Winters in northern Victoria are surprisingly lovely, especially if you've got two layers of gloves, two layers of pants, four layers of tops, double socks, waterproofs and a beanie.
Chipping the ice off your windshield provides healthy exercise before you start work, while watching your breath hang in the air provides light entertainment as you wait for the cows to get in.
And as I enjoy telling my horrified city friends, there's no better place to be on a cold winter's morning than shoulder-deep in a cow's rectum.
In northern Victoria, July is the wettest month of the year, making winter the season of lame cows. The moisture softens cow hooves, leaving them vulnerable to bruising and other injuries, especially if they're walking long distances on tracks with poor drainage.
For cattle vets, winter also becomes the season of sore backs and sore hands, and of juggling angle grinder batteries and sharpening hoof knives. You develop the habit of absentmindedly peeling bits of hoof glue off your fingers.
I have a love-hate relationship with lame cows. On the one hand, they tend to be satisfying jobs because you can really fix a cow up. She struggles into the crush on three feet, you work your magic, and then she strides out into the yards like a supermodel.
Sometimes, if you've applied a cowslip, she might take a while to get used to her new high heels, but in general many problems respond very well to treatment. There's a certain joy in lifting a cow's hoof, flicking a rock out from between her claws and watching her prance away down the laneway.
On the other hand, not every problem is simple. When you see a swollen fetlock leaking pus, a nasty growth or suspect a problem higher up the leg... sometimes there's not much that you can do.
The worst ones are where you could have helped if you'd been called earlier. It's easy to tell when a lame cow has been left too long - they drop condition quickly, and there are chronic changes in the joint and hoof.
Occasionally you see a cow with a limp, which has absolutely nothing wrong with her feet - and unless the farmer's willing to subject her to fancy diagnostics like x-rays, diagnosis can be frustrating and unrewarding. Heck, even with fancy diagnostics, diagnosis can be frustrating and unrewarding.
Lame cows can also be physically demanding. It's not so much the strength requirement, although pulling all those legs up can be tiring. It's also the slow process of lifting, tying, cleaning and then hunching over to work the foot - and then doing this on multiple legs for multiple cows.
It's about the only area of cattle medicine where it's wonderful to be a bit short, with my taller colleagues bending almost double to get the job done. You spend a lot of time lying on the floor in winter.
Aside from the physical strain on your vet, which I'm sure is a significant concern for most farmers, lameness is expensive for farm businesses. There's not only the cost of treatment and vet visits, but also the cost of lost milk due to withholding periods, the cost of lost milk due to a decrease in dry matter intake and the cost of cows not getting in-calf.
Studies have found that lame cows are anywhere between 12-38 per cent less likely to become pregnant compared with their able-footed herd mates, depending on the timing and severity of lameness. And why are these girls not doing what they're 'supposed' to do? Well, because when you weigh 600 kilograms and you have to carry half of that weight on one sore foot, it really bloody hurts, that's why!
So, I think we can all agree that we should do more to prevent cows from going lame. And luckily, it's one of those areas of herd health that can respond very well to changes in management!
Over the next few issues, let's discuss the prevention and treatment of lameness in cattle.
But for now, if you're already seeing issues or you'd like to get a head start on the problem, the Dairy Australia website has some great free resources, and it might be worth calling your local Regional Development Program office to see if any Healthy Hooves workshops are running near you.
*Ee Cheng Ooi is a cattle veterinarian undertaking a PhD in fertility and genetics at DairyBio. All comments and information in this article are intended to be of a general nature only. Please consult the farm's vet for herd advice, protocols and/or treatments that are tailored to a herd's particular needs. Comments and feedback are welcome, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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