One Big Sunburn

D. E. Larsen, DVM

George had three milk cows and a little home dairy setup. I think he was Danish and used these cows to keep in touch with his roots. He made a little cheese and some butter, and I would guess he sold milk to his neighbors.

When I pulled up to his small barn behind his house, George was standing in the open doorway. He had a cow in her stanchion in the barn.

“George, what do you have going on?” I asked. “The girls at the office said you were excited when you called.”

“Yes, thanks for coming so quick, Doc,” George said. “I don’t know what is going on with my Linda cow. I have never seen anything like it before.”

I stopped at the back of my truck to retrieve a bucket of water, my stethoscope, and an OB sleeve.

“I noticed a couple of days ago that the skin on her back seemed a little different,” George continued his story. “It felt a little hard in spots. But today, it looks like she has large splotches of skin just falling off.”

“How did you come up with a name like Linda for a cow?” I asked. “When I was growing up, we had a Linda cow. She was named after my sister. Dad always named his cows after girls he knew.”

“That’s about how Linda got her name here,” George said. “She is named after my wife’s friend, whom I don’t get along with very well. Linda cow can be a little ornery sometimes, so the name sort of fit.”

“Let’s get a look at this skin,” I said as I walked into the barn.

Linda cow looked like she was only three or four years old and had an excellent udder. Other than her skin, everything checked out okay. All the white spots on her back were leather-like and in the process of peeling off.

“What the heck is going on with her, Doc?” George asked with a concerned voice.

“This is a classic case of photosensitivity,” I said. “It is something that I don’t see very often, and I guess I would say that I rarely see it here. When I was in school, I saw several cases. That was probably because we saw many animals on referral. And Colorado was also mostly over five thousand feet in elevation.”

“What caused it?” George asked.

“What we are seeing here is a severe sunburn,” I said. “The white-skinned areas are involved because the pink skin is more susceptible to sunburn.”

“But cows are out in the sun all the time, and you don’t see this sort of a thing,” George said.

“That’s right, and why you see it with one cow is probably anybody’s guess,” I said. “A lot of plants will cause a photosensitive reaction. Many of them are on the list, but the experts are always quick to say there are probably others. Most of the time, we never know. You might want to check your pastures for any unusual weeds, but some grasses and clovers are on the list.”

“What can we do for her now?” George asked.

“There is not much to do at this point,” I said. Using some lotion or ointment like Bag Balm might soften these ugly patches. It is just going to take some time for these to fall and for some hair to regrow. You should keep her out of the sun until this skin sloughs off and we see some hair regrowth. That will also keep her off the pasture if something is out there causing the problem. All of the cases that I have seen have resolved with nothing but some tincture of time.”

“Is her milk going to be okay?” George asked.

“Yes, I don’t think there is any problem with using her milk,” I said. “There are some cases of photosensitivity caused by liver problems, but Linda cow doesn’t have any signs suggesting she has any other problems.”

“That’s good because I need her milk for the next batch of cheese I am going to make,” George said. “With only three cows milking now, it takes about three or four days to get enough milk reserved to fill my little vat. I have about three families that stop by for milk almost every day, and one of those has three teenagers at home. They go through almost two gallons a day.”

“What kind of cheese do you make, George?” I asked. “You probably don’t know it, but I made cheese for four years when I was in high school and my first two years of college before I went into the Army.”

“You probably worked in a large cheese factory,” George said. “My operation would probably make you laugh. I make a pretty small batch of cheddar cheese. I make enough to make a fifty-pound wheel. I have a little cold room that I age it in. Not a big operation, but it keeps me in touch with my home. I make a batch a couple of times a month. That is enough to keep my cold room full. I usually have no problem getting folks to take any extra off my hands.”

“Do you pasteurize your milk?” I asked.

“I have a primitive pasteurizer, but it works,” George said. “When I first started, I tried using raw milk. That wasn’t too bad, but the cheese wasn’t near as it is in the stores today. But with my milk run through the pasteurizer, my cheese is top of the line. Everyone around here loves it. They will be lined up in the driveway when I tell them I am opening a wheel.”

George showed me through his cheese-making setup and cold room, which was the size of a large closet but nearly full of large cheese wheels staked on the shelves. The wheels were covered with wax and marked with dates and finishing pH on the sides.

“If you are interested, I will give you a call when I cut up the next wheel,” George said. “It might be good to get an opinion on someone who knows what it takes to make the stuff.”

“I would be interested, George,” I said. “But I am no real expert. When I made a vat of cheese, we ended up with fifty blocks that were forty pounds each. Just a little different operation than you have here, but this looks neat.”

Two weeks later, I dropped by and checked Linda cow, and all the skin patches had peeled off. There were a couple of patches where the burns had been deep, suggesting a second-degree burn. But other than in those areas, the hair was growing back.

“What do you think, Doc?” George asked. “Do you think I can turn her out now?”

“We are pretty much into an early fall, so I think you can probably be safe to put her back on pasture,” I said. “Just to be safe, I would be watchful for hot days. You should probably keep her in during those days until all of her hair grows back.”

“What about those raw spots on her back?” George asked. “Are they okay?”

“Those are healing fine. They will be alright,” I said. “That is where the sunburn was a second-degree burn. That means it burned through the entire skin thickness. If this was Colorado, those spots would have been much larger.”

Linda cow healed up with no problem. And George never did call with any extra cheese.

Photo by Screenroad on Unsplash.

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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