Close Encounter: Got Calf?

October 18th, 2005 by Tim

By Penelope Whitney

It’s a Wednesday winter afternoon at the Missoula, MT stockyards and the intense action around the cattle chute resembles a pit stop at the Indy 500. Two dogs rush a cow into a chute, the door clangs shut, and while two men at her head check her teeth for age and ear tags for vaccinations, Dr. Rollett Pruyn eases his right hand in through the cow’s anus until his arm disappears up to the shoulder. The cow bellows and rolls her eyes, then quiets. The veterinarian signals to his assistant whether it’s an early or late pregnancy, then pulls the lever that opens the chute’s door. That cow leaps free and the next thunders in. The team has processed 300 cows in less than four hours and it shows: their hats, ears, noses, and cheeks are marked with moss-colored explosions of cow shit. Even the cattle dogs wear green spots.

The operation is part of the stockyard’s special sale of stock cows, which are sold not for slaughter but for raising calves. Scenarios like this one are played out at cattle ranches and stockyards across the U.S. — wherever beef cattle are raised and sold. The cow’s value fluctuates depending on the extent of her pregnancy. Today Pruyn checks cows that are either six or seventh months pregnant. The further along she is the more valuable, because calf sales the following October will be based on weight. The older the calf is then, the heavier it will be.

“The first thing I check is the cervix and different attachment sites of the baby to the uterus,” says Dr. Pruyn. “And sometimes I just go in to get my arm warm – it’s cold outside.”

Pruyn often works seven days a week, testing 9,000 cows a year, averaging a hundred cows an hour, speeding across western Montana as he makes house calls. Most days he tends to cows, horses, and dogs, but he’ll also doctor llamas, sheep, cats, and goats.

“At first they panic and want to get out, and after ten seconds they stand. They’re thinking, ‘Get it over with, I have hay to chew.’

“Cows and dogs are my favorite animals to work with. They have the same inquisitive disposition — when you walk up they run up to see what’s going on. They’re not like cats and horses. You can take a cow that’s been running free for 10 years, rope and tie it to a tree and pick up its foot without it trying to kick you.

“I change the glove on my arm every hundred head. Without the glove you get a severe skin rash from the hair follicles on your arm going in and out so many times. Most work on cows is fairly physical. At the beginning of the season, in August, I do 1 to 200, and I’m fairly stiff by the end of the day. By now, December, I can test five to six hundred in a day, no problem.”

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