Growing up in London I had very little experience with farm animals. So starting my vet school journey I had an open mind with a willingness to work with them, to try and understand them. To follow advice and instructions of those more experienced with working with them.
Sure accidents can and will happen, big animals may step on your feet or crush you against a wall. These are things we are taught to recognise and avoid. However together I met my first cow that actually meant to injure humans.
Talking about intentions when it comes to behaviour is generally a very massively frowned upon thing to do.
As background it is common to try and form a channel to move cows from one place to another. Sometimes humans are used to block paths as most cows will do anything to avoid a human… So we were using a channel into the crush with no problems.
In this cows case however I am not under any illusion that the cow was attacking us humans. It used its head firstly on one of my colleagues, knocking her to the ground, and then when she tried to escape crushing her to a wall. Then the cow turned around and head butted a farm worker who tried to close the gate after the cow had the left the area we were in to protect. Not just the once, but once the worker was falling the cow head butted him against the gate.
This is the first time that I’ve seen an incident like this occur with cows. It’s not nice to be the target of a 500kg animal, and it is rather scary. Whilst I have always thought cows would never cause intentional harm I realised that this a wrong thought to have. Normally I have no problem helping with the movement of a cow or calves, or blocking a path to help form a channel for the cow to move along to where she needs to be.
After this incident I chose not to act as a human barrier to close a path off. I think this is the first time where I have actively refused to do something for fear of injury or harm during my entire time at vet school. My judgement here was proven correct when the farm worker that took my place had to climb the fence to escape from the next cow through.
I know now that I will never been working with cows ever again once I finish my ruminants state exam.
Blood collection is one of the basic skills of medicine as blood can tell you so much about a patient. Something I’ve very little experience with however is cow medicine – and in cows you normally take blood from the tail. This is because the cow is massive, generally is a safe place from being kicked, and usually is quick when moving through a row of cows.
Theory going into practice though my first calf with this method I failed my first two attempts on the tail so decided to go for the jugular instead which was a lot easier for me to get. Getting a jugular vein in an adult cow however is a big effort as the cow needs to be properly restrained and often into a crush to do it safely.
So disaster for me – even though I had got the blood needed for testing from the jugular – it was still a really harsh personal insult that I had failed from the tail. The theory with collecting blood from the tail is that you insert the needle directly in the center of the underside of the tail until you hit bone. Pull back slightly and then the blood will flow. So simple yet I had failed.
There was still time though with maybe another 50 older calves to go. These were harder to restrain, a lot more work, and a lot bigger. Being bigger also meant that these calves had larger tail veins, and so every cow going forward I had no problem collecting my blood from the tail vein.
The second thing with cows that is important when it comes to cow medicine is managing the herd behaviour. For cows will run away from you, and look for a path to escape, and cows will fall especially if in a herd. And then the others in a panic will walk over the fallen ones to escape. So what was a herd of unvaccinated cows will become a herd of broken, beaten, unvaccinated cows.
We wrestled our way through these 50 calves using brute force and the fence of the pen to restrain them. With the last calf we were happy to be done, and the calves happy to see us go.
There are many diseases and conditions in animals – and many great vets out there have discovered these and their related treatments. With cows one of the great names is from Italy – Professor Carlos Mortellaro, who started the development of knowledge of digital dermatitis in 1974. This week Prof. Mortellaro has been visiting and was asked to be allowed to lecture us on the treatment of Mortellaro disease.
Another name for this disease is strawberry disease, where lesions develop in the gap of the toes. Something that I found interesting was the amount of controversy over whether or not it is due to management or in fact is contagious.
Whilst a lot of literature says that digital dermatitis is contagious Prof Mortellaro made a strong case for this not being true. In different countries the same disease is caused by different bacteria. With Koch’s postulates of microbiology for a disease to be contagious the bacteria must cause the same disease in a healthy animal. Now with digital dermatitis when the bacteria from the affected animal are inoculated into a healthy animal it does not cause disease. There has been studies where the bacteria has caused disease after the leg is wrapped in wet bandages for several weeks – however whether it was the bacteria or the damage from the bandages that caused the disease is controversial.
This disease has an enormous economic impact on dairy farm production with lameness being the third most common disease in cows. Whilst the number of diary farms are decreasing the size of the remaining farms is increasing, and with this the incidence of digital dermatitis. The thoughts of Prof. Mortellaro are that the disease is environmentally linked – and with improved husbandry and housing it allows for better prevention of the disease.
When foot disease does occur there is often a rush of dairy farmers to try treating it themselves with antibiotics in order to save costs – unfortunately many of these antibiotics are not needed. There are several different diseases all of which affect the foot, and the treatment for each is very different. Prof. Mortellaro placed emphasis on the proper diagnosis as the inappropriate use of antibiotics increases the risk of antibiotic resistance.
The problem of lameness in cows is one driven by economics, which are driven by the supermarkets. Unfortunately even though you pay £1 in a supermarket for your milk the farmer only gets around 38p from this with the rest going to the dairy and supermarket. This money often is less than it costs to produce and in the UK dairy farmers often are subsidised by the EU. This money ensures a basic standard on farms, and the improvement of machines. However it does not allow the improvements needed to reduce the level of lameness – so whilst lameness cause a drop in milk production, and loss of money. It is a vicious cycle and one that needs to change for the welfare of the animals.