In production animal agriculture there is a concept called the Welfare Plateau. It was set forth by a brilliant professor from the University of Illinois named Stanley Curtis. Dr. Curtis was a sizeable man with a photographic memory who moved with great purpose. It was said, and with little exaggeration, if he were to make a sudden stop the first graduate student in his entourage would disappear and may never be seen again. Decorum and respect dictate that we leave the reader to extrapolate Dr. Curtis’ anatomic disproportionality.
The Welfare Plateau is not brain surgery. It says that the better feed, water, ventilation and housing we provide for our animals, the more healthy and productive they will be. One of the parameters that producers and vets monitor closely is timely and efficient reproduction.
It is neither safe nor cost-effective to get the patient to urinate in a cup. With most conceptions being by way of artificial insemination, the bull could be three states away. There’s just not that “connection” for cow and bull to wait the eight minutes for a second line to appear. Anatomically speaking, the cow’s reproductive tract is conveniently accessible, per rectum. We as veterinarians, technicians and herd managers have evolved the skill of rectally palpating, or ultra-sounding, cows to evaluate their pregnancy state and stage of their “cycle”. It is routine to sleeve-up and plunge armpit deep into the rectum of a cow. On a harsh winter day, there’s no better place for your right arm. When friends come from the “big city” I’ve learned to prep them for what is to come, or not.
In 2015 you can earn a pilot’s license online, and learn the intricacies of Addison’s Disease from Google. Palpating cows is an all-in learning experience. Michael Perry’s mantra, “Never stand behind a sneezing cow”, is in full relevance. For roughly 3,000 vets who graduated from the U of I between 1954 and 1994, the skill began in the shotgun seat of a Chevy Suburban, halfway between Champaign and Vandalia, Illinois.
In his mid-sixties, Dr. Bruce Brodie bore a striking resemblance to Homer Simpson, if Homer had done a “Jared”. Substitute the plaid sweater and pipe for a home-made cigarette and a pair of beige Walls coveralls, and he had the demeanor of Bing Crosby on a Christmas special. Just past Effingham, he would clear his throat and look into the rearview mirror to ensure we had shaken off the effects of last night's pitcher or so of Budweiser. After seven years in the classroom, a field trip to the prison with Dr. Brodie was an occasion worthy of pre-celebrating.
He would take the left arm of the passenger and raise it above the dash. Firmly grabbing their wrist he would give a firm shake, “Awright folks, now pretend that Dr. Stork’s wrist here is the cow’s cervix,” he would whisper with the patience of Gandhi. He would rock my hand backwards, demonstrating the move required to bring the reproductive tract into the cow’s pelvis. With his index finger between mine he showed the location of the intercornual ligament and traced my fingers to simulate the uterine horn; finally locating the ovaries at the tip of my fingers.
It wasn’t unusual for there to be a token senior on the trip, who would take their turn doing the demo. You could see the squint in the corner of his eye as Dr. Brodie smiled like a proud papa while the student repeated his ritual: line, verse and pause.
The University had a reciprocal agreement with the Illinois Department of Corrections. In exchange for providing veterinary consultation, we were allowed to bring students into the prison cow-herds to learn restraint, treatment and palpation. To this day, I’m sure they did not consult the cows. Any metaphor drawn from rectally palpating cows at a prison is inferred, incidental and completely un-intentional. The Vandalia prison was a minimum security facility, but we were thoroughly searched and there were strict dress codes that coincided nicely with veterinary fashion. Any sight of skin could incite a riot among 1,300 men who hadn’t been to a mall for a decade or more. That worked well. Our blue, green and beige Walls 50-50 cotton, short sleeve coveralls would make Jennifer Lopez as amorphous as an 8th grade boy.
The final demonstration before we would be on our own was priceless. Dr. Brodie would select a Holstein who was both calm and well-fed. He would lube-up, deflect her tail and respectfully cone his hand upon entry. He’d curl his fingers and rake any “interference” onto the barn floor as he stepped away and turned his head. Presented with a whole cow rather than a student’s left arm, he would “shake hands with the cervix”.
In the time it took him to talk his way around the broad ligaments, horns and ovaries, he would reach into his pockets, presenting a thin white paper from a Zig-Zag wrapper. Selecting just one, he would lay it over her tail head and continue the lecture. As the incarcerated Holstein shifted her weight he did not so much as stutter as he produced a can of Prince Albert and flipped open the lid. He’d lay a thin line of the aromatic leaf tobacco down the middle of the paper and replace the can to his pocket. Finally, as he reported his findings in the proper lingo: “1.5 CL L, SR”, he would pause only to wet two fingers of his free hand and the outside edge of the paper. A finer demonstration of performance art I’ve yet to see duplicated on any stage: in one smooth motion he’d roll the cigarette and introduce it to his lips as he pulled from the cow.
Every 10 years or so I’ll find my friends Hal Leonard, Edmar Schreiber or Jon Jorgenson at a continuing education meeting. We never fail to recall Dr. Brodie. When feeling particularly nostalgic, I’m pretty sure I can smell the woody hint of tobacco as I work through a herd check.
Dr. Brodie referenced frequently the work he did in Africa and Egypt, studying the reproduction of the water buffalo that were crucial to survival on those continents.
He never mentioned the four years he fought in World War II.
He also failed to prepare me for Dave Tofte’s Second Cow on the Left.
Just as Dr. Brodie had taught me, minus the hand-rolled smoke, I pulled my arm from Dave Tofte’s third cow on the left. As I reported the findings on her left and right ovary, there came a thunderous “THWACK!” The sound had a distinct fleshy “snap” like the soundtrack of a Clint Eastwood bar scene where he bursts through the swinging saloon doors and lays the guy out with one swift uppercut. In my head there was a distinct hollow percussive tone, like a kid whacking a culvert with a good stout stick.
Exactly my next observation was that I was airborne, at a 45-degree angle and on a collision course with the freshly limed barn floor. And the sound I heard was her foot, on my knee.
I touched down, skidded six inches and bounced. As I curled into the fetal position, I launched a diatribe that would cost me hard time in confession. I may have begged for #2 to kick me in the head as well. I always seemed to find my way to the Tofte farm around midday. Dave had some right leanings and a taste for talk radio. A temporary loss of consciousness would be the ultimate anesthesia for the knee and I wouldn’t have to listen to Rush Limbaugh.
Out of respect for the late Walter Payton and personal pride, I dragged myself to the center post and climbed back to my feet, finishing the last two cows hopping on one leg. Bending my leg to push the clutch was NOT happening. Dave quickly notched a spare 2x4 to fit the pedal and I hand-shifted down the road.
And so went my introduction to Dave Tofte’s “second cow on the Left”.
She was on point at the sound of the V-6 downshifting into the farm drive. If I shouldered my halter and bucket and walked in front of the east bank of stanchions to treat any cow, #2 would smoothly ratchet back and drop her head. Whether my stride was purposeful or tentative the crown of her head would meet my hip at 11:00, just off her left side. Like the ill-fated evening in college when I was caught admiring Becky Bull in a rainstorm, I’d find myself pasted to the fieldstone foundation of the hundred year old hip-roof barn.
Cows have a nearly 300-degree radius of sight, so #2 would never turn her head. Yet, if I were to walk the west side of the barn aisle, she'd stand like a statue made of butter at the Wisconsin State Fair. As repeatable as Rush’s lambasting of Clinton: if I were to walk the width of my overshoes on HER side of the isle… she’d double barrel as quick as a right jab from Sugar Ray Leonard.
In her 12 years on the Tofte farm, that cow endured every ailment eligible to a peri-parturient cow. She had a left displaced abomasum one year, ketosis the next. She retained her placenta, “cast her withers”, and went lame on all four feet. The “rules of her radius” never varied; she never granted me an inch of amnesty.
Serendipitous as it may have been, I was on the farm the day she “boarded the bus”.
Fred Nelson backed down the drive and met the barn door with his trailer gate. Everyone knew about me and #2. I walked her down the aisle and gently prodded as she stepped up. I reached for the gate and she ceremoniously waved her left hoof past the gold stud in my ear. Without a word I exchanged a smile with Fred and Dave.
I scrubbed my boots, stowed my gear. A phantom shiver shot through my stifle as the V-6 growled from granny low to second gear.
Obituary: Dr. Bruce Brodie
Dr. Brodie (MSU ’51), 83, Champaign, Ill., died Dec. 13, 2007. A diplomate of the American College of Theriogenologists, he was professor emeritus of veterinary clinical medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 1994. Following graduation, Dr. Brodie practiced in Minneapolis and Delton, Mich. He joined the veterinary faculty at U of I as an instructor in 1954. During his career, Dr. Brodie also taught at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, the University of Alexandria in Egypt, and the University of Zimbabwe. During his sabbatical in Egypt, Dr. Brodie lectured on herd health problems and conducted research on infertility in water buffalo.
He received the 1979 Carl J. Norden-Pfizer Distinguished Teaching Award and the U of I College of Veterinary Medicine’s Special Service Award in 1994. Dr. Brodie served in the Army from 1942-1946. His wife, Colleen; five daughters; and a son survive him.