As of today, I have so far had about 12 hours of work experience at a dairy farm. I have learnt a lot from this placement and had plenty of opportunities to do some rather interesting things. So I thought it would be a nice idea to share some of these experiences and the information I have picked up along the way.
Milking is also the time when the farmer gives the cows any veterinary attention they require. I have had the privilege (OK, it’s not that big of deal for some… But it is for me) of being taught how to give cows intra-muscular injections so I’m now a pro at this job too. Some of the cows had a foot infection, despite the daily foot baths they have after morning milking, so I was taught how to administer antibiotics to fight the infection. The farmer told me to climb right up onto the bars of the parlour, syringe in hand, so I was stood directly behind the cow (dairy cows can be injected in the rump, however beef cows can’t because that is the most expensive part of meat – instead they are injected in the neck). Then he just said, ‘alright, now inject it.’ I was thinking, ‘how the hell do I do that?’ I just went with my gut instinct and gently tried to get the needle just under the skin. It wasn’t working. I still had my thumb on the top of the syringe as this is how I had seen vets inject patients at a small animal practice. ‘It’s got very tough skin,’ I called out to the farmer – which was a discreet plea for help. He must have sensed this so he climbed up to give me a hand. I showed him what I was doing before and he quickly told me that it was all wrong. He told me that I was supposed to grab the syringe firmly with my whole hand around the middle, tap on the skin twice, stab the needle into the muscle quickly and forcefully, then push the plunger to get the antibiotics into the muscle. Once I knew how to do it and had practised it a few times, I perfected the skill. Another time I felt like a vet, was when I was presented with a ketotic cow. Also known as acetonaemia, ketosis is ‘a metabolic disturbance in cattle and sheep’ (credit to my handy student veterinary dictionary for that definition). It usually occurs in the winter, as it did in this case, the time of the year when dairy cows are kept indoors and eat concentrates instead of grass. It is caused by the cow not receiving enough carbohydrate from the feed that it is supplied with. The drop in the glucose level in the plasma of the blood causes an increase in the concentration of ketone bodies (which cows use as a back up source of energy). This allows ketosis to be diagnosed from a milk sample and this was my first task. I used a ‘dipstick’, a plastic strip with a patch to test for ketosis on the end and milked the cow onto the patch. After feeding the calves, I came back to find the patch had turned a deep purple colour – meaning there were too many ketone bodies present and the cow was ketotic. We then separated her from the herd and I got the exciting job of moving her along the race, into the crush so that we could treat her. Once she was secured in the crush, I helped the farmer to feed a long plastic tube down her throat. It took a few attempts for us to get it into her oesophagus instead of her trachea – we kept feeling her breath on our faces when we held the other end of the tube up to listen for gastric sounds. Eventually, we got it down her oesophagus and heard the gurgling sounds of her stomachs. This tube enabled us to feed glycerine directly into her stomach, which will have provided her with an enormous amount of energy. Whilst the farmer did that job, I went round the rear to take the cow’s temperature. I was very excited at the prospect of being able to (nearly) have my hand up a cow’s bottom! She had a normal temperature of 38.5 degrees C. When a cow is ketotic, it is always good to check for a twisted stomach as well – ketosis can slow down the activity of the digestive system, leading to the build up of excess gas that causes a cow’s stomach to become twisted. I had seen the tests carried out to diagnose a twisted stomach countless times on TV so I didn’t have the same difficulty as I had had with the injections. The farmer handed me a stethoscope and I set about flicking the poor cow and listening for a sound that is very similar to the noise a tin bucket makes when flicked. Whilst, for the cow and the farmer’s sake, I was hoping her stomach wouldn’t be twisted – there was still a part of me that was hoping to hear the sound. A twisted stomach is corrected by the most amazing surgery – the vet just injects some local anaesthetic, makes an incision in the cow’s side whilst it is still conscious and standing, then dives in to sort out the problem. It would have been extremely interesting to watch! But, luckily for the cow, I have to wait until another day to see that surgery – all was as it should be (verified by the farmer – just incase you were worried that a relatively inexperienced 15 year old had just given this cow an all clear haha).