC with her story.
It tore a huge hole in my heart to leave Dyna behind when I went to Saudi Arabia. I could only take two dogs and I chose Harry and Mimi. Sophie's choice. But I found the best home for Dyna that I could. She went to live with my mother and her husband in Virginia. They had (still have) two large rescue dogs. I also convinced them to take one of my cats, the Siamese-mix Bhumi, because I thought he would be a good companion for their elderly male cat. My instincts were good on both counts. Dyna and Bhumi both settled in quickly, Dyna of course taking charge of the other dogs from the start. She had never been in charge much at my place since I had no lack of strong, bossy female terriers. Dyna had always been quite content to follow. But once she was the only female terrier around, she certainly rose to the challenge.

Harry, Dyna, Iz in Salt Lake City. Looking for trouble, of course.

The first time I visited my mother after I'd been in KSA for a while, Dyna greeted me enthusiastically and slept with me while I was there. But with time, even though she always met my arrivals with happy greetings, it was clear that she had found a new home. Dyna ended up spending five and a half years in Virginia.

I was able to visit my mother in December for the first time since I had returned from KSA. When I left, I knew in my heart that it might be the last time I would see Dyna. 

My mother says the house is empty without her. That's the thing with fox terriers, they manage to fill an entire room with their buzz of energy.

Dyna was not an agility dog like Iz or a flyball superhero like Harry. She was simply Dyna, little sweet pea, who lived an exciting and eventful life full of dog and cat friends and people who loved her. We should all be as loved as Dyna.

Dyna and other smooth foxes she was related to had this unusual habit of dropping their lower lip when they were relaxed. It was quite characteristic. Taken in 2009 as I was preparing to leave for KSA. Dyna's ticking got much heavier as she got older.

Rest in peace, Dyna bug.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Sprucehill Bedazzle

Rest in peace, my sweet pea Dyna.

January 1999 to January 2015.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Mimi Is Not The Spring Chicken She Once Was

I mentioned in an earlier post that Mimi and Azza regularly play like crazed beasts. I finally managed to get some of it on video.

When I got home from school today, she greeted me at the door as usual, but instead of the normal smooth fox terrier boinging, she was limping, holding her head twisted to the side, ears back, tail down. I called the vet right away. 

It seems that as a result of throwing herself into the game with such abandon, Mimi has torn the equivalent of her rotator cuff in her right shoulder.  

I should mention that this probably happened a day or two ago; Mimi was showing signs of some discomfort in her right shoulder last night. And Azza is crated during the day.

But she should be feeling better shortly. She's got painkillers and muscle relaxers in her now and a belly full of yummy dinner. My homework is done and I'm ready to sit down with a glass of whiskey and relax from my crazy day. Yes, cows were involved. More on that later. Right now, it's time to hang out with my stubborn little terrier.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Showing Up: More Learning Opportunities With the Dairy Cows

The dairy cow selenium experiment continues to provide me with amazing opportunities to learn.

I went to the barn this morning for the regularly scheduled hay fluffing. I took some time to sweep up the main aisle (the evening feeders have been a bit lax in the housekeeping department). Before I left, I decided to make a nose-by-nose check on the cows. 

Everything looked fine until I got to pen 10. One cow was laying down and a yellowish-pinkish mass was lumped under her tail. Pregnant cow, that can't be anything good, I thought. Then I realized that she had not come to the front of the pen when I fluffed up the hay. All of the cows RUN to grab the delicious leftover bits of alfalfa hay that I sweep up with the grass hay. But not this one. 

I shooed her up and saw a meter-long piece of yellowish tissue, well vascularized, covered with large blood clots, hanging from her vulva. I suspected placenta, but I'm not even remotely close to being an expert.

I called the project PI, described the situation. She came right over to see for herself, said, yep, that's placenta and it looks like we are dealing with an abortion, then called half a dozen people. (If it was a person, it would have been called a miscarriage. But in cows, it is called an abortion.) But it was Saturday morning, the last weekend before classes start for the winter term, and, well, it was Saturday morning. We decided that we could do nothing and that the best option was to wait and see who returned her calls. 

I went home to shower. Just as I was finishing up, she called to tell me that the emergency theriogenology team from the vet school would be at the barn in half an hour. I said, I will help in whatever way I can. 

I put my barn clothes back on and zoomed back to campus. A few minutes after I arrived, a vet and a 4th year vet student arrived in a truck with a modified bed that contained enormous pull-out drawers filled with all of the drugs and equipment that might be needed for an emergency ruminant birthing situation. The PI showed up right after they arrived. 

The next two hours are sort of a blur. I fetched several pails of hot water for them ("I don't know nothin' about birthin' babies") and followed the PI around while she did some hand-wringing and the vet was figuring out what the plan needed to be. But I was rewarded for my patience, rewarded for simply being there when the vet asked me to come into the pen and grab one of the chains and help the 4th-year student pull. 

The first calf (there were two) had a condition called water belly. This means that fluid or possibly urine was accumulating in the body cavity, greatly extending the belly. The second calf was significantly undersized. Both calves were a month premature and stillborn. 

No, I did not stick my arm up inside that cow. But I was about as close to the action as any 3rd or 4th year vet student could be. 

Yes, there are photos. No, I will not post them. Go look on google if you are that prurient.

Yes, there were odors and sounds and lots and lots of different fluids of varying color and viscosity involved. I ended up throwing the leather gloves I was wearing into the trash bin in the barn. No, I was not grossed out. I was far more interested in the process. Once I was in the pen and up to my ankles in the brown goo comprised of cow poop and urine and cedar shaving litter (yay for muck boots) and holding onto one of the two chains, I didn't notice anything but the process. Pull, relax, vet repositions the calf, pull, relax. The vet student and I were side by side in the muck, holding the sticky handles at the ends of the chains, probably both hoping we wouldn't fall on our ass when the calf came out at last.

When it was all over and they untied the cow from her head harness, she went over to the two calves, laid out side by side in the muck, and licked at them and nudged them. That was very sad. She became distressed when we removed them from the pen, mooing and trying to get to them. Sad.

It might seem medieval to talk about chains and dead calves in the mud, but every brutal component was balanced by another action that was intended to preserve the health and welfare of the cow. She was not mistreated or abused. She was tended to within just a couple of hours after she began to abort the calves. She would have died if the vet had not been there to deal with the first calf with the fluid in its abdomen. The vet and the vet student used ample amounts of betadine, liters of it, actually. It was harsh but not unnecessarily so. 

More money is spent on dairy cow reproduction than on any other aspect of any other domesticated animal. Fewer than 50% of fertilized eggs from dairy cows produce viable fetuses. The reason is that we genetically selected for cows that produce a lot of milk. But in the process, we unknowingly selected against the genes associated with reproductive fitness. Oops.

So I learned today that I can handle a fairly extreme and unexpected situation with some calmness. I learned that I may project some aspect of that calmness--I don't think the vet would have invited me into that pen otherwise. I got a first-hand view of large-animal veterinary medicine that I simply would never have been able to get before. Every one of these opportunities helps me figure out what I want to get out of this crazy plan to get a DVM. 

And all I had to do was show up.

Friday, January 02, 2015

HellBeast Was Cold, Is Now Toasty Warm

HellBeast has been hovering about the various heat sources in the house this winter. I may not be crazy fond of him but there's no reason he should be cold.

So I went on the hunt for an enclosed bed for him but all the ones that I found on the internet were terrible floppy things that the animal had to crawl under and into. HB would never go for that. 

I visited the Portland Saturday Market in late November. One of the regular vendors sells pet supplies. She has the usual up-market leashes and toys and such but she also makes her own pet beds. They are very nice, sturdy, washable, fit perfectly in crates. To my surprise, she decided to take some of the smaller beds, roll them into tubes, sew a cap on one end, and voila! A perfect bed for a cat or small dog. 

HB approves.

A Story of Flax Seed and Chickens

I can list the stats, a nice dry list:

  • 238 total pages that include 
  • 19 pages of front matter (table of contents, list of figures, that sort of thing),
  • 30 pages in an appendix with brief summaries of 57 papers on poultry feeding trials in which the authors attempted to alter the n-3 fatty acids in poultry meat or eggs through dietary means,
  • 51 figures,
  • 39 tables,
  • 119 cited references; my library for the project contains over 150 papers so I managed to pare things down a bit
  • mostly written in the past three weeks with only one day off.

I can tell you the story. It starts with a bit of chemistry: the molecular properties of fatty acids and how two particular kinds, the n-3 and n-6 groups, work in animals (that includes us too). They affect immune response and fat metabolism and some of them control genes, turning on or turning off the transcription of important proteins. In short, the kinds of fat that we eat affect the kinds of diseases we have. Clinical research trials (gold standard) and other types of studies have been linking n-3 fatty acids to the reduction of symptoms or delay of onset of all kinds of inflammatory diseases such as cardiovascular disease and metabolic diseases such as diabetes, and linking those same fats to improvements in visual and cognitive development in embryos and very young infants/animals. There have even been studies linking n-3 fatty acids to reductions in symptoms of aging and dementia. Aging isn't a disease but you get the idea.

But here's the problem: in western cultures, we don't eat nearly enough of those n-3 fatty acids. The best source is fatty fish but for reasons of culture, cost, sustainability, concerns over environmental contamination, we just don't eat a lot of those fish. We do eat lots of chicken, though. In the US in 2012, we consumed 45 kg of chicken meat per capita. That is about 100 lbs per person. I can guarantee you that someone is picking up my slack. My advisor's acerbic comment on this: "chicken tenders...". So if we get more of those n-3 fatty acids into chicken, western consumers are more likely to consume those enriched products. The outcome is not just more money for the chicken producers but improved health for us.

I take a brief side trip to discuss oxidation. The more unsaturated a fatty acid is, the more likely it is to oxidize. The good n-3 fatty acids are in fact the most unsaturated fatty acids that we know of in animals. So I was able to work in a page or so on "what makes chicken smell fishy". Chicken in particular is handled a lot, exposing cut-up parts to air. Consumers buy more parts than whole birds. All that handling increases the possibility of oxidation even if there aren't extra n-3 fatty acids in the meat. 

I then blather on a bit about fat sources in poultry diets and how birds digest fat. The two things that have the highest amounts of n-3 fatty acids are fish oil and flax seed. While adding fish oil to poultry diets does increase the n-3 fatty acids in poultry meat and eggs, it is far too expensive to use in a commercial setting. Anyway, the use of it simply displaces the original problem: we don't eat oil fish for reasons of cost, etc., and those same problems are still present in fish oil which is obtained from those same oily fish.

So, flax seed. There's not just seed. There is flax oil, flax meal (defatted seed that has been ground), ground whole seed, and whole seed. Flax seed has more n-3 fatty acids in it than any other non-marine source. It might seem like the perfect solution. But there are some "anti-nutritive factors" that have to be addressed. For starters, all the good stuff in flax seed is enclosed in that tiny, hard, seed coat. The seed coat is not soluble in water or acid (acid breaks apart proteins very well but it doesn't do such a good job on these kinds of sugar molecules). In fact, monogastrics like you and chickens don't have the digestive enzymes to break down the molecules in that seed coat. (Keep that in mind next time you order a flax-seed muffin; you derive no nutritional benefit from the whole seeds.) You can grind the flax seeds to mechanically break apart the seed coat. Flax seeds are very tiny and contain lots of oil. They are damned hard to grind and commercial grinding equipment doesn't work well on them. Once you grind flax seeds, you expose all the oil inside them to, well, you guessed it, oxidation. That's why flax oil should be sold and stored in dark bottles in the fridge. That stuff will oxidize in a matter of hours if exposed to light and room temperatures. Once it does, it will smell quite fishy!

Flax seed also has this strange and wonderful material coating the outside of the hard seed coat. It is called mucilage (think snot). The molecules absorb water extremely quickly. This mucilage gets into the chicken's gut and does all sorts of unpleasant things. It makes the digesta (mixture of food and gut secretions) viscous. Thick digesta takes longer to pass through the gut. Thick digesta doesn't mix well and the chicken's digestive enzymes can't get at the nutrients in the digesta. The chicken doesn't get the energy it needs so it eats more to compensate. Even so, the chicken eating flax will not gain as much weight as chickens who aren't eating flax. 

The same things happen inside of you but you'd have to eat a fuck-ton of whole flax seed before you gum up your gut in the same fashion.

Grinding the seeds doesn't remove the mucilage. The best (cost-effective) option is to feed the whole seed to chickens and find some other way to deal with the hard seed coat and the mucilage.

Which takes us to the next part of the story. Exogenous enzymes. No, that is not a euphemism for anything. It just means that we add to the feed digestive enzymes that the chicken doesn't possess on its own. Of course, lots of research has been done to figure out exactly which enzymes and how much of each are needed to break apart the insoluble molecules in the seed coat and the soluble molecules in the mucilage. Not surprisingly, a pretty diverse mixture of enzymes is needed to accomplish this. I natter on a bit about the history of enzyme use in the animal feed industry.

Then my story takes a big, deep breath. I take an entire chapter to review all of the important feeding trials in which chickens were fed flax in some form and what happened. I tabulate the amount of flax used, how long it was fed, how old the birds were, what kind of birds (broilers, layers, etc). I note outcomes such as performance (weight gain or egg quality, for example), and enrichment (what kinds of n-3 fatty acids were present in eggs and meat and in what concentrations). It lacks the compelling drama of "eat more n-3 fatty acid and be healthy" but it is a significant contribution. I developed a short table template and summarized every paper in the Appendix as well. 

In the next two chapters, I describe my own two feeding trials. It's the usual intro, materials and methods, results, discussion format. Most of the figures and tables appear in these two chapters. Very interesting things were taking place inside those chickens and we certainly managed to support our original hypotheses.

The important n-3 fatty acids in thigh meat from my first experiment. Birds in the control group got a standard corn-soybean meal diet. The energy and protein of that diet was adjusted for 15% whole flax seed. The diet of the enzyme group included 0.05% of the enzyme mixture, a pale yellowish powder that we mixed in with the rest of the ingredients. The a,b,c labels are part of the statistical analysis. If two of the same fatty acids are labeled the same, they are statistically the same. If two boxes are labeled with different letters, they are statistically and significantly different.

Finally, I end the story with what I call the "uber-discussion". I calculate the cost per pound of meat of adding whole flax seed and enzymes to chicken diets (about $0.50 per pound). And I compare the chicken meat parts from my two feeding trials to governmental definitions of "enriched" to determine if we in fact created something that could be labeled as such. We did. 

After all that, believe it or not, it's just the first draft. It's a honking large file that I can't email to my committee. I'm buying small thumb drives and will personally deliver it to them next week. 

I made my deadline though. I promised my advisor the complete draft by the times classes start up on Monday.