Granny’s Instructions

D. E. Larsen, DVM

I struggled to secure the cow with a rope tied to a fence post and a sideline to hold her still enough for me to do a pregnancy exam. I looked over this place while I was working. 

Big house, too fancy for my style, and a large guest house. All the driveways are paved. The barn is almost falling down, and this corral is the only thing for handling cows. No crowding ally and no squeeze chute.

When I was growing up, any spare money went into the barn first. The house was meant for living in, not to be a showplace. All the women in the extended family complained, but nothing changed.

I finally had this cow secured, the pregnancy exam only took a moment. My first boss would have said to linger a bit, so the client felt he got his money worth. My left hand ran into feet and a nose before I was up to my elbow in the rectum. 

“She is pregnant, probably about 7 months along,” I said. “But it is difficult to be accurate in the third trimester. I would say plus or minus a month. If I do a pregnancy exam between 40 and 90 days, I can be very accurate.”

“I just wanted to know if she was going to calve,” Howard said. “All my other cows have calved, and it is still going to be a couple of months before she calves?”

“Did she have problems calving last year,” I said as I released the cow.

“She had retained membranes,” Howard said. “I had problems getting someone to take care of her. The first vet I called, a young guy like you, looked at her but wouldn’t clean her. He said it is better not to do that. So anyway I had to call an older guy out of Albany. He cleaned her, and said she should be fine.”

“You know, things are always changing in medicine and veterinary medicine,” I said. “Treating a cow with retained fetal membranes is one of those things that have changed. We now know that manually removing those membranes does more harm than good, unless they are loose and just need a little tug. Had you gone with the first recommendation, she would have had some breeding issues, but nothing like this.”

“The old guys have been cleaning cows forever,” Howard said. “You young guys come out here and think you know everything.”

“The proof is in the pudding, my Grandfather always said,” I said. “One cow doesn’t prove much, but all the research says, treat the cow, remove the membranes if they are loose, but never manually remove the membranes. Had you called me last year, I would have told you the same thing.”

“So what do you think I should do now,” Howard said.

“She will never recover the lost time,” I said. “You will have to have a separate calving season just for her, or you will need to hold her over a year to get her back onto the herd schedule. I would sell her, let someone else fit her into their herd.”

“You might have a point there,” Howard said. “I will have to give it some thought. You probably have a bunch of recommendations to make about how to run this place.”

“I have some standard recommendations to help ranchers shorten the calving season and improve their herds,” I said. “Most of those recommendations require working the entire herd once or twice a year. To do that, the first thing you need to do is upgrade this corral. You need a squeeze chute and a crowding ally.”

“You expect me to spend a thousand dollars before you even get started,” Howard said. “I don’t think so.”

“That’s fine, but I won’t be much help to you then,” I said. “Most of those upgrades will only make your life easier. And there is no way to work a herd of cows on the end of a rope.”

It was my guess that I would not be back to Howard’s place any time soon. He will have to have some wreck before he calls again. And then he will really be pissed when I decline his herd.

Retained membranes remained a thorn in my side for several years. The older veterinarians in the valley continued to clean cows. My recommendations were unyielding but also, often taken with a grain of salt. I figured it would be that way until I had some grey hair show up.

Then, just when I thought there was only one way to do things, Mrs. Guerin called.

“I have a heifer in the barn that needs to be cleaned,” Mrs. Guerin said to Judy. “My husband left her in a small pen in the barn. The Doctor can take care of her and then come to the house, and I will pay him.”

“When did she calve?” Judy asked. “Doctor Larsen doesn’t like to look at these cows until at least 3 days after calving.”

“She calved yesterday,” Mrs. Guerin said. “I want her taken care of now.”

When I pulled into the driveway, I noticed that this was an old place. The house was old, and the barn was old. But according to directions, I pulled up to the barn and had no trouble finding the heifer. She had a small calf by her side. There was probably little chance that these membranes were loose.

The heifer was almost tame, and I had no problem getting her tied up and doing an exam. I was able to remove some of the membranes, but for the most part, the bulk of the mass would not budge. I instilled 5 grams of Tetracycline powder into the uterus and gave the heifer some long-acting sulfa boluses that would give her 5 days of therapy.

After cleaning up, I pulled the truck over to the house as Mrs. Guerin had instructed. I knocked on the door.

Mrs. Guerin opened the door. This lady could have passed for Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies. She must have been close to 80 years old, her grey hair was tied in a bun, her wire-rimmed glasses sort of balanced on her thin nose.

“Good afternoon,” I said. “I am Dr. Larsen. I just took care of your heifer in the barn.”

“Did you get her cleaned?” Mrs. Guerin asked bluntly.

“Well, I treated her with antibiotics, both in her uterus and orally,” I explained. “She will do much better if we leave those membranes to come out on their own in a few days.”

“You mean you didn’t clean her out,” she said.

“The current thinking is that it is better to allow those membranes to come out on their own,” I explained. “These heifers will breed back a lot better that way. If we manually remove those membranes, there is enough damage to the uterus that it adversely affects the fertility of the cow.”

Mrs. Guerin listened carefully to my explanation.

“That’s okay, then, if you don’t want to clean her,” she said. “I will just have my husband shoot her when he gets home. I won’t have a sick cow on the place.”

I think this old lady just nailed me and my treatment philosophy to the wall.

“Okay, we don’t have to shoot her,” I said. “I will go and clean her out. She will be fine.”

So back to the barn, I went. This little heifer became the only cow that I manually removed membranes. I found it a difficult task, peeling the membrane attachment from the individual cotyledons, those ‘buttons’ that in the bovine uterus to which the placenta attaches. I just hoped that she would get pregnant this summer.

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.

2 thoughts on “Granny’s Instructions

    1. That is almost another story. As I matured, I could see downsides to each philosophy. Mine required a well-managed herd with knowledgable management. I did hear, not from my clients, of cows, left untreated and unobserved, who died. People understand that we do not clean cows and think that means do nothing.
      The old might cause the loss of a year’s production for a cow, or require her salvage, but in the client’s mind, it is an urgent situation. I always believed that an educated and informed client base resulted in healthy, well managed herds.

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