Yesterday was branding day down at the ranch. I got to be The Inoculator. First the cows are inoculated against whatever it is that cows are inoculated against, then the calves are rounded up for their own particular ministrations. I’ve never been around beef cattle, so I was new to the whole ritual, and inoculating is easy yet engaging, so I was chosen for the golden role. Butch first said I’d be the one loading the syringes for him (a token role, really. Something of a non-speaking part, or that of an extra.), but then apparently in an effort to take the token role for himself while making me feel a little more useful, he handed me a loaded syringe and said “have at it!” I clambered up the stout rails of the chute, leaned ofer a couple of tons of writhing, confused and concerned Hereford and contemplated my task.
On the one end of the chute was a moiling mass of cows and calves that wholly expected to be whiling away the afternoon grazing and socializing instead of being herded up into a corral, along with four or five guys armed with ski poles, sticks, switches and what-have-you trying to impose a little order and encourage one frightened cow at a time to abandon her calf and enter the chute. Organized mayhem. On the other end of the chute is a gate leading to another corral. In the chute is an animal who is utterly at a loss as to what is expected of her, and entirely unhappy with the confinement of the narrow chute and the separation from her calf. She just knows that this can’t be a good thing. Balancing tippy-toe on the side of the chute is me, armed with a syringe, and expected to pinch up a couple of fingers-full of cow hide, jam the needle under the skin – but not into the flesh – splooch out the inoculation and move on to the next cow. That’s my job. How hard can it be?
Not so hard. I’ve given my dogs and cats shots -saving myself oodles of veterinary fees – and it’s a breeze. Just like with the cows, you pinch up some skin on the shoulder, jam the needle in, and poof! its done. The needle you get for inoculating dogs and cats is a little smaller than your average sewing needle. The needle for inoculating cows is closer to a knitting needle. When you jab that sucker in, it takes a little effort. Cow hide is tough. There is no wonder they make shoes out of the stuff. My first stab at being the Inoculator was confused by a thousand voices telling me not to stab myself instead of the cow, and by the way the cow had of twisting her horns around violently in my direction. Nevertheless, it went o.k. I wasn’t fired from the job, no one got hurt, and the cow moved through the chute, and the next one came in.
It went on like that for a while. When the cows were finished, it was branding time. My job in that was still The Inoculator and by then I was a pro. The little ones, with their knobby knees, moist, interested eyes and short, flickering tails watched their fates being prepared as the branding irons were heated up. I load my syringes. The rousting out of each successive victim this time was a much simpler affair. Ken would choose his calf, march over, grab it by a hind leg and march back, with the bawling bundle skittering and scampering along behind him, sideways on three legs. Astonishig how fast the little guys can go like that. Then Jeff and Dennis take over, one grabbing the front legs and one the rear, and with a neat, coordinated twist they tip the struggling little mass of bleat over, pin a foreleg behind the head, scissor the real legs, one under each boot, and voila! You have a neat, quivering pretzel on the ground, ready to go.
Quick as a flash I nick over for my pinch and stab routine (much easier on the tender young hides firmly ensconced in a full-nelson), then Butch brings out the irons and soon the air is abundant with streams of yellow smoke and the bleating escalates from mere panic to outrage as each letter is carefully seared into those fuzzy young rumps. It takes a steady hand to apply the brands so that the letters are clear, and neither too deep nor shallow. Not an easy task when the canvas on which the artist works wriggles and writhes.
With the pain of their fresh brands uppermost in their minds, the little fellas take the gelding with an equanimity that is somehow disconcerting. In this operation Ken hauls out The Emasculator, which is a tool that resembles a large, flattend channel-lock wrench. As he fingers the downly little sacks, searching for the spermatic cord, the young scion – soon to be a Fontleroy – quiets down and even gains a certain look of peace as his eyes gently close, perhaps in surrender, but certainly in relief that the branding is over. Its not long before his eyes pop back open to saucer-size and the bawling resumes, however, since Ken is a pro, finding the right cord to smush every time. Looks awfully painful to me, but what do I know? That done, the calf is free to go, being aimed back toward his hysterical mother by Bullet the Dog.
All in all, I don’t htink it was as traumatic as I expected. While the pain and fright (and indignity for the new steers) are certainly hard on the animals, it is over quite quickly. At least it is with an experienced and efficent team doing the work. And in the process, one gets to examine each animal close up. Ken’s operation is small enough that he sees all his animals close up everyday, so he didn’t need that opportunity to know that a couple of the calves need to visit the vet.
One of them had a boil the size of a tennis ball that needed lancing, and the other, even though he was only three days old had already used up all the head-shaking pathos of the term “failure to thrive”. Specifically; he just lay there, panting, ever since he was born. Ken had had to pick him up and hold him to his mother’s teat, and evn then he only took a few half-hearted sucks. So after the last branded calf went gamboling back to its mom, Ken, Butch and I strode out to the pasture to inspect the sorry patient and argue about what was wrong with him.
Butch and Ken are both experienced ranchers, whereas all I know about the veterinary sciences is what I can infer from my knowledge of human physiology (scant). Nevertheless, I went out on a limb and disagreed with the guys, who thought the calf had a bad heart. I decided that it was a liver problem, since his eyes were yellow. Never a shrinking violet when it comes to making sweeping dianoses with my little bit of medical knowledge, I decided then and there that the fella had a disorder of the liver which led to metabolic acidosis. This neatly explained the panting as well as the jaundice, weakness and disinterest in food. Ken and Butch just looked at me. Then they agreed again that it was the heart. Needless to say, bets were made, and off we went to the vet.
The vet first took care of the calf with the boil. As if having just endured a 20 mile drive in the back of a pickup, separated from his mother, with aching balls and a burning backside weren’t enough, the poor bugger was then clamped in a stanchion, flipped on his side and lanced. You’d think it would hurt, but I guess the boil itself was never too comfortable. I think Ken had a harder time with the lancing than the calf did. The pus that ejected from the opened boil was terribly putrid, of course, but the thing that made Ken turn green and leave the room was the sight of the vet’s dog happily licking the goo up from the floor. Ick.
Finally we were able to find out what Dale had to say about the one we had started calling Comotoso. Dale, having been informed of our bet, and having had a listen to my out-on-a-limb diagnosis had a twinkle in his eye as he slowly, theatrically brought the stethoscope to the calf’s ribs. We held our breaths. He listened, and listened, and thoughtfully removed the stethoscope from his ears, pronouncing – at last – “its not his heart.” Whoopee! Then he said that cows very rarely had liver problems, so it surely couldn’t be that (how was I to know?), but just in case, he lifted the calf’s brow with his thumb and peered at the whites of his eyes. “By golly, he is jaundiced!” Victory for me! After I was done gloating, he proceeded to say that he just couldn’t say. Probably the calf had been inadvertently stomped on by mom, and suffered spleen damage. With luck, it would heal on its own. He administered a few shots of vitamins, antibiotics and whatnot, and sent us on our way with instructions to give him two quarts of milk replacer and hope.
When we finally got back to the ranch, Comotoso took his feeding with gusto, then was carried to his mom, where he made an admirable and encouraging effort to do the right thing. I’m sure he’ll get better. Aren’t you?