Drink Upstream from the Herd

 D. E. Larsen, DVM

Jim was waiting for me at his lower corral. I could see a lone steer standing in the corner of the corral. The steer didn’t move when I drove up.

“Good afternoon, Jim,” I said as I got out of the truck. “The note I got said that you needed me to stop by on my way back to the clinic, but they didn’t tell me what was going on.”

“I found this guy this afternoon,” Jim said, motioning to the young steer. “I guess I just had a few questions. I am not sure he is worth fixing.”

I leaned on the top rail of the fence, looking at the steer on the far side of the corral. 

“Aw, now I see that leg,” I said. 

The steer had a fracture of his right front cannon bone. The lower leg was sort of dangling, so it was definitely broken.

“When did this happen, Jim?” I asked.

“I was out with the herd this morning,” Jim said. “I can’t say for sure that I saw this guy, but I certainly never saw any problems. Then this afternoon, he is standing here in the middle of this end of the field like this. He moved okay on three legs to get in here, but he can’t go on like this.”

“We could build a Thomas splint, and if you could keep him in a stall, this leg would probably heal,” I said. “I say probably because that lower leg is really dangling. He could have some major soft tissue injury along with the fracture that would interfere with healing.”

“I would guess that I would spend more than he is worth,” Jim said.

“Yes, you know, sometimes the best medical decision is not the best financial decision,” I said.

“Do you think I could slaughter him?” Jim asked.

“I think if you are going to do that, you need to do it right away,” I said. “By morning, his meat will already be starting to turn bad with all the stress in inflammation.”

“Well, I think that is what I will do,” Jim said. “I will call and see if I get a mobile guy out this afternoon. If I can’t, I will shoot him and gut him out, and they can deal with him in the morning.”

“Do you have a place to hang him?” I asked. 

“Yes, I can hang him in the shed,” Jim said. “It stays pretty cool in there, and it is supposed to be cool tonight.”

“You might want to skin him out also if you are up to that,” I said.

“Yes, I will get that all done,” Jim said. “Thanks for dropping by and checking on him.”


It was less than two weeks later when Jim called the office.

“Doc, I don’t know what is going on out here,” Jim said. “I have another little steer with an identical fracture that we had in the one last week.”

“You must have some sort of booby trap out there,” I said. “Have you walked the pasture?”

“I can’t get around a lot, but I have driven all over the place on my tractor,” Jim said. “I don’t see anything. “Maybe, if I could get you to look things over for me, it might help. Your eyes are a little younger than mine.”

“I have some time this evening that I could take a look at things for you,” I said. “But, you know there will have to be some fees for that work.”

“Doc, I can’t afford to make hamburger out of one of these little steers every week,” Jim said. “I’m not asking for you to do this for nothing.”

Jim’s pasture where he had the herd was large. It was probably twenty or thirty acres. I stood on the trailer hitch of the tractor as Jim drove slowly out to the middle of the field.

“You plowed this field a couple of years ago if I remember right,” I said as Jim brought the tractor to a stop in the middle of the field.

“Yes, I have farmed it a couple of times in the last six or seven years,” Jim said. “That is why I am dumbfounded as to where the problem could be. This field is smooth as can be.”

I stood looking at the layout of the pasture. There was the road running along one side and a creek on the other side. Finally, I realized what was bothering me. There was no water in this pasture.

“Jim, where do the cows get their water?” I asked.

“There are a couple of spots where they can get down to the creek for water,” Jim said. “One spot right over there.” Jim pointed to a spot where the brush was gone from the creek bank. “The other spot is down on the far end of the pasture.”

“Let’s look over here at the closest spot,” I said as I dismounted the tractor and started walking toward the creek. Jim followed me on the tractor.

The creek had a steep bank about six feet deep, where the cows had a well-worn trail down to the water hole. I stood and looked at the bank. It was all soft dirt, almost like topsoil down to the level of the creek. This was obviously a fertile field.

I scrambled down the bank and surveyed the waterhole carefully. I was at a loss to find any problem that could be causing the fractures. So I turned to climb back up the bank.

Then I noticed it on the other trail down the back, just a little up the creek from where I had come down. In the middle of the trail was a large tree root that looped out of the bank. A steer coming down the bank could easily step through the root, and coming down the steep bank, he would not be able to stop, and it could easily fracture the captured leg.

“Jim, I think I have found your problem,” I said. Jim was standing up on the bank where I had come down. “Come over to this trail and look at this root.”

“This bank is soft enough that this root is probably a recent exposure,” I said. “This would be perfect for fracturing those legs.”

“Let me hand you my little power saw,” Jim said. “We can fix that right now.”

I took the small power saw and pulled the starting rope. It only took a couple of moments to cut both ends of the root flush with dirt. I tossed the severed root to Jim and scrambled up the bank.

“I would have never found that,” Jim said. “Thanks a lot.”

“We removed that root, but I think you have a bigger problem here, Jim,” I said. “The erosion on this creek bank when the herd goes to water is going to continue. That is probably not too much of a problem now, but we will have a big storm one of these years, and this creek will be a raging torrent. If it starts cutting into this bank, you could lose an acre or two off of this field overnight. You would be far better off to get a water trough or two in this pasture. Maybe one on each end of the field.”

“The creek is a lot easier to maintain,” Jim said.

“Yes, but thinking about potential loses, the risk to your herd is significant if that water hole gets contaminated during low water flows some August,” I said. “If you get one cow with lepto, and she pees in that water hole, all of a sudden you have a bunch of animals infected. And lepto is something you could catch also.”

“You really think I should do that, don’t you,” Jim said. “I don’t think I have a well that will water the herd.”

“You have that little dam on this creek up at the top of your property,” I said. “You could pipe the water down here. There is enough of an elevation drop; you wouldn’t even need a pump. It would still be surface water, but all the cows wouldn’t be standing in it. It is sort of like the old cowboy wisdom saying.”

“I guess I’m not into the cowboy wisdom stuff,” Jim said.

“Drink upstream from the herd,” I said. “Simple wisdom, but that dam is upstream from the herd.”

“I guess you must get a commission from Stan, down at the feed store,” Jim said.

“No, I don’t get a commission, but I get along with Stan real well,” I said. “He helped me out a little when I came to town. I consider him somewhat of a colleague, we both need to make a living, but we do it by helping our clients do the best they can do for themselves.”

“I know you’re just making recommendations,” Jim said. “I am just trying to figure the cost of everything in my head.”

“You might need some sort of a foot valve up at the lake,” I said. “Other than that, just some plastic pipe and a shut off at the tank. You will probably need to fence off the access points to the creek. I think the brush will work well along the rest of the creek. Probably not much more than what your wife was planning to spend on your Christmas present this year.”

“You probably have that right,” Jim said. “It will come out of my half of the couple of hundred that we get in profits from this bunch of cows.”

“Money well spent. It is just the cost of this great lifestyle,” I said. “If you wanted to be rich, you would have bought a grass seed farm.”


We eliminated the offending issue today, and Jim did install a water trough at each end of the pasture. The loss of those two young steers probably saved Jim some major heartache in the future.

Photo by Marta Wave from Pexels.

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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