Let’s just say that my admission to vet school was not a dead-lock-cinch. Were it not for a chain-smoking cardiologist with a sense of humor, a benevolent interview committee and eight folks who were turned down their acceptance, the books these stories make their way to would have to be titled In Stan’s Shadow.
Plan B was graduate work with a professor named Stanley Curtis. Dr. Curtis does not have a museum in his home town, or a television series. He will never have the name recognition of Herriot, but the principals he set forth in his all-encompassing yet ultra-simple Welfare Plateau touch every facet of animal production and husbandry. Miraculously, accepted into vet school and grad school, I agonized over the decision. Dr. Curtis had a photographic memory, a motor that would not quit, and a generous physique. By obligation, he lived Newton’s first law. He delivered his advice mid-stride, “Bill, just pick a direction, and go like hell.”
Had I chosen a cube in the Animal Sciences Building, my lab mate would have been a woman named Temple Grandin.
If you’ve never heard of Temple, you’ve likely not been close to a family affected by autism. Born on the spectrum in 1947, knowledge was scant and understanding was minimal. Temple has lent insight, perspective, and hope to those affected by a disorder that touches 1 in 68 children worldwide. In her first book, Thinking in Pictures, Temple explains how she translates words to images. In addition, she has literally written the book on The Humane Handling of Livestock. For someone who struggles with interpersonal communication and human emotions, there are few who have contributed more to the comfort and well-being of farm animals.
Her Stairway to Heaven system of catch pens, alleys and chutes is designed from the cow’s-eye view to minimize their stress during handling. Modifications of her system have been employed on thousand-cow Wyoming ranches, Colorado feed lots, and slaughter houses nationwide.
Downsized modifications of Temple’s principles are used on virtually every modern farm and ranch. On the other side of the hill from Haack farm is the Russ Dahl Farm. Behind the house, just past the three-bladed wind mill wobbling in the breeze, under the corrugated-tin lean-to scabbed onto the old dairy barn, Russ built his version, to vaccinate, castrate, and pregnancy check his hundred head of Polled Red Angus beef cattle.
Some Mondays start with a forty-minute workout at The Lakers Athletic Club, a cup of coffee and an article in JAVMA at the clinic, before departing on a sunrise drive down I-94 to Kevin Griswold’s dairy tuned in to Jonathan and Kitty on WMMM FM.
Others, do not.
The phone pinged just as I was putting my Special-K back in the cupboard, “Hello this is Ritchie Behm, can you help me out with a cow under the weather.” Token the Wyoming cattle dog is always between my feet when I put my boots on, and waiting for me to open the truck door. Tugger the Louisiana mutt perceives no urgency for off-feed cattle. He lays curled into Sheila until the last possible moment. After a half-dozen “Come on, Tugs,” he leapt into the back seat. Ritchie’s under the weather cow was a mild case of mastitis. We spent more time lamenting the Packers decision to trade Jordy Nelson to the Raiders than treating the cow.
As I scrubbed my rubbers and stowed the stainless bucket, the Samsung was blowing up again. With calculated disregard for the dangers of texting and driving, I hiked my glasses down and fumbled with the microscopic icon to download the message, while steering with my knees. Highway O in Waterloo Wisconsin is chalk-line straight. At 6:00AM, the hobby farmers are still feeding their back-yard chickens, so I’m more likely to encounter a deer crossing the road than a commuter funneling toward Madison.
Tom and Sue Nelson had a fresh, down cow. Milk fever is a routine malady, usually remedied in minutes with 750ml of calcium gluconate. A plan that worked beautifully, until I encountered the first thing-I-had-never-seen-in-twenty-five-years-of-practice of the day. In the ninety seconds it took to retrieve two bottles of calcium and my halter from the truck, she decided to prolapse her uterus onto the barn floor. In keeping with the theme of the day, the surgery kit required to suture her up was sitting next to my desk where I had tripped over it, cussed, and mumbled to myself, “Put the damn thing in the truck before you forget it,” for two days.
A twenty-minute one way trip at posted legal limits, the Jefferson County Sherriff’s Deputy was either sleeping, or recognized the urgency in my travel. I was back to the farm, with the surgery box, in just under thirty-five minutes.
Thank goodness for stout young farm boys. Tom and Sue’s son Dusty cradled the organ like an eighty-pound loaf of bread as I stuffed it through the pelvic canal. The cow danced in discomfort as we waltzed in unison until her calf bed was back home. I bent at the waist so Sue could hose the big chunks of blood and placenta off my back and shoulders and down the milkhouse drain. With no time to dry, I threw my shirts back on, thanked Dusty, and was eastbound, headed to what was supposed to be my first call of the day.
Thanks to genetic obligation to rising early, the interstate highways and tolerant State Patrol Officers, I was only forty minutes late to the herd check at Tag Lane Farm.
We were halfway through a list of a hundred pregnancy checks, when Claire messaged a reminder that Russ Dahl was on the schedule to vaccinate and castrate 35 or 40 calves. I pride myself in keeping my thumb on the pulse and eye on the schedule. I am prone to lapses.
Rick could see the oh-shit written across my brow. Rushing cattle is as futile as trying to hurry my wife through the bathroom on date night, but we scrubbed the sports and political banter and moved with purpose. When we whittled the list down to the last three, Rick let me off the hook, “Ahh there’s only two cows in the sick pen and one in pen nine, they’ll wait until next week.”
Dr. Clark was on vacation, so the technicians were holding down the fort back at the clinic. I’d been set back by a sick cow, prolapsed uterus, and missing surgery tools, yet the thought of re-scheduling Russ was not an option.
I assumed his son-in-law Dan had the day off school.
I covered the 40 miles from the furthest eastern reach of Jefferson County to Russ’ farm on the edge of Dane in a touch under 45 minutes (35 minutes of driving, and a 10 minute roadside chat with Barney Fife). I slowed at the drive looking for Dan’s grey Toyota pickup parked in front of the barn. There was none. At the sound of my truck tires on the gravel drive, Russ started from the machine shed to the barn. Nine months after his second spinal decompression surgery, he walked like a constipated robot. I glance in front of the machine shed, by the grain bins, and in front of the garage… no pickup truck.
Russ’ cattle are socialized but spirited. Two back surgeries ago, Russ was the guy you’d want on the end of the rope at the Labor Day tug-o-war. He’d cajole his cattle through the chute while his dad ran the head gate. Well into his eighties, Lester never missed a calf. I’d vaccinate and castrate as fast as I could. At the sound of my placing the two-by-four behind her butt, Lester would pull the lever. The heifer would bump the board and launch.
The surgeons assured Russ he’d be good-as-new in six months. Nine months out and he can just feel his feet… so we have come to schedule our roundups on Dan’s days off.
Not a physically imposing lad, Dan has an outsized booming baritone. On the playground at Marshall Elementary, I can’t imagine the boys stepping far out of line, though I suspect he has a separate vocabulary. In the cattle pen, Dan applies his instrument to deliver a pent-up stream of artful expletives.
With some combination of youthful goomba, athleticism, and a whip*, he divides the animals from the large holding pens, into the small jug, and eventually through the chute. There comes an occasional “thwack, uuhh” like the soundtrack from a bar-room brawl in a John Wayne cowboy movie. As Dan calls into question the animal’s parentage and suggests decidedly un-biblical acts among family members, Russ and I talk Elk hunting in Colorado and local politics.
Pressed for time and barely more agile than Russ, my left knee ached at the notion of pushing my own patients through the chute.
I confirmed with Russ there would be twenty-or-so to vaccinate and retreated to the warmth of truck to preserve my hands and reconstitute five bottles of Brucellosis vaccine. I lingered long enough to catch Jason Isbell’s latest, threw one empty box in my lunch bag to capture the serial number, and stepped onto the running boards.
The Newberry knife is used to castrate bull calf calves. Google it. Though it looks imposing and pre-historic, the design helps insure the castrator does not become the castrated, or amputated. Every father should have one sitting on the counter when his daughter’s prom date shows up. I extracted mine from under a couple of halters and stowed it in my boot.
From the passenger side of my truck came a spirited, “Good morning, Dr. Stork.”
The top of her hair, fresh out of curlers, covered by a shower cap tied in a bow beneath her chin, was not quite the height of the tail light. As it turns out, the spirited little lady walking her Beagle I’d waved at en route to Haack’s herd check, was Russ’ sister Nancy, our drover for the day. Her garden-soiled jeans were bunched atop the faux fur of a size five pair of Sorrels. She had the demeanor of a recess monitor and weighed little more than a Red Angus calf, at birth. In the crook of her left arm, she cradled the 4-foot fiberglass cattle sorting tool.
She hunched the 8ft rough-sawn oak gate over the high spot in the bedding pack and waded in.
Like arranging anxious 4th graders for the school assembly, she spoke in the even tone of assumed compliance, “Ok kids, all I want to see is heads and hinders, I’m gonna need the first three or four to show the rest of you’uns how it works.”
Four heifers and two bull calves rushed the opening. Barely taller than their rumps she stepped in front of the 5th like Eastwood, and tapped the 6th on the noggin, reminding them, “Not yet, you two.”
Dragging the gate back she assured them she’d be back shortly.
By the time I laid my tagger, tattoo gun, and syringe on the makeshift table by the head gate, Russ pulled the lever on the first heifer.
I had the ice fishing report from Rock Lake, and the story about being detained by the town constable for doing 81 on the straightaway on highway A cued up. With Nancy cracking the whip I didn’t so much as have time to ask Russ, “How’s your back?”
Once behind a 500lb bull, I reach for the Newberry. In one quick pull, I can have his most valuable possessions in my hands and restore the tool to my boot quick as a gun fighter. November through March, you’d like to take a couple extra ticks to extract a healthy pair. Depending on his genetics, the organ can be the size of a Valencia, and is ninety eight degrees. The vet or cowboy who’s been sinking hand heat to the cold steel levers on the cattle chute can recover a few Joules from the bull’s jewels by holding on a few seconds before plopping them into the pail.
Unless Nancy’s pushing cattle.
With an ear and eye on the catch pen, I rest my hand on the latch for the back gate. Nancy negotiates with the pen full of 600lb kindergartners, “OK kids, I’ll give you a lap around, then I need someone to head down the hole.”
And he does. When his hip clears the bar, I step to swing the gate in front of the eyes of the next heifer. In sync, Russ pulls the lever on the head gate.
Thirty-eight minutes later, the last steer melds into the herd. With whip in one hand, Nancy shuts the gate with the other. Dan would emerge from these sessions looking like he’d gone three rounds with Rhonda Rousey in a manure spreader, and lost. Nancy brushed a little barn dust off her jeans and scraped her Sorrels sideways through the snow to free up a chunk of manure caught in the treads. She could have gone straight to McDonalds for coffee with the ladies.
It would appear the extent to which stress is reduced when pushing cattle through Temple’s Stairway to Heaven, is operator dependent.
*Pause for PETA. Lest the reader conjure up an image of Indiana Jones and his 8ft leather bull-whip... The “whip” of which we speak is a 4ft fiberglass rod, about the diameter of a putter. The proximal end is the rubber grip off a 4 Iron, and dangling off the distal end is 4 inches of nylon rope. In Dan’s hands against a 600lb steer it is the physical equivalent of a gnat on a dog’s ass. We soon found that in other hands, it’s a subtle, but effective suggestion, “Would you mind heading this way?”