There’s a Hole in That Cow

holycowCows. Let’s play some “Did you know”… shall we? Did you know that cows are sometimes referred to as the foster mothers of the human race because they produce most of the milk we drink? Did you know it takes 12 pounds of whole milk to make one gallon of ice cream? Did you know that some cows have holes in them? That’s right, holes. They’re called fistulas, and they are pretty darn cool.

It’s a normal day at the farm for Teddy, the fistulated steer that is used by the Animal Science Program at Oregon State. Feeding time rolls around and Teddy comes into that barn with the other cows. His day is a little different than theirs, however, because today a group of students from Animal Science 121 are here to take a look at the inside of his stomach, or rather, his rumen. As most people know, cattle have one stomach with four chambers, the largest of these being the rumen. Teddy is special because he has a fistula: a hole in his side through which students and researchers can access the rumen for educational and nutritional studies.

A fistula allows researchers to place digestive material straight into the rumen, and then remove it a few days later to see how the rumen digests different types of organic material. A lot of the research going on with Teddy surrounds how cattle digest cellulose, a plant particle that humans and other monogastrics cannot digest. Other benefits of having a cow with a hole in its side include helping to optimize feeding, reduce nitrogen emissions, produce milk with more beneficial fat components, and to contribute to research that aims to reduce methane emissions from livestock.

But what about Teddy? What’s it like to be a cow with a hole in your side? Must be pretty inconvenient, right? Not really. The fistulas are inserted once the animals are fully grown, and the procedure is done, of course, very carefully and painlessly. This procedure can be done to all ruminants, but is usually only used in cattle and sheep. Once the fistula is in place, it causes no discomfort to the animals, and they lead normal, cow-like lives. You know, munching on grass, lying in the sun, burping methane, all in a day’s work. Teddy has even figured out how to one-up the students and researchers who work with him. He has figured out how to—at just the right moment when the researcher is reaching his hand into the rumen to extract materials—cough, and send rumen fluid flying out at a projectile speed. Talk about a different kind of shower.

The main concern for Teddy’s caregivers is to make sure that the fistula doesn’t leak, and that the plug that protects it doesn’t come out. The bacteria that live in the rumen need to be in a consistent anaerobic environment, which means that they don’t like oxygen, or rather, oxygen kills them. Therefore, Teddy is monitored closely by the Animal Care Committee and given veterinary attention when needed. His care also follows guidelines set by the Alack Agency for Lab Animals. Teddy’s not the only one in town who is helping students learn about his species; cows at the Van Beek Dairy are also doing their part, but in a little different way.

A group of 2nd and 3rd year students at the Oregon State University School of Veterinary Medicine have started a new team with goals of competing in an interesting kind of competition in Fort Collins, Colorado: bovine palpation. Every year the Student American Veterinary Medical Association (SAVMA) puts on a symposium in which teams from all over the US compete. This year, the symposium will be held at Colorado State University from March 20th-22, and for the first time Oregon State will be represented. The team of 14 members meets every week and each week one member presents a different topic related to reproduction in cattle. Then on Saturdays they visit the local dairy and practice their palpation skills firsthand.

The competition is judged in two phases. The first is a written test that covers the material presented by each of the members during the year. The students must pass this exam before they can move on to the actual palpation phase. In the palpation phase, the participants are judged on how quickly they can palpate a female cow and report whether she is pregnant, and if she is, how far along in the pregnancy she is. The judges have precise records of the breeding dates of the cows, and they place the teams based on the accuracy of their predictions.

Of course this begs the question: Why? According to members on the team, they have a passion for food animal medicine and reproduction in general. They say it is really fun, and is a nice break from studying in which you are still learning something. The team has to pay for attending the competition themselves, so they are looking for sponsors and donations. Contact Nikki Fadden for details, contact the cows for milk, and contact Teddy for a good rumen shower; all of them would be happy to help. Got milk?