D. E. Larsen, DVM
“Andy, how long has this guy been sick,” I asked.
Andy was an old Italian with a small acreage on which he ran a few steers to fatten every year. He was bald as a billiard ball, short and, shall we say, a well-rounded individual.
We were standing in the middle section of his old dairy barn, where he had milked a herd of 20 cows. In those years, the late 1930s, 20 dairy cows would support a family. And with the support of his wife and two boys, he could work at an outside job that allowed the family to live quite well.
The steer stood looking at us through the stanchions. He was locked in the milking section of the barn and had free movement in the reasonably confined space that measures 16 by 40 feet. This steer was in good shape and probably approaching a year of age. He moved with guarded steps.
“I noticed last night that he wasn’t eating much,” Andy said. “Then this morning, he almost doesn’t want to move. I had a heck of a time running him into the barn. And the whole time I have been waiting for you, I bet he hasn’t taken a half dozen steps. He just stands there.”
“If he is not eating, we are probably not going to be able to entice him to stick his head in a stanchion,” I said. “Is he tame enough for me to put a halter on him?”
“You are probably going to have to rope him,” Andy said.
“That was not something that they taught in school,” I said. “But, you know, I am getting better at it all the time. I was talking to an older veterinarian South of here the other day. He said he has thrown his rope away. People want him to look at a cow; they have to have it caught.
“Are you going to do that?” Andy asked.
“I think I would starve to death around here,” I said.
“You make it too easy for people to take advantage of your rope,” Andy said. “But, like today, I wouldn’t be able to get this guy caught until my son got off work.”
“You might think about buying a squeeze chute, or maybe just a headgate on the end of a crowding alley.”
“I’m too old to be buying new things.”
“Yes, maybe, but you still do enough that it would probably make your life a lot easier. My brother-in-law says that if he had to do it over again, he would have bought a squeeze chute before he bought his first cow.”
“I will give it some thought,” Andy said. “But today, you are going to have to rope this guy.”
I laughed at the old man as I stepped into the milking side with my rope. This was going to be easy. The steer looked at me but never moved a muscle. I think I could have dropped the rope over his head, but I threw it from 8 feet away.
The lasso fell perfectly over the steers head. I pulled the rope tight. The steer jumped right with his front feet, fighting against the pull of the rope. Then he lurched to the left, stiffened, and fell on his side. His legs stuck straight out and quivered for a moment. Then everything was still.
I checked, he was dead.
I looked at Andy, standing there in a state between disbelief and shock.
“What the hell happened?” Andy said.
“I don’t think he liked the rope.
“No, I mean, how did that happen?” Andy said.
“My guess is, if we open him up, we will find a wire sticking him in the heart.”
“I have heard of wire killing a cow,” Andy said. “But I thought it was a slow process.”
“That is usually the case. The way he was acting, I suspected a wire. I didn’t expect him to drop dead. It must have poked him in the heart and caused a cardiac arrest.”
“I am not going to be able to sleep now if we don’t find out what killed him,” Andy said. “I guess I better have you look.”
I grabbed my necropsy knife and opened the left side of the steer’s chest. Sure enough, a piece of baling wire, about 3 inches long, was sticking through the diaphragm and into the pericardium. It probably stuck the heart when he jumped. I showed Andy the wire.
“Now explain to me how that got there,” Andy said.
“Cows are not very discriminating when they eat. If they encounter a piece of baling wire in the hay, they just eat it. It collects in the reticulum, a small pouch on the front of the rumen. Probably called the second stomach, it is where they get tripe. The wire or any foreign objects stay in the reticulum. The stomach works; the wire pokes through the wall of the reticulum, passes through the diaphragm. Then it pokes into the heart.”
“In the old days, they would do surgery and remove the wire. Today we just place a magnet. With normal stomach activity, it will pull the wire back into the reticulum and hold it there. We put magnets in all the dairy cows now, not so much in beef cows. Most of the time, if not treated, it does kill the cow slowly, from an infection around the heart.”
“Can I make hamburger out of this guy?” Andy asked.
“It depends on how hungry you are, Andy. These cases almost always have a low-grade temperature, which has probably been going on for several days before things got to the point where the wire was painful for him. I wouldn’t eat him, but it wouldn’t kill you.
“I guess it is just a loss,” Andy said. “Sort of a waste, but if you wouldn’t eat it, that is good enough for me.”