It isn’t always so easy

May 28, 2019

Cattle can be intimidating animals. Their large frame and powerful body can leave a person vulnerable to injury if not careful. Dairy cattle have been bred to be docile, yet they still command respect. Beef cattle usually have just a little bit of a mean streak left in them so they can cope with the natural world. And to effectively work on cattle requires suitable restraint.

Recently while working a group of beef cattle to collect eggs for embryo transfer, the restraint situation was excellent. The chute system we had that day was that of which veterinary dreams are made. It was strong enough to restrain a buffalo, large enough to accommodate a hippopotamus and quick enough to catch a fleeing wildebeest with its hydraulic powered catch system. We got through the first half-dozen animals without the need to mutter even the first curse word.

We knew the last two donors of the day, however, would be a different. They were Texas Longhorn cows, and old ones at that. The longhorn cow’s headgear continues to grow, albeit slowly, throughout their lifespan and these girls had achieved nearly 90 inches of horn from one tip to the other. What do you get when you try to run a longhorn cow through a standard cattle chute?

An epic fail.

The hydraulic chute system could quiet the craziest of beasts but couldn’t fit the long horns. So, we improvised.

All we really needed for the procedure is to keep the donor still for about 15 minutes as we prep her and perform the collection. That’s the easy part. Tricking the donor cow into running toward the dead end behind the gate so we could trap her would be another story.

Longhorn cows aren’t naturally aggressive. They know, nevertheless, what they can get away with. And, I believe, they can smell fear.

The first of the two Longhorn cows had never been to this place for the procedure before, so naturally, she was the easiest to fool. We could simply sneak behind her in the pen, walk towards her and whistle once or twice to encourage movement toward the gate. The second cow, a little more experienced, stayed behind to watch.

The challenge was clear. Run the longhorn cow headfirst into a narrow alley where a gate, attached perpendicular to the end of the alley, could be swung toward the cow’s flank and secured with a chain. Her horns could stick out through the horizontal bars of the gates on either side of her. Sounds simple enough and the first cow obliged. We caught her, collected her and released her.

The difference between success and failure, however, can be only a matter of inches. The second cow had been worked in this room several times before and was not easy to trick on her first collection months ago. This day, she was having none of it.

Recognize that the longhorn cow has an almost supernatural ability to direct the tips of her horns in space with the intricate precision of a surgeon. She can swat a fly on final approach to her tailhead. She can pick a lock on the gate to the pasture.

And she can take out the knees of anyone trying to run her into a chute.

Again and again, she approached the makeshift gate, swing her tail end against it and turned to look back at us. Three of us took turns trying to catch her. Howard the farmer, my assistant Luke or I, would slowly approach her rear end to push it left so we could secure the gate. At the same time, a 6-foot stick with a flag at the end was waved in her face to trick her into turning her head to the right.

She knew we were bluffing because as we did, she turned her head to the left towards us. We were within an inch or so of success on every try, but once the horns turn toward you, cowboy yields to caution. After the fourth unsuccessful attempt, she’d had enough.

Her head turned toward me, and I had nowhere to go. Luke was to my left and he had an escape route, but it was over a gate. When she made the definitive decision to turn, I jumped over her horn as she took a swipe at me. Luke climbed the gate with the agility of a cat, but his foot caught in the top rail as he crossed out of the pen. His descent was less graceful. When he woke up, he immediately checked to see if I was OK. I was.

The patient by now was agitated enough that anytime we approached, she would wave one of her 40-inch horns at us. So, we couldn’t get to within 4 feet of her. It was as fruitful as trying to convince a 3-year-old in the middle of a larger-than-life meltdown to relax. We eventually had to call in reinforcements.

Enter Martin. Martin has a way with cows, even agitated longhorns with a 90-inch wingspan. It probably helps that she couldn’t smell the fear on him as he had yet to be run out of the pen. We finally got her moving in the right direction toward the gate. She turned again and Martin stood his ground, waved the flag in her face, and Luke and I grabbed the gate and squeezed her to the side of the pen. Once caught, she was like the same 3-year-old once the meltdown was over; she just stood there and pouted.

We successfully performed the collection on her but were within a literal inch of failure. The cow, once caught, never made another threatening gesture toward any of us. Howard the farmer, was especially relieved as he had made the trip from seven hours away to have these girls collected.

They loaded back on the trailer without incident, after cocking their heads at an angle to fit through the rear door.

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