Dairy Farm Adventures: Simon

Posted Tuesday, February 11, 2014 in Features

Dairy Farm Adventures: Simon

by Lee-Rae Jordan-Oliver

Dairy farmers depend on having a large animal veterinarian to help them keep their herds healthy and to conduct regular pregnancy checks.  Our veterinarian, Simon Alexander, travels one hundred-forty miles from Exeter to our farm in Hodgdon at least three to four times a year to help us take care of over a hundred bovines which include milking cows, bulls, calves, and heifers.   The physical and mental demands on a large animal veterinarian are extraordinary.  Simon has logged   270,000 miles on his red 2008 Chevy pickup traveling around Maine responding to farm calls.  Fortunately, he was raised a “county boy” in Aroostook County and is accustomed to traveling the long, desolate stretch of  northbound highway to visit farms in our area.

Last October, Simon spent a marathon day working on our farm.  Over the phone, Matthew had prepared Simon for the projects to be completed.   The list included gelding a recently adopted miniature horse, pregnancy checking eight heifers and eighty-five cows, and dehorning twenty-four rambunctious calves.  Simon knew these combined tasks would take several hours and blocked out half a day just for us, a small feat for a large animal veterinarian who can be pulled in many different directions by farmers who need him “right now!”

Simon and his assistant, Aliza, who is also his fiance, arrived at our farm on a Friday at noon.  The first order of business was to geld our three-year-old miniature horse stallion named “Fenway.”  The half hour procedure went like clockwork and within minutes after the surgery, Fenway  hopped to his feet and shook his head as if to say, “What just happened to me?”

Next, we prepared to pregnancy check eight heifers who had been vacationing in our pastures for the past three years with minimal contact with humans.  We borrowed a portable, heavy duty cow chute from a local farmer so Simon could safely check the jittery heifers.  Matthew and Simon drove them one by one into the chute where I closed the chute's door so they couldn't escape.  Wearing a shoulder length latex glove, Simon cleared the feces in the heifer's rectum and then inserted a scope connected to a camera which projected images to a pair of goggles he wore.   In less than two minutes he can determine if a cow or heifer is pregnant and help us estimate due dates.

Cows produce lots of milk after they give birth, hence, a confirmed pregnancy means good news for a dairy farmer.  Seven out of the eight heifers were pregnant which meant they would stay on our farm and earn their keep.   Cows or heifers who do not become pregnant within a reasonable length of time are culled for beef.   I  recorded notes on each heifer, and Aliza sprayed each of their backs with a dewormer before they were released from the chute.

The next order of business was to dehorn twenty-four three to five month old calves who weighed anywhere from 175-300 lbs.  A milking cow with horns is a hazard to the farmer and to other cows.  Dehorning calves disarms the potentially destructive weapon they grow on their heads.  Simon, Aliza, Nick, our dependable farm employee, and I entered the pen with the wide-eyed calves.  Wrangling the calves in cowgirl and cowboy fashion, Aliza and Nick lassoed each headstrong calf around the neck.  Quickly slipping a rope halter over the calf's face allowed me to hold the calf's head still while Simon injected an anesthesia and a sedative near the two nubs protruding on the calf's head.  The drugs numbed the area and made the calves drowsy and lethargic.  Within minutes, their knees buckled and their bodies settled onto the hay with their legs tucked under them like giant black cats snoozing in the sun.

While the calves dozed, Simon straddled each calf and used the dehorning shears to pop off the small nubs.  The circular craters in their heads were cauterized with a heating tool to stop the bleeding.  Aliza sprayed the area with a topical bandage and bug repellent and dewormed each calf.   In less than three hours, twenty-four calves had been dehorned and dewormed and rested comfortably, blissfully unaware of their recent disarmament. 

The last item on the agenda was to pregnancy check eighty-five cows to see how successful our two bulls, “Rudy and “B.J.,” had been servicing our cows throughout the summer and fall months.   The cattle chute was not needed  because unlike the adolescent heifers, our cows were accustomed to being handled every day.  The cows stood quietly in their stanchion stalls while Simon worked his way down both sides of the barn.  I took notes on each cow while Matthew dewormed them.  The sun was setting behind Mt. Katahdin when Simon finished inspecting the last cow.  We now had enough information to determine which cows should be culled before winter clenched us with its arctic fist.

Simon expertly tackled each task on our farm with energy and determination.  With Simon at the helm, everyone worked as a team and despite the physical demands, no one suffered any injuries. 

Large animal veterinarians are few and far between for many reasons.  First, they must have a love and  respect for animals and know how to interpret equine and bovine behavior.    Second, they need to have the intelligence and perseverance to complete eight years of college.   A healthy sense of humor helps them through a day filled with blood, guts, manure, and belligerent creatures.  In addition, they must master the art of communicating with  a variety of farmers with colorful personalities. 

A large animal veterinarian must have a great deal of courage to work around animals which outweigh them by several hundreds of pounds.  On one of Simon's prior visits to our farm, he and Matthew tried to bring one of the cows from the pasture into the barn for a pregnancy check.   Our bull, aptly named “Bully,” saw the two men invading his domain and charged at them.  I looked out the barn door to see Simon and Matthew sprinting towards the safety of the electric fence with Bully, head down, at their heels.  They dove under the fence at the last minute and Bully stopped up short of the fence snorting his dominance.   After witnessing this frightening scene, I immediately made arrangements for Bully to become beef knowing his behavior would continue to deteriorate.  This was just one of the many close calls Simon has encountered in his ten year career as a veterinarian.   

Farmers would suffer devastating losses of their farm animals without large animal veterinarians traveling throughout the countryside.  A calm, confident veterinarian who willingly leaves the snug warmth of their bed to save a sick or injured animal in the middle of the night is worth their weight in gold.                            

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