Shelburne Farms cows love the fall foliage

Shelburne Farms cows love the fall foliage

Friday, February 1, 2013

Giving Petunia a chance

I've had a number of projects keeping me busy lately so I'm way behind on the blog.  I have a number of stories to tell so I hope I can catch up quickly.

One of the things I love about my job is that, most of the time, I'm working with healthy animals and trying to keep them healthy.  Working on the "herd level" is challenging and stimulating and takes skills both with animals and people.  In fact, herd health work is often more about people and people management than it is about animals.

That said, no one becomes a veterinarian without a love for animals and I'm certainly no different. Helping an animal feel better, reduce her pain or enable her to get back to her job making milk is at the core of what I love about being a vet. That brings us to today's adventure with Petunia.

Petunia keeping my office manager company

This is Petunia.  She was born a little over a week ago in a barn in Colchester, Vermont.  Petunia was born prematurely and weighed less than 30 pounds at birth (normally a Holstein calf is 70 - 90 pounds).  My associate Annie adopted her when the farmer who owns her mom wasn't able to provide the intensive care a premie would require.  Annie hopes to add Petunia to her growing menagerie of sheep, barn cats and rescued hound dogs. 

Petunia has been a project, to say the least.  Some friends of Annie's, who work from home and can watch Petunia throughout the day, have offered to keep Petunia and care for her on their small farm until she is strong enough for Annie to bring home. Petunia has an IV catheter in her neck so she can receive daily IV fluids and has just begun to drink milk in the past few days.  So far, she has enjoyed getting to know the geese, sheep, pigs and dogs at her adopted home. 
As a precaution, Annie performed a blood test on Petunia to gauge the strength of her organs and check on the status of her immune system.  The test results made us suspicious her immune system was immature.  We also weren't sure how much colostrum she received at birth - a critical part of a newborn calf's immunity.
This morning Petunia's hosts called worried about her.  She had been active early in the morning but later began to become depressed and uninterested in her milk.  When we examined her we discovered she had a fever and was a little dehydrated.  After a bag of IV fluids with some added energy she perked right up.  Still, we were worried about her low blood proteins indicating a lack of immunity.  We decided we needed to provide her with additional antibodies by giving her a blood transfusion.
Unlike people and some other animals, each cow has an individual blood type so transfusing blood from one animal to another without testing for blood type is possible as long as you don't transfuse from the same animal twice. We hoped that by drawing blood from a healthy adult cow we could provide antibodies to help protect Petunia from disease right away. One of my large farm clients generously agreed to let me draw some blood from one of his healthy fresh cows for the transfusion. Cow #6024 was standing at the bunk eating hay when I arrived so she volunteered by default. We clipped hair over her jugular vein, scrubbed the site and inserted a needle attached to a bag with solution intended to keep the blood from clotting and quickly filled the bag with 6024's precious gift. Valerie Koenig, a senior veterinary student visiting from Tufts University, was a great help.
Collecting blood for our transfusion
When we returned to the office, Valerie and I gave Petunia the blood transfusion through her IV catheter.
Petunia slept the rest of the morning (except when she irrigated my office manager's corner of the office - a result of her IV fluids) but woke up and recognized Heidi when she returned to bring her home.   Thanks to 6024's gift Petunia now has a fighting chance and we hope she continues to strengthen over the next few days.
Valerie monitors Petunia


Ready to go home!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Qi in the Green Mountains

One of the more unusual requests I've had from my old Yankee dairy farmer clients is to come to the farm and perform acupuncture on one of his cows.  I was taught acupuncture by my former partner Mark Basol, who is a certified veterinary acupuncturist.  I am not a formally trained acupuncturist but Mark taught me some basic techniques and he continues to help us with specific cases. 

Acupuncture has been used in animals for over 4000 years but was only popularised in the US in the last 40 years or so. In the past few decades the practice has exploded and is now used extensively in small animals and horses in both traditional and alternative practices.  Our practice uses acupuncture primarily for nerve damage, especially the nerve damage that originates from calving called calving paralysis.

Bouncing Baby Bull Calf

Calving paralysis happens when the calf puts pressure on nerves inside mom's birth canal that are responsible for controlling muscles in the hind legs.  This often happens if a very large calf is born or there is too much fat deposited in the birth canal.  Calving paralysis can also happen when people are too aggressive when they pull a calf, causing nerve damage to the cow. 
This week one of my organic farmers called because one of his cows had some nerve damage from giving birth to a large bull calf.  When I arrived #84 was resting quietly with her newborn lying nearby.  After a physical exam that assured me there were no medical problems like low blood calcium, I inserted 4 acupuncture needles in locations taught me by Mark, hooked up a stimulation unit, and set a timer for10 minutes.

# 84, day one

I returned today for a second treatment. 84 was lying quietly but immediately got up when I approached her. She sill had some weakness in her left rear leg, the foot knuckled forward a bit when she moved it, but in general she was much stronger and stood calmly and munched on hay as I treated her.
# 84, day two
I'm steeped in western medicine and can't claim to know how acupuncture works - something about qi and energy flows - but the animals tell me it does.  My wife and I have had old dogs that have had a acupuncture "tune ups" and literally jumped down from the table.  I once saw a dog that had been run over by a boat trailer, recumbent and in quite a bit of pain, stand up and walk away after an acupuncture treatment. I'm not throwing away my antibiotics, fluids and pain killers but I'm convinced acupuncture has it's place in animal medicine.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Chute Season

Life as a farm animal vet has a rhythm.  Although the dairy farm calendar has become pretty consistent since dairy farmers need calves and new milking cows year round, the seasons still dictate activities.  Winter is often the time to make lots of milk since the previous season's forages are stable and cows love the colder weather.  Spring is planting season and calving season on farms that depend on pasture.  Summer is the time to make hay and fall is corn harvest.  Somehow, when the fieldwork is demanding demands on veterinarians lessen.

If Mamma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

What's going on out there?
Work with our other species definitely has a lot more seasonality. Spring is lambing season and calving season for beef herds. Summer brings parasites and flies carrying pinkeye. Fall is breeding season for our shepherds. In beef herds, fall is the time for weaning spring calves and confirming pregnancies for next springs calving season. This past week was chute week as we spent time neutering calves and checking mom's for next year's calf.  Mom wasn't happy to be separated from junior and I know how she feels - I was reminded of the day we left our oldest son at his dorm. 

This week I worked with a herd of Scottish Highlanders in Hinesburg and a herd of mixed beef cows in Westport, NY in the foothills of the Adirondacks.  The highlanders are interesting to walk through a chute - a real exercise in patience.  Fortunately the owners have a lot of experience and so do the cows.  The chute has to be extra wide to allow hose horns to pass which causes problems when we run calves through.  Wide enough for Momma's horns means wide enough for junior to turn around.  Still, with the owner's experience working with these animals the day went pretty well.  The moms had already been separated so they watched from the pasture and occasionally added commentary and criticism.
The New York farm took over an hour traveling on twisty country roads to reach.  It was a beautiful fall day so the drive seemed more like sightseeing.  The farm itself had tons of personality; old dilapidated barns and scenic pastures looking out on the Adirondack high peaks in the distance.  We walked the herd through a curved chute based on a design from Temple Grandin and it worked like a charm.  Cows were calm and moved through the facility like they had read the script.  Good news for the farmer as well as our pregnancy check was as successful as he hoped it would be.
I think our beautiful fall is at an end.  Today is raw with rain pouring down.  Fortunately I didn't have any outdoor chute calls scheduled during this deluge.  Fortunately I was able to get a spot worked up in my garden yesterday and plant garlic for next year's crop before the rain hit.  I like to think that this is the beginning of next year's garden and the cold winter to come is but a brief hiatus. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Over the Mountain and other fall adventures in Vermont

Although most of our patients are cows, we do occasionally get to see some other creatures.  Among the most interesting are alpacas.

Alpacas are South American camelids, relatives of llamas and developed from their wild cousin the vicuna.  They have been domesticated in South America for thousands of years, but the first alpacas didn't arrive in North America until around 30 years ago.  My first experience with these unusual animals was in the early 90's on the farm of Pyllis and Alex Kroll.  Alex had a distinguished career on Madison Avenue, and while working at Young and Rubicam was the man who joined Jello and Bill Cosby.  When I worked with him he was head of the ad council - the guys who bring all those public service announcements.  Phyllis bred and showed champion English Pointer dogs.  Our beloved dog Max was a puppy from her kennel.  The Krolls live in a beautiful estate on the shores of Lake Champlain in Charlotte.

The Krolls were ahead of the alpaca curve and we learned a lot about these animals while they maintained a herd.  Ever the forward thinking businessman, Alex Kroll sold his herd of alpacas at the height of their popularity and value.  Alpacas hit their peak about 10 - 12 years ago with many gentleman farmers entering  the industry.  In the past few years, though, the market for animals and breeding services has been pretty flat, almost collapsing during the recession.  Lately, however, there seems to be a bit of renewed life.

These alpacas have the best view in Vermont
Many of our alpaca clients have sold their animals during this downturn, though some have remained in the business.  Camelid associations still have annual shows and it was this for reason, vaccinating the herd and examining them for their show papers, that I made a trip over the Appalachian Gap to Fayston to see Craig's herd.  Craig is a Ph.D marine biologist who has traveled around the world and has worked in oceans from Indonesia to the Caribbean.  Craig's sister is a reporter for NBC who often appears on the Today show.  Now that's a high achieving family.  I once met her in the barn but I didn't recognize her even wearing her network parka.  So much  for my celebrity acumen.  On the other hand, that's probably why she vacations in Vermont.  Lately, Craig has been assessing the biology of the waters around private islands owned by the 1% in the Caribbean.  Hey, it's a living.

Top of the Gap
Approaching the Appalacian Gap

Craig recently married a ski instructor who teaches budding Olympians at the Green Mountain Valley School in Warren.  He moved his animals from a barn in Shoreham to the top of a mountain at the end of the road with a sweeping view of the Mad River Valley.  In order to get to his farm I have to cross the Green Mountains at the Appalachian Gap, the same route I take in the wintertime on my way to the slopes.  Craig's farm is one of the very few farms we see on the other side of the mountain.  It was a grey fall day but the foliage was beautiful and made the trip worthwhile.  The trip took me by a couple of ski areas, whetting my appetite for snow.
Top of Bragg Hill with Sugarbush resort behind

Speaking of mountains, last week I was able to hitch a ride on a packing tractor as it compressed corn silage in a bunker silo at the Vorsteveld farm.  This pile of corn on one of my largest dairies is often called Mount Vorsteveld by the locals.  This year's corn crop is exceptional and the pile is as high as I've ever seen it.  When it's complete it should hold between 10 - 12,000 tons of corn silage.  Watching the corn fill the bunker silos is as much a signature of fall for me as the falling leaves.  The corn must be carefully spread and compressed so that it ferments completely making for a stable, nutritious feed for dairy cows.  The Vorstevelds are renown for their forage quality and that quality is reflected in the excellent health and high production of their 
herd. Watching the pile grow is like looking at a river of milk.  It's a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


I've just returned from visiting my family in Indiana and celebrating my Dad's 80th birthday with my brothers and sister.  Nancy and I picked up my brother Dave in Albany at the Amtrak station after a ride from his home in Brooklyn and headed west.  As the landscape became flatter and flatter we all reminisced about our upbringing in the great Midwest.
It was pretty much a given that while we were in the area we would make a pilgrimage to Grabill, a town of just over 1000 people in northeast Indiana.  Grabill stands on land that was my Great Grandfather's farm.  He sold half of the land to Clifford Grabill, then when the railroad came through just after the turn of the (20th) century the town was born and the population took the name easier to spell.
Squash at Smucker's market
Dairy Case
After a visit to Smucker's Amish farmer's market for some supplies for Dad's birthday dinner, we headed across country to Grabill, passing Yaggy cemetery on the way.  This small plot is home to the earliest generations of American Klopfensteins - including our patriarch John born in Balfort, France in 1813.  The Klopfensteins were Swiss Anabaptists and had been expelled from their native Switzerland for religious purposes.  They had settled in the Alsace-Lorraine region in the early 1700's before emigrating to the new world, settling in the fertile farmland of the Midwest.  Northeast Indiana and Northwest Ohio have a large population of Swiss, including many Klopfensteins. The name means "pounding stone" in German and my ancestors were probably quarry workers or stone masons.  When they came to the Midwest they established small family farms and lived much as the Amish do today.  I have Amish blood and am only a couple of generations removed from these hard working people.
The Grabill area certainly feels like home. We made sure and stopped by the Steury farm - home of a young Amish nanny that my father hired to care for us after the death of my mother. I was seven at the time, and the oldest of four, so my Dad needed the help. It was at the Steury farm I was first exposed to farm life as we often visited the homestead and sometimes stayed the night. Looking across the small pasture brought back memories of sleeping under layers of quilts and stepping onto a cold hardwood floor (with a decision to make - brave the walk to the outhouse or use the chamberpot). Family dinners around a simple hardwood table with the soft, flickering light of a kerosene lamp. Heartfelt prayers followed by meals of beef and noodles with pillowy, thick homemade noodles, warm just-baked bread and fresh vegetables simply prepared. I like to think that the Amish aesthetic of hard work, simplicity, honesty and generosity somehow found a purchase in my childhood self that has lasted the years since. I do know their love of animals and farming found its way into my blood.

The Menno Steury Farm near Grabill, Indiana

P.S.  While driving through Indiana farm country I couldn't help but notice the effects of this year's drought.  Cornfields were stunted with misshapen ears full of mold.  This year, at least, we have the advantage in the rainy Northeast. 
Indiana Corn
Vermont Corn


Sunday, September 30, 2012

New Beginning

With our new website about to go up with a link to the blog, I figure I'm going to have to find some new ambition. Good intentions only get one so far, I guess.  Hard work gets you the rest of the way.

Here in Vermont the leaves are starting to change and I believe it will be a beautiful foliage season. Most of the week was clear and sunny - the feel of fall was really in the air - and as I drove around the earliest  trees were changing.  Corn is coming in, the last cuttings of alfalfa are laying in windrows - yup, summer is over.

This week my work varied from a calf health consult on one of the premier purebred farms in the country where the calves are worth 6 figures to a family cow at the top of the mountain in Lincoln, VT.   I operated on a 3 year old cow on a commercial dairy making over 100 pounds of milk a day, neutered some piglets, and treated a pet goat that escaped from her pen and, as goats will do, found the grain bag and overindulged. That's the kind of variety that I enjoy and keeps me loving the work I do.

Fresh Ricotta, courtesy Peaches
I really enjoy the the gifts my clients and patients share with me frequently.  This week I was able to bring home some cheddar cheese from Shelburne Farms, winter squash from my friends at Conant's Riverside Farm and some fresh milk from Peaches the cow in Lincoln.  The squash and cheese wait for some inspiration, but Peaches' milk went into homemade frozen custard (with fresh eggs sold me by the 10 year old son of a dairy client) and fresh ricotta cheese that will be used in a stuffed pepper recipe with peppers and zucchini from my garden. 
It's nice to be back at work after a long weekend away at a big meeting where I was able to spend time with some great friends, sit in on some cutting edge presentations, and generally soak in the vibes from over 1200 enthusiastic bovine vets and students.  More about that in my next post. 
Frozen Custard


Monday, November 8, 2010

Ferry Ride

Weekends mean emergency duty.  Emergency duty means one never knows where one might be or what one might see.  On this cold late October morning it meant a ferry ride across Lake Champlain to a farm near Ticonderoga, NY to see a sick cow. 

Lake Champlain ferry with the Crown Point Memorial in the background
Almost a year ago during a blinding snow squall our closest link to New York State dropped into the lake in a controlled demolition.  The nearly century old bridge had been found to be unsafe due to severe cracking in the cement of it's piers.  Around six weeks later a free ferry was established to bridge the gap until a new bridge is opened.  Since we have a few farms on the New York side of Lake Champlain, we get to take an occasional ferry ride. The last autumn leaves mixed with a cold, light rain as I chatted with a former client who was on today's ferry crew.  I must admit, the forced down time can be relaxing, sometimes fun and often scenic.

Ready for surgery

Today's call was to examine a cow that had stopped eating and dropped in milk production.  The farm's hired man had already listened to her and diagnosed a left diaplaced abomasum, commonly referred to by farmers as a "twisted stomach".  Although I knew this hired man was pretty good at diagnosing a twisted stomach, he is sometimes hard to take.  He's never at a loss for words and always ready to offer his view of the situation.

"It's a twisted stomach, ain't it, doc?"

"Yup, she should be OK for surgery"

"I knew it was.  I was right, wadn't I? Already gave her a bottle for ketosis.  I coulda been a vet, you know."  Off he went, toting buckets of milk to feed a bawling line of calves.

He was right as he usually was.  His expertise could only extend so far, though.  This condition required an operation.  A cows abomasum (her fourth stomach) normally lies low and to the right of her midline. When it displaces it fills up with gas and floats up like a balloon, usually to her left side.  This is a common condition in dairy cows and it is our most frequently performed surgical procedure. 

For the surgery, the cow is sedated and novocaine in injected so that her entire side is numbed.  She is shaved and scrubbed, then from her right side I reach around pull the stomach back into it's proper place.  Everything is sewn down so she can't displace again. The whole procedure takes 45 minutes to an hour and she is usually eating and making milk by the next day. 
New Bridge Pylons

Today's surgery was no exception.  Everything went as planned, my patient cooperated beautifully, and soon after a conversation with the hired man about gagging calves I was in the truck for the ride back to Vermont.  My emergency pager was ringing and instead of a relaxing boat ride I had been speaking with a worried owner about my next emergency case.  Our ferry docked, the gate came up, and my big white truck disembarked toward my next weekend call.