This post is dedicated to my fellow vet students, or anyone who has ever had their butt kicked by a baby animal….
There is a special kind of wound to your pride when you are kicked around, bruised and battered by an animal whose umbilical cord is still hanging off it’s navel. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s go ahead and check, “get beat up by infant cow” off my bucket list.
Here’s the thing about newborn calves: they are like really big, super awkward lambs. If you remember, I worked with lambs for the first time in April. Even though I proved to be positively no help around a farm at lambing time and I killed half a dozen of them, I gained a real appreciation for the art of sheep farming.
My appreciation for cattle husbandry also grew over my time on the dairy farm, but came at the cost of numerous bruises, nettle burns, and a rash of light scratches on the delicate skin inside my forearms. Calves have heavily keratinized filiform papillae covering their tongue (or in human speak, “rough, stabby thingys”) which can really do some damage to those of us with sensitive skin…apparently.
These bovine babies and I got along…eventually…after a clearing up a few misunderstandings.
My first day, I worked with The Calf Whisperer in the morning, learning which calves to feed what, and was left to my own devices for the afternoon shift. Overall, it went well. Until, that is, it was time to feed the “calves in the field.” These calves are pretty much micro-cows. They are fully weaned. They don’t come up to you to suck your fingers or nuzzle you. And when you are nose to nose with one, you realize they are seriously big.
When I jumped off the quad bike with a bag of feed in hand, the field of calves rushed me like a pack of rugby players going after a post-game pint.
As a general rule, calves are not scarey. They don’t even have that many teeth. Still, I was aware that being knocked off my feet could result in some painful trampling, and tensed up slightly.
I wanted to sound stern. It worked. Even though I was wearing pink wellies, I commanded respect!
I emptied two of the three bags into the troughs. As I was emptying the third bag, the calves were in a South African Shark Style feeding frenzy.
I turned around in time to see a young bullock trotting right at me. In my desire to alter his course to something that was less threatening to my MCL, I tried my stern “BACK OFF,” but this time, I punctuated my words with a flap of the empty feed bag.
The bullock turned to face me directly and lowered his head. It really is quite a threatening posture…for a cow.
I waved the bag again, and it dawned on me; I was waving a white and orange feed bag in the same style matadors wave their red capes. I wondered if I was, in fact, challenging and enraging my young 200 kg friend.
Thoughts of awkward explanations filled my mind. How would I tell everyone that I was kicked out of vet school for being beat up by a juvenile dairy cow?! I stuffed the bag behind me and making eye contact, growled at him, “BACK! AWAY! MY! FRIEND!” as I made my way back to the quad with as much dignity as I could muster under the circumstances.
Later in the week, I had mastered feeding all of the baby animals without fearing for my life and was presented with a new challenge: castration.
Young male calves are castrated by the application of a small rubber ring. There are two important aspects to castrating bullocks:
1. Both testicles need to be in the scrotum below the ring for it to work (this should be obvious)
2. Well, see point 1. That was really the whole idea of it.
I don’t care how awkward your job is. I can guarantee it is not massage a baby bull’s testicles to keep them from being sucked up and out of the scrotum awkward. And just as I felt the need to maintain a constant dialogue with mama ewe when I had my hand in her vagina, I couldn’t feel up a bull’s ball sack without saying something:
“Hey buddy, you got 2 of them in there? That’s a good boy. Ok hold still, don’t suck them up…don’t….awwwww c’mon man, you can’t keep one, I need both balls here, let’s make this quick, trust me, you’ll want it over as soon as possible.”
At one point, with a particularly difficult calf, I paused, my hand still gently holding his testicles, flipped my hair out of my eyes, and said to my instructor, “I think he might actually be enjoying this. He’s keeping a ball up on purpose!”
Yes. I realize that scenario is highly unlikely, neither the calf nor I were enjoying ourselves at that particular manure and milk covered moment.
I cupped his scrotum again, this time feeling both balls. This was it! In one swift movement, I opened the ring applicator, shoved it up between his legs and released *BAM*
D asked me if I got him.
Um no….actually, I just castrated my thumb….
Sure enough, there was a rubber ring around my thumb.
I’m sorry, I don’t know how I did that.
Good one, young bullock. Good one.
All and all, I wasn’t a total failure for the week, I actually have a knack for getting new calves to drink their milk. Spike was my tough little dairy bull. His first day, he was absolutely terrified of the bottle and didn’t drink much, which left me all the more motivated to feed him the next morning.
Since the heifers born on the same day as Spike were happily drinking from their milk bucketss on the second day, I hung one over his door too. Big mistake. Spike was afraid of the milk bucket. I reached over and tried to get him to suck my fingers. Big mistake. Spike was afraid of my hand reaching over the door. I opened the door and sat down with the bottle. Spike was afraid of the bottle.
I scratched the side of his face and talked to him. Eventually, Spike stopped being so afraid. I got him to suck my fingers and then tricked him into drinking from the bottle. He was still scared, but not paralyzed with fear. By dinner, I was able to get him to drink from his feeder, as long as the door was open and I was standing with him….and we went through the whole touching/desensitizing process again.
The next day at breakfast, Spike still needed me to open his door and lead him to his feeder, but he drank all of his milk!
Climbing the steep learning curve of working with dairy cows wasn’t easy, but castration faux pas and feed stampede aside, I wouldn’t say I’m totally hopeless. I might end up being a country vet after all…