Friday, February 27, 2015

Counting Down: Five Cows To Go

As of 6am this morning, there were still 5 cows yet to calve. Another one was born on my shift on Thursday morning, a really cute red Hereford bull calf. The student named him Duke. He came out weighing 92 pounds--that's a big calf.

One of the many interesting things I've learned during this project is how wide the range is for normal calving. The entire process can take five minutes or two hours (the average duration is one hour). The water sac usually comes first but it might follow the calf. The mother might do the entire thing laying down, she might calve standing up. Some cows give you lots of warning signs that they are in early labor: standing at the back of the pen, or even standing at all (the cows are usually laying down sleeping during my shift), switching their tail back and forth, lifting the head of the tail where it attaches to the spine, arching their back. They will stop ruminating. Some cows become somewhat anxious, repeatedly lying down and standing up, not able to settle. You can see them having contractions once labor begins but this is not very visible in the early stages. And when the calf is moving through the birth canal, the cows will relax their pelvic ligaments, causing their entire pelvis to rotate so that the opening that the calf passes through is more perpendicular to their path and less oblique, which makes their hip bones suddenly stick way up. Sometimes they even look "less" pregnant, a sign the baby is moving into the birth canal. But some cows give you absolutely no warning of any kind. We've had at least three calves born in which people were standing around IN THE BARN when they heard a whoosh of fluid then a plop and there was a calf on the ground. They had no idea at all that the cow was in labor.

Cows that have a snack on remnants of the evening feed ration are probably not going to calve in the next few hours. In fact, one of the first things I do when I arrive at the barn for my shift is go down the aisle and sweep the scattered alfalfa hay remnants back up to the pens. Cows that don't come up for this are the ones I watch most closely. It's proven a reliable test for weeks now--I've in fact predicted which cow was going to calve next probably half a dozen times based on this and my other observations.

I have a bit of an advantage over the students and other supervisors. I'm the only person who is at the barn every single day at the same time. The PI of the project is at the barn every day but she isn't there at the same time. Cows have routines just like we do, and by observing them at the same time, I am able to notice even small changes in behavior. However, it's taken me all of these five weeks to compile a relatively complete catalog of possible early labor signs because no cow exhibits all of them.

Getting the blood samples has also involved an evolution of process. When I had to draw blood on the calves back at the start of the project, I would often close my eyes when feeling the vein. Closing my eyes narrowed my focus and I would visualize the vein in 3D, its diameter and orientation, whether it seemed "rolly". Sometimes the vein will roll a bit under the needle and you will nick the vein instead of hitting it in the middle. I'd release the pressure to let it deflate then hold it off again two or three times to make sure I was going for the vein and not some ligament in the neck or, dog forbid, the artery. I might hold off on both sides before choosing the side I preferred, although to be honest, as I am left-handed, I prefer to bleed from the calf's left side, which is on my right as it faces me. Even so, if the vein is better on the calf's right, I'll go for that one. The process was somewhat theatrical, to be sure. I'd usually verbalize continuously, I feel it here, this one looks good, etc. It's an oddly intimate thing to do--I'm on my knees in front of the calf (I prefer to do this in a pile of grass hay if possible to provide a cushion for everyone) while the student is kneeling over the calf's shoulders, holding its head firmly but not too tightly against them. The calf might have its front feet folded under or straight out in front, and its hind feet turned to the side or tucked under. Anyway, what I'm getting at is that I can't see the face of the holder. I am sure there were many eye rolls at my dramatic performance but I don't care. It worked for me, forced me to take my time, be patient, know exactly where that needle had to go before I ever uncapped it. And I have become pretty good at getting blood from jugular veins of calves. It usually takes longer to get the calf settled on the ground that it does for me to get the sample.

So to close, I have a small brag. One of the supervisors called me to the barn for a blood draw (he remains unwilling to even attempt one). When I showed up, the PI was there too. She was surprised to see me but I told her quietly that I had been called in. She said, okay, since you're here, we need to get blood from that cow too. Into the chute the cow went, halter put on her head, head tied off to the side. Jean handed me the tubes and the cuvette (we have to fill three tubes from the mothers), and while she and I were jibber-jabbering about something, I proceeded to do the blood draw. No drama, no problems, nothing but three tubes full of purple venous blood. As I was withdrawing the needle, I suddenly realized that I had done the procedure entirely on auto-pilot. Jean realized this at the same time, and said, well, it looks like you can draw blood from just about anything now. Wow, that made me feel really good that she not only recognized my accomplishment but that she let me know it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Ew, That's Gross! Hold On, Let Me Get A Picture!

How do you know when you are working with animal science students? When confronted with slimy body parts or stinky, sticky body fluids, their first response is just like yours: ew, that's gross. But their next response is to touch it, pick it up, turn it over, and of course take a picture.

Yep, a bovine placenta. It is a sac that surrounds the calf. The red blobs are on the outside surface. They link to similarly sized blobs on the cow's uterus (caruncles) and are the connection points between cow and calf. This strange arrangement means that cows don't transmit certain things to their fetuses in utero, but only through colostrum after birth. This cow had given birth just a couple of hours before. The stress of moving through the chute caused her to drop her placenta pretty quickly. Usually they are dropped in the pens so are covered with bedding and poop. This one was nice and clean, well, relatively so, and was very photogenic.

Don't even get me started on the evolution of feces in newborn calves or the various states of vulval prolapse in pregnant cows.

We went 9 days at the barn without a birth. Some of these last 17 cows aren't predicted to be due until next week, some are past due. That is, if you actually believe the predicted birth dates. I made a graph of predicted versus actual to date: two cows birthed on their predicted date, half a dozen birthed after their predicted date, and the rest birthed up to two weeks earlier than their predicted date. In sum, predicted birth dates were not terribly useful.

Nine days of nothing except really nice spring weather, and suddenly in about 12 hours we had 4 calves on the ground. I watched another one being born this morning, my sixth, I think. 

Newborn calves are pretty fun to watch. As mother licks them dry, they fluff up and warm up. Eventually they begin to attempt to stand, usually within 15 minutes of birth. This is the most amusing part of the process because their legs and their brain are not communicating too well and each of their legs can end up going in a different direction. I've seen some calves do spectacular face plants and somersaults. But most of them are standing within another 15 minutes, wobbly to be sure but standing. They will often start to frisk and gambol about the pen within a couple of hours. Happy to be on this earth.

Cow licking the calf stimulates hormones and endorphins in both of them. Calf nursing stimulates hormones in cow that assist with release of the placenta and increased milk production. These are called neuroendocrine reflexes: a physical sensor (touch) generates a response in the hypothalamus in the brain which then sends signals to hormone-releasing tissues. And there are pheromones present, at least for a few minutes after birth. But I've been wondering about another thing the cows do: they moo very loudly at an oddly low frequency right at their calf's head, over and over, especially in the first few hours. It is not a normal cow vocalization and seems to be restricted to cows with newborn calves. I wonder if the frequency of the sound is also creating some neuroendocrine reflex.

The supervisor on the shift before mine called me at midnight--I was deep asleep. But she couldn't get a blood sample from a newborn and it is fairly critical to the research study that the zero hour blood sample be drawn before the calves begin to nurse. I managed to stumble in by 1am, an hour before I was supposed to be there, and got the calf weighed and blood drawn in 15 minutes (with the help of two students). Thankfully, that calf hadn't started nursing yet. Sometimes it takes cow and calf a few hours to get it together. With all of the blood draws and cow/calf management this morning, I wasn't able to sit down until 4:30am. Whew!

Getting a colostrum sample from a beef cow. They can still kick even when in the squeeze chute so you have to be careful.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Calf Rodeo

The pregnant beef cow study continues. I don't have a theme for this post, just some random thoughts.

In case you were wondering how I can manage a 2-6am shift every day (that's 7 days a week), I shifted my sleep schedule. I go to bed at 6pm, get up at 1am.

I've suffered from insomnia for many years. But for the past three weeks, I've been so mentally and physically exhausted by all the extra work that I can barely manage to turn out the light before I'm asleep, and I don't move until the alarm goes off. I feel reasonably rested during the day, and I'm certainly getting more hours of sleep than I normally do. But this schedule still doesn't feel quite right. I love walking up and down the barn in the dead hours of the morning, listening to the cows breathing. Still, I'll be glad when I can resume normal programming.

Not all supervisors have equal skill sets. One of them, who is in fact a PI for the project, has been extremely reluctant to touch the cows or calves, and he refuses to do blood draws on the calves. Since each calf gets poked five times (0, 12, 24, 36, and 48 hours from birth), that's a problem. He's taken to calling me, no matter what time of day (he never takes night supervisor shifts, thankfully), to come in and do the blood draws that fall during his shifts. He and the primary PI are feuding so he won't call her, and I sure don't like being in the middle of that. But I look at it this way: it's just more experience for me. Sure, it's inconvenient. And sometimes he calls me when I am not at my best. But I view it as a real-life challenge: veterinary medicine means working with animals and they don't give a toss for our arbitrary schedules, so I need to be able to think, act, and make decisions even when I'm tired. So when he calls, I change into my barn clothes, drive in, do the blood draw, hop back in the car and go home.

Calf rodeo. All three student helpers weren't needed to hold this calf down; in this position, only one holder is needed. But I thought it would make a funny photo. "Indulge me," I told them.

Cows have some interesting social dynamics. A new mother will lick the neck of another pregnant cow in her pen, exchanging pheromones it is thought, and that second cow will generally go into labor within a couple of days. Pregnant cows sometimes try to steal newborn calves from other cows. Sheep do this too. And if you move a bonded group of cows to a new pen, they will challenge the cows in the neighboring pens, slamming their heads into the gates and generally making a lot of drama.

New mothers can be amazingly aggressive! Five of the 45 pregnant cows were range cows from east Oregon, newly purchased by the OSU farm this year, and they are not used to people. They were fucking frightening to deal with after they had their calves. I called them Crazed Beast 1, 2, etc. Sure, cows don't have claws or flesh-tearing teeth (they do have teeth), but they kick as fast as lightening and they will charge you, ram you with their head, stomp on you if you are on the ground. When you stand in front of a pen and the new mother lowers her head, stiffens her legs, and gives you the stinkeye, you know you need to be careful when you pull that calf out to get some blood and a weight. I could write a book about what I've learned about how to move around cows and about what I've learned about how to move cows around. 

Also interesting is what I call the "dead calf" mode. The calves generally struggle a bit when you hold them for blood draws but if there are delays (veins blown or hard to find, for example), they usually drop into this weird state with eyes rolled back and bodies completely limp. I suppose it is an evolutionary adaption for protection against predators. I still laugh every time it happens. 

My tolerance for dirt and stink was greatly expanded when I started living with dogs. But now that I've been spending time with ruminants, I only notice the most egregious fluids (the first poop that newborn calves make is nuclear yellow and unbelievably smelly; I generally clean that off right away). Even so, I always wash my hands and arms carefully when I get home, and I take my barn clothes off right by the door and store them away from the dogs (I wear the same clothes for several days in a row). I keep my boots in the war room at the barn. Lice and such tend to be species-specific but there is no need to be stupid about things.

Besides regular blood draws, we have to weigh the calves a lot. We crab-walk them from their pens to the scale and snap the sling onto them--it has extra straps that go around their chest and butt to keep them from tipping out. Then we have to lift them high enough to clip the sling onto the chain. It is attached to an S-shaped piece of metal with electronic sensors on it that measure the separation of the top and bottom of the S; this electrical signal is converted to pounds by an electronic display.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

I'm Too Sexy For My Shirt

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the mnemonic "He's right so she left." This is a guide for which ear the calves get tagged.

Thumper, an adorable white-faced calf born just a couple of days ago, was tagged in the right ear. The sex call of male was made by the student worker who got to name this calf.

Unfortunately for Thumper, for the OSU beef cow farm, and for the PIs of this project, Thumper is a lovely, little bitty heifer. (The supervisors are happy about this; it means that OSU will keep her, and she really is super adorable. Male calves have their testicles banded at 3 or 4 days of age and are eventually sold for meat.)

What a wake-up call. Not a single supervisor thought that we had to double check the sex calls made by the students.

The student misidentified the sex of this calf, and as a result, the calf had a big hole punched in her right ear for no purpose at all, because the beef cow farm manager was rather annoyed once this error was discovered and insisted that the calf be retagged in the other, that is, the correct, ear. 

The instructor of the calving class was horrified. She had no idea that the students were so inexperienced that they couldn't even be trusted to sex calves at birth.

There are plenty of mammals that lack external genitalia at birth. And some species don't express secondary sexual characteristics until puberty. For example, sexing felines at birth is a bit of an arcane art. But cows, like us primates, have external genitalia at birth. Female calves have tiny vulvas and male calves have scrotums. And most mammals of course have umbilical cords. There is a small swelling on the belly of newborn calves where the cord was attached that persists for several days. Despite this, the presence or absence of a scrotum is a nearly fool-proof indicator of sex in a newborn calf.

We think the student thought the umbilical was either a penis or the scrotum. We are not sure how this student could think this since all the calves have a thin, dangly, ragged red tube of slowly atrophying flesh hanging from that umbilical connection. Newborn bulls don't have an external penis. This is one of those things that develop at puberty.

Of course, as a result of this hysterical kerfuffle, I had to take pictures of newborn calf genitalia on my shift at the barn this morning.

Can you guess the sex?

Oh, look! No scrotum. It's a girl!
Can you guess the sex?
Oops! Scrotum! Sorry, it's a boy.

Climbing into pens and splaying open the hind legs of sleepy calves is not for the faint of heart. On one of our attempts to get a good picture of male genitalia, the calf suddenly kicked out. One of its hind hooves make a direct hit on my phone. The phone went flying up into the air, inevitably landing face down deep in cow shit. I cleaned it up, wiping most of it off on my pants, the rest on paper towels, but it still has a very faint odor of cow shit about it. Or maybe that's just me. At this point, I am not being too particular. Fortunately, I live with dogs and they are not at all particular either.

Because of the low light in the barn at night, there is a slight delay from when I push the button and when the shutter flashes open. The camera took a nice photo of the cow shit that it subsequently landed in.

And although this has nothing to do with the theme of this post, I would just note that in a personal best record, I dead-lifted a 94.3-pound calf from the ground to several feet off the ground so we could hitch the sling holding it to the scale and get its birth weight. He is, by several pounds, the largest calf born so far. The calf has to be clipped to the chain high enough so that its feet don't touch the ground so we can get an accurate weight. The student working with me could not himself had weighed over 100 pounds. So I told him, I'll lift, you clip the sling to the chain. It took us two tries to get this calf high enough that his feet weren't dragging on the ground. After we returned Alfalfa to his pen (the name chosen by the student), I said, we will not be weighing any more calves tonight. Weighing that calf nearly did both of us in.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Up To My Knees in Cowshit

We are coming to the end of the second week of calving for the pregnant cow and calf study. It seems like the original estimates of the vet as to due date were off (it's an imprecise art at best, I gather) and the cows are popping out calves left and right a week or more before they were expected. We really scrambled the first week as many of the operational details had not been sorted out.

Newborn calves are like any other newborn mammal: kind of flattened, covered in sticky fluids, and not very pretty. The mother licks her calf dry and they fluff up quickly. Most are on their feet in 15-30 minutes after being born. Amazing.

There is an astonishing number of moving parts involved in this project. First, the 45 pregnant cows, which will eventually become 45 cows and 45 calves (we only keep them at the barn for 48 hours after a calf is born then they are transported back to the OSU beef cow farm). A supervisor has to be at the barn at all times; our shifts range from 4 to 6 hours long. Students in the calving class come for a couple of hours. In theory, their overlapping shifts should cover the entire 24 hours of the day but shifts after midnight are not often taken. I signed up for all but a handful of the 2am to 6am supervisor shifts and for the most part I am at the barn with only one or two students during that time. Sometimes I'm all by myself.

The barn at 3am. All is quiet.

Students in the calving class might have some experience with cows or they might have no experience at all--maybe they saw some cows on TV once. I find it quite interesting that the students with the most experience, those who did 4H, whose families raise beef cattle or have a dairy farm, question everything. They simply can't understand why we would do a particular thing a particular way because "that's not how we do it at home." And that is exactly the point. This is a scientific research study. Of course we don't manage the cows the way a ranch would. Cows have been assigned to specific dietary treatments. Calves have blood draws every 12 hours. Calves are weighed before and after nursing. No rancher who wanted to remain a rancher would manage cows that way. So we get lots of push back from the students with experience. I've tried over and over to explain the objectives of the study and why we have to manage the cows and calves this one way and this way only in order to get data that would meet those objectives, but some of the students simply don't get it.

Stormy was born on my shift. She's the only all white calf so far (we expect one more). It was raining the night she was born. Her name is meant to be ironic. She was not quite ready to stand up when I took this photo less than 15 minutes after she was born.

In contrast, the students with the least experience are often the most willing workers. They dive right in, eager for the experience. They ask questions not to challenge but to learn more. They remain cheerful even in the face of some pretty hectic moments. I've certainly got my favorites among them.

Sleepy calf. Some of the female students are just slips of girls that barely outweigh the calves but you should never underestimate them. Tough, just like the calves.
I've continued to learn too. My successes give me confidence that the vet school decision isn't folly.

For example, I was shown how to draw blood on calves one way. You haul the calf out of the pen. Mother begins to howl, loudly and often. You either carry or crabwalk the calf to the table (calves have "go" buttons on their butts but sometimes they are just so sleepy that they won't walk on their own no matter what). You grab their front feet, another student grabs their hind feet, and you flip "little" calf, who might weigh anywhere from 65 to 85 pounds, onto its side on the ground or a pile of hay if it is convenient. One student lays across the calf's hind quarters, holding hind legs with one hand, front legs with the other. You will hold the calf's head just so, tilting it to the side and up just so. It's quite a piece of theater. 

Holding the calf the old-fashioned way. I told them to lift their heads and smile. Normally they are trying to get out of the way of the person drawing the blood. You can see what a small space you have to work in.
Then I kneel down next to the tiny bit of calf that isn't covered by students, look for the jugular pulse, jam my hand into the base of the calf's neck (and I do mean jam), let the vein fill, then feel for the vein with the other hand to make sure I know where it is located and what its diameter is. I might release the pressure of my jamming hand then put it back to make sure that I'm feeling the jugular vein and not a bit of connective tissue or, dog forbid, the artery. Only the vein will fill when you jab your hand in and relax when you release the pressure. There is a lot of small variability in the physiology so that if you don't pay attention, you are going to miss the vein entirely, nick the vein, or push the needle all the way through it. The latter two will result in a hematoma that can make getting another blood sample from that side of the calf's neck very difficult. If you don't pay attention, you might blow the vacuum on the sample collection tube and have to get a new one. If you don't pay attention, you might have to jab the calf's neck again. And again. And again. Every jab of the needle makes it that much duller so after three or four failed pokes, you need to replace it. For all these reasons, I never insert the needle until I am absolutely sure I know where the vein is and where I want the needle to go into it. My goal is "one and done." Plus, let's be clear, it hurts the calf to be stuck repeatedly with a large, dull needle in the neck. I visualize the vein in my mind and with my fingers. 

The cuvette is a plastic cup with a threaded tip at one end (not shown). They are reused many, many times. You pull the grey cap off the needle and screw the needle into the cuvette. The yellow cap is what I pull off with my mouth. This exposes the needle that we push into the calf's neck. The grey rubber bit is covering a second needle. This is inserted into the vacuum sample collection tube after the main needle is in the vein, or rather, once the needle plus cuvette are in place, you push the vacuum tube up into the cuvette onto the second needle.

Once I am sure, I cannot hesitate. Using my mouth, I quickly uncap the needle that is screwed onto the cuvette, jab the needle into the vein then push the vacuum tube onto the other end of the needle, all with one hand because I can't let go of the pressure on the vein or I won't get enough blood to fill the tube. I am so good at this now that I can get the sample in one jab 9 times out of 10--so satisfying to see that beautiful venous blood shooting into the vacuum tube. Once this is over, you carry or crabwalk the calf back to the pen.

An aside about uncapping the needle with your mouth. That is of course not the "proper" way but it is the "operational reality" way to do it. The calf will only have just so much patience at being squished down on its side--you do not have an infinite amount of time to dither about collecting a blood sample. It is so critical to press on the vein at the base of the neck that once people have a good inflation of the vein, they usually don't move that jamming hand until they are done. So how else are you going to get the cap off that needle but with your mouth? The needles are sterile as long as they are capped but we often put extra tubes and needles in our pockets or on the ground next to us so the exteriors of the things are far from clean. Animal science is not for the squeamish, that's for sure.

But there is a a much better way to get blood from a calf that I learned about yesterday. It only takes two people, not three, and it is less stressful on the mother and calf, less stressful on the calf holders, and much less stressful on us novice vampires. It's still theater but it is more like a short vignette instead of a three-act play.

You and I go into the pen. The calf will most likely be sleeping. Even if it is walking around, this will still work. You will straddle the calf around its shoulders, kneeling on the ground if it is lying down, standing and squeezing it in your knees if it is standing. There is a near 100% probability that you will have to kneel in a fresh pile of cowshit. Then you take its head and pull it straight back against you, exposing its throat. The whiff of ritual sacrifice is strong, that's for sure. I will then kneel down (also into a fresh pile of shit), gently press my thumb into the jugular just above the scapula, and repeat the other steps above. In this position, the jugular is much more obvious, it fills with much less pressure against the neck, and it is much less likely to roll between connective tissue when you push the needle into it.

Two of my favorite student workers. James in fact encouraged me to try the "kneeling" method for drawing blood after he helped another supervisor do it in a pen the day before. Knowledge transfer in its most perfect form. Remember, these two young people are with me in a cow barn at 4 in the morning. Dedication.

This method takes tens of seconds while the other method can take up to 15 minutes per calf. And with this method, we are still in the pen with the mother. Usually mother cow will sniff at us and her calf but otherwise she is not too stressed (these cows are kept at OSU for research; they are not wild range cows). The angle of insertion of the needle is a bit different with this method so today I had to jab the calf twice before I hit the vein properly. 

A final comment on that squeamish thing. I have no problems with all sorts of unspeakably sticky fluids and viscosities of shit. I have no problems jabbing large needles into the jugular veins of animals. But there is one thing that I have so far refused to do: tag the newborn calves in the ear. I understand why they must be tagged, they will live their entire life with that identification number. But the tagging gun looks like some medieval instrument of torture and I just cannot make myself use it. Instead, I turn it into a learning moment for my student helpers. We are all learning, after all.

Those tags will be in their ears for years before they have to be replaced.