One summer evening several years ago, my brother Ronnie and I were letting our dairy herd out to pasture after the evening milking. Just before exiting the barn, a first-calf heifer in estrus mounted one of our best cows and knocked her to the floor. Springcroft Marvelous Clair was her registered name, and a Holstein classifier had recently scored her ninety points. Surprised by the aggressive heifer, Clair tried to escape the encounter, but she was forced to her belly causing both hind legs to shoot straight back from her body. In a frantic attempt to stand up, the panic-stricken cow crawled out the door and halfway across the barnyard, while Ronnie and I desperately tried to stop her. Exhausted from the episode, Clair laid in the dirt panting as the rest of the herd curiously gathered around. After several minutes of rest she managed to stand, but it was obvious she was hurting.
The next morning Clair was standing in the barnyard amongst the rest of the herd chewing her cud. Everything about her appeared to be normal. With feeding and bedding completed, I opened the gate and the cows marched in. Clair headed straight to her stall, but she stumbled crossing the gutter and went down. We were stunned. A few minutes later, though, she was on her feet and eating. After milking we prepared a comfortable bed in a box stall, led Clair in, and with a veterinarian’s advice administered some medicine to ease the pain from her injuries. At milking time that evening, Clair could not get up. She was still hurting. We coupled three milker hoses together to reach the pipeline and milked her on her side. Administering more medicine, we left her for the night hoping she would show improvement by morning, but, at dawn’s early light, we realized that was wishful thinking.
The days went by, then a week passed, and Clair still could not stand. We kept fresh feed and water in front of her, gave her medicine, propped her leg up with a bale of hay to milk her, and rolled her over twice a day to improve circulation. Ten days went by and Clair was still down. At that point, her appetite began to taper off and her milk production dropped to such a low that we only milked her once a day. At the end of two weeks, her appetite was worse, and her eyes were sunken. Ronnie and I and my Dad stood by her side and made a heartbreaking decision. Clair’s prognosis was not good. After two weeks time we knew we had to let go.
With deep sorrow, I went to the phone and dialed the number of the man who specializes in trucking away crippled cows. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. It was early on a Friday morning. The man said he had not received any other calls that morning to truck animals from other farms. He said he really couldn’t afford to put his truck on the road to our place for one cow, but if another call came in for an injured animal, he’d be there. He would call back at nine o’clock. Shortly after nine I checked the phone messages. There was one from the trucker, “ Roger, no other calls came in, so I’ll plan on picking your cow up first thing Monday morning.”
I couldn’t help but wonder though what Clair’s condition would be like come Monday. Her condition was getting progressively worse each day. It was sad to think that in two weeks time she had gone from producing over one hundred pounds of milk per day to barely enough to cream your coffee. That evening, as my brother and I made preparations to milk Clair, the unbelievable happened. As we opened the gate to her box stall, Clair made a lunge. Instantly Ronnie and I were at her side each grabbing a hindquarter with all our strength to steady her. We couldn’t believe it…she was up. She was actually standing up! Several minutes later we had the milker unit on her, and it sure felt good to attach it in the normal position. What a happy moment it was.
The next morning Clair’s appearance didn’t show much improvement. But, a little coaxing and she stood up as easily as she had the night before. With a fresh bucket of silage in front of her, Clair nibbled, but her appetite just wasn’t there. Something was wrong. I laid my head against her ribcage and listened for stomach movement. It was silent. A few quick snaps with my finger against her side and between the ribs revealed the telltale inflated inner tube type echo that meant she had an LDA, Left-side Displaced Abomasum. Clair’s ordeal wasn’t over yet.
The surgical procedure to attach this fourth stomach chamber to her lower belly would surely set her back more. Because of her weakened condition, trucking her to the vet clinic would be too risky, so we made arrangements to do the surgery in the barn.
Fortunately the procedure was successful and soon Clair was upright and alert. A short while after the operation, Clair was eating. As the days and weeks went by, Clair grew stronger and her appetite became more aggressive. We were soon back to milking her twice a day and before long she was standing in her usual stall.
Thirty days later, Clair was back to milking over one hundred pounds per day, and at the end of her 305-day lactation, she had produced a whooping 30,454 pounds of milk with 1293 pounds of fat. That equates to a 4.2% butterfat test. On top of that, a Holstein classifier raised her score to ninety-one points. What a recovery for a cow whose days were once numbered.
Those who work with dairy animals are well aware that cows can make you laugh, they can make you cry, and they can make you mad. They can be predictable, unpredictable, truly amazing, and most rewarding. They can test your patience, too. Clair’s ordeal taught us to have plenty of patience with our cows—a lesson we never forgot.