Bison Calves on High Mountain Ranch

D. E. Larsen, DVM

Ruben and Mae Wilde owned High Mountain Ranch on Ames Creek in 1976. Ruben had made his money in the construction business. He bought the ranch and was now in the process of becoming a hobby rancher. He did not need the farm to produce a livelihood, but he needed something to keep him busy. 

Ruben’s answer was to do things a little differently from his neighbors. He would raise bison. Not many people around knew much about raising bison. There were not many bison around. That was Ruben’s first problem, where was he going to get these bison. Then Ruben was going to learn that the assumption that they were like raising cattle was false.

My first visit to High Mountain Ranch was to look at a bison calf the had puss draining from his hind leg. The previous owner had repaired a fracture on this leg before Ruben had purchased the calf. Ruben had purchased this bull calf and a female calf, both about six months of age, from an orthopedic doctor in Eugene. 

“Who repaired the fracture?” I asked as I was getting out of the truck.

“The doctor did it, with a cast, I believe,” Ruben answered.

I had not been in practice too long at this time. Still, I was already aware that some of the worst veterinarians were medical doctors. They would not accept any advice from a veterinarian because they knew everything. Their education gave them little appreciation of the variability of species. You could put a cast on a person and tell them not to bear weight for six weeks. Try doing that with a three-month-old bison.

“Bison are pretty hard to handle in a chute, but if we can get him restrained well enough, I might be able to get an x-ray of the leg. Then we will know if this infection has affected the bone. That is going to be a difficult task.”

“I have them both in the barn right now. I was hoping you could rope the little guy, and we could do it in there.”

“I have never had a rope on a bison calf, Ruben. That doesn’t sound like a viable plan, but let’s look at what we have,” I said as I sat things down and head toward the barn with Ruben trying to keep up with me. He had one leg shorter than the other and had about a three insole sole on his one boot.

The barn was old, probably built in the 1920s. Heavy timbers formed the supporting structure. Long 1 x 12 boards enclosed the building and interior walls, probably cut from number one peelers. Not a visible knot anywhere. Not painted, the wood had seasoned to steel gray. The wood was likely more valuable than the barn. 

Ruben lead me through the side door of the barn. This barn was more of a workshop than a stock barn. We threaded our way through this large workroom, cluttered with old farm equipment. Most of the items probable came with the place. I doubt if Ruben knew what they were. It did not look like he had moved anything in years.

“I have them in the haymow,” Ruben said as he pushed open the door just enough for us to squeeze through.

Ruben had the calves in the barn, but they were far from restrained. We were standing in a large empty room with a few traces of old hay. The floor was of heavy planks. There were no fences or pens, just a large room about 60 feet long and 30 feet wide. The calves stood side by side in the middle of this haymow, staring at us and getting more agitated by the second.

Before I could even begin to tell Ruben that there was no way we were going to get a handle on that calf, the calves started a slow jog around the haymow. I pushed my shoulders against the wall as they brushed past us. There was nowhere to go except back out the door. The calves picked up speed on their second lap around the room. 

“Ruben, there is no way we are going to get ahold of that calf. You will at least need to get them in the chute.”

“I couldn’t get them anywhere near the corral,” Joe answered.

The calves were at full speed on their third lap. I was alarmed for our safety and pressed myself back against the wall as they brushed past us, too close for comfort. I reached for the door. Ruben was right behind me. The calves didn’t do a full lap on their fourth turn, they cut the lap short and squared themselves up with the far wall of the barn. Going full speed, they hit the wall together. The wall never slowed them a bit. Boards flew in all directions. They knocked a hole in the side of the barn four planks wide. 

I looked at Ruben, and he was standing with his mouth open in disbelief. We walked over to the gaping hole in the side of the barn. I leaned out the new opening in the barn and surveyed the area, the siding boards were torn off in their full length. The calves had torn through the old fence just like they went through the side of the barn. They were across the first pasture, still going full speed toward the far corner of the place. “

Hopefully, they will slow down when they reach your line fence,” I said to Ruben.

“Ruben, I would call that doctor up and have him come to get those calves, there is no way you are going to be able to treat the infection in that leg.”

Ruben looked at the hole in the side of the barn and shook his head. “I guess you are right. He has a young bison bull. I could probably trade him these calves for the bull.”

“You need to get your fences in better shape and get your corral set up to catch a bison before you get another one. These are not funny looking cows. When I was in school, we were vaccinating a bison herd in Wyoming. I saw a bison almost kick a guy over the fence in a crowding ally. You might be better off raising llamas.”

I had hoped Ruben had learned a lesson on that day. Those hopes were trashed when I got a call from him a couple of months later.

“Doc, I have a real mess up here,” Ruben said, obviously short of breath. “This damn young Buffalo bull has just gored my pregnant sow. She has one hell of a gash on her side.”

“I have some time, Ruben, I can run up there right now. Where is this gash on the sow?”

“It is on the side of her belly. I hope it is just skin and muscle, I don’t see guts.”

“I’ll be right up.”

“Doc, if you are coming anyway, could you castrate this guy for me, and dehorn him at the same time?”

“We will have to hurry if we are going to do all of that. It will depend on how bad the injury is to the gilt. We will do the gilt first and do the bull if we have time. We can always schedule the bull another time.”

“I suppose so, but I don’t want to take a chance. If you have time, we need to do it today,” Ruben said with some finality.

“Will, if we are going to do it today, you need to have him in the chute before I get there. And I am leaving here in just a few minutes.”

The drive up Ames Creek was a short one from the clinic. It went by the house, if I was lucky, I could have time to stop for lunch with the kids on my way back to the clinic. The kids will enjoy that, maybe I can bring them a buffalo horn.

I was a little surprised to see the young bull buffalo in the chute as I pulled into the barnyard. Ruben was waiting anxiously. He wiped his brow as I was getting out of the truck and motioned to the pig laying in the shade of small shed. Actually a young sow, a gilt, with a large belly from a pregnancy. She had a jagged gash on the side of her abdomen, maybe 6 inches long.

“She has just been laying there the whole time since he attacked her,” Ruben said. “I think she is okay. She is sort of a gentle little thing, tame as a pet.”

I knelt beside the sow and patted her behind her ear. She shook her head and grunted a little.  I swiped the wound with a Betadine swab. I then started injecting lidocaine into the tissues along each side of the injury.

When the wound was deadened, I scrubbed it and the skin around it with Betadine. I explored it both with my finger and visually as best I could. It was deep but did not get into the abdomen. I applied a small amount of Furacin powder for some local antibiotic benefits. The placed a half-inch Penrose drain in the deepest portion of the wound, giving it an exit port through the skin below the injury. 

The closure was relatively quick. I used #2 Dexon in the muscle layers in a simple continuous pattern and repeated that for closing the subcutaneous tissues. Then I closed the skin with #2 Nylon. 

With the wound taken care of, I injected her with a hefty dose of Polyflex for the antibiotic. Then I gave a standard dose of dexamethasone for the shock. I sprayed the wound for flies, even though we were probably early for that problem.

True to Ruben’s word, when I stood up, she rolled up on the chest and stood up also. Almost as if I had told her she was okay to go. She shook her whole body, grunted again, and walked out toward the pasture.

I drew up a couple of doses of Polyfex for Ruben and instructed him on how to give them.

“You need to monitor the wound for a couple of weeks,” I said. “I will be back in a few days to check the wound and remove the drain.”

“That will be good,” Ruben said. “I can take the sutures out after that.”

“Yes, that will be okay,” I said. “But don’t get in a hurry. If everything is okay, we will leave those in a full 2 weeks.”

“Now, let’s take care of this fellow,” Ruben said, motioning to the young buffalo bull in the chute.

We went over to the chute, and I leaned on the bar to tighten the squeeze as tight as I could get it. The problem with bison in the squeeze chute is their size is all in the shoulders. It doesn’t matter how hard you squeeze them, their hips are free to move somewhat.

Standing on the right side of the chute, I put a strong tail crank on the bull. Pulling the tail back up over his back. I instructed Ruben to hold in that position from the far side of the chute.

The bull jumped a little when I grabbed his testicles and squeezed them into the bottom of his scrotum. After that initial jump and with the tail crank, he settled down pretty well. With my scalpel, I made a quick slice down each side of the scrotum.  The incision was deep enough to cut through the tunic and into the testicle. There was no response from the bull.

I expressed both testicles out of the scrotum and grabbed them with my right hand. I pulled them down, stretching the cords until I could fell the cremaster muscles break. Now the testicles dangled several inches below the scrotum. One at a time, I applied the White’s Emasculator to each cord, nut to nut, and squeezed with both hands. This severed the cord and crushed the vessels all in one motion. I held the squeeze for 20 seconds or so.

I held the testicles up for Ruben to see. They were smaller than I would expect. A bovine bull this age would have testicles twice this size. Maybe this was one reason for the relatively low fertility in the bison population compared to cattle.

“You want these for breakfast?” I asked Ruben.

“You have to be kidding,” he replied.

I tossed them out toward Ruben’s two dogs. They were unsure what was coming at them and jumped out of the way. Then they slowly returned to the testicles on the ground, carefully sniffing, then each grabbing one and moving in different directions. Pleased with the morsel.

I continued the scrotal incision through the bottom of the scrotum, so there would be no pocket to catch any drainage. Then I sprayed the scrotum with Furacin spray and the whole area with fly spray. When Ruben released the tail, I sprayed the tail switch liberally with fly spray.

I went up to the head and looked at the horns. These were a real set of horns. I had dehorned older bovine bulls with horns that did not come close to these, especially the size of the base of the horn. 

“Are you sure you want this done,” I asked Ruben. “This is going to leave massive holes into the frontal sinuses.”

“Will they heal,” Ruben asked.

“Yes, they will heal,” I said. “It is just going to surprise you.”

“I don’t want to deal with a goring again,” Ruben said with a sense of finality in his voice.

I tried to put nose tongs on the young Bison bull, but he was not going to let that happen. He was squeezed tight enough that his head was pretty secure. I pulled my cordless clippers from my bag and started shaving the hair around the base of the horns. This hair was dense and long. When I had the hair cut from around the horns, they looked even larger than before. They must have been at least five inches in diameter. I scrubbed the base of the horns with Betadine Scrub and then injected the primary nerves with a large dose of lidocaine. I injected four nerves on each horn, at the top and bottom, and each side of the horns.

When the horns were numb, I pulled a six-foot length of OB wire saw out of its container. I attached saw handles on each end and seated the wire snuggly around the base of the horn. I took the handles in hand and leaned back to apply pressure to the wire saw and started with long slow strokes. As the saw passed through the skin and soft tissues and engaged the bone, I quickened my pace. Smoke rose from the site and an odor that would put the old-time dental drills to shame. 

“Ruben, grab the tip that horn,” I instructed as I made the last few strokes.

The wire saw came free of the tissues, almost white-hot from the friction, and Ruben had the horn in his hand. Ruben looked at the massive hole into the frontal sinus and gasped.

“I see what you were trying to warn me about,” he said.

There was no bleeding. The heat of the wire sealed the ends of the arteries. The large artery at the bottom of the hole was pulsating. It would be spurting six or eight feet in the air if not sealed by the heat, and any rub could break that seal. I grasped this large artery with my forceps and gently stretched it out, one inch, a little more, then it broke, and snapped back into the tissues. A small amount of blood came from the hole. This allowed a firm clot to form deep in the soft tissues so there would be no significant blood loss. I repeated the process with the lesser arteries around the base of the horn. I powdered the gaping wound with Furcin powder and trimmed a piece of filter paper to cover the wound, attaching it with a couple of dots of back-tag glue.

With the first horn done, the second was completed the same with a new piece of wire saw. The wire saw could often be used on each side, but the amount of bone being cut made it dull enough to warrant a new length of saw wire.

When the horns were both done, I sprayed the head with fly spray. Then I went and got a single injection of Dual Pen for antibiotics and a dose seven-way blackleg vaccine.  

“I don’t often use antibiotics following castration and dehorning, but you would probably have trouble getting this guy back in a chute,” I said to Ruben.

“Yes, I doubt that he would be fooled with some grain next time,” Ruben said.

I picked up the horns as I headed back to the truck. “Do you want these?” I asked.

“No, you can take them if you want,” Ruben replied.

If the kids are interested, the dog will have a new chew toy, I thought.

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

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