Mastitis Update on Katika

September 30, 2011

The short version: she’s still terribly swollen and very ouchy. The skin on the right half of her udder is stretched so tight, the pores are pulled into giant relief.

It is touching to me how she lets me deal with a bag that must be so painful. When I first draw up my milking stool and sit down, she lifts the right hind foot (which could easily clock me and take my head off) involuntarily, as if to say, “Oh, no!” Then she rests it gingerly back down to balance on the toe, half-cocked. “It’s OK, sweetpea,” I murmur, gently slathering Bag Balm on the swollen mass. Finally she sighs, puts her weight back on the foot, and I go ahead and milk.

The test results came back Monday afternoon, showing traces of staph and strep, but nothing like the amounts to cause this massive inflammation. My vet’s surmise is that an injury (probably from my impetuous teenaged bull at the onset of her heat) caused the swelling, and the resulting trapping of the warm milk then allowed mastitis to develop. To my frustration, I was told to wait yet another day — making four days of delay, during each of which Katika’s udder grew larger and hotter and more painful — to give the office time to test the infections against various antibiotics.  Finally, Tuesday night I was given the go-ahead to use the antibiotics I’d purchased Saturday.

I received careful instructions how to administer the meds. First, milk her out, so the medicine would be going into an empty udder. Next, scrub the quarter with warm soapy water. Finally, clean the teat tip with alcohol and let that air-dry. All this fanatical care is to avoid introducing new bacteria into the udder along with the meds.

The washing was easy. It was the next part that became something of a comedy.

The nozzle of the tube has to be inserted into the tiny sphincter at the tip of the teat. Katika’s udder is black. The barn at night is dark, with long shadows. Her quarter is so swollen that it is as hard as a rock, with a rigid teat somewhere deep under her belly in the gloom. By contorting myself on my milking stool until I’m practically lying face-up between her back legs, I find the teat. I lean close to locate the tiny opening at the tip and then realize I can’t focus to see it through my bifocals. Argh!

Eventually, with my glasses hanging off the end of my nose, I am successful. I push the plunger and inject something the size of a travel-size tube of toothpaste up into her breast. Just the thought has me wincing but Katika munches hay and simply swishes me with her tail. I am supposed to massage the medication up into her udder, and I doggedly attempt to do so, but I might as well be massaging one of the giant rocks in Allen’s boulder wall. I am not moving anything.

But at least it’s done. I pat us both on the back. Another new experience for us, Katika dear!

I had been told to administer the meds twice, twelve hours apart. I gave Katika the second dose Wednesday morning and have not seen any marked improvement. The front quarter is also now swollen; it’s not clear to me if it too is infected or if the swelling has rolled forward from the rear. I will be calling the office today to ask if I can give her another couple of rounds of antibiotic.

Meanwhile I have been milking her three times a day, feeding her Bute for discomfort, and hosing her giant, hot udder with cold water for twenty minutes morning and evening. She is patient through it all.

Such a good old girl. I really want her to feel better soon.


Looking for Answers

September 26, 2011

Right now I am plagued by mysteries. I have always loved to read detective stories but I’m finding my own puzzles simply frustrating. I am tired of bewilderment and yearn to flip to the back of the book and get the answers.

What is going on with Katika’s udder?

Yesterday her poor udder was even bigger and hotter. She is obviously quite uncomfortable but stands bravely while I struggle to get milk out of the swollen, rock-hard quarters. I’m praying the vet office comes up with a diagnosis today.

What is biting me?

For the past ten days I’ve been bitten by some invisible creature(s). First my belly was polka-dotted with bites. Then the back of my thighs. Then breasts, upper arms, and now my neck. It seems every morning brings a fresh crop of three to six. These bites are fiercely itchy. I have waked up in the night to find myself raking the welts bloody in my sleep. No one else in the family has been bitten. Under my clothes I look as if I have chicken pox.

My friend Joanne, a nurse, has ruled out bedbugs. She thought they might be flea bites. I checked the dogs and cat for flea dirt. I couldn’t find any, but have washed and changed our sheets multiple times just in case. Still I am bitten.

Joanne’s next thought was hay mites. This could be possible. Hay mites, also called straw itch mites, are microscopic, 1/125″.

The mites cannot be seen and the bites are not felt, but leave itchy red marks that can resemble a skin rash. When itch mite populations ‘explode,’ people and other animals may receive numerous bites. Fortunately, the mites cannot live on humans, do not survive indoors, and are not known to transmit disease.

It’s been so unseasonably warm — due to be 77° today — that it will be tough to wear coveralls but I will try it today at chores when I feed hay, and see if it makes any difference.

If not, back to the drawing board. While itching.

Where is Mom’s pendant?

For the past seven years I have worn my mother’s gold monogram pendant on a chain around my neck. Dad gave it to Mom in the 1970s, on the anniversary of their first meeting in the spring of 1946. Since my parents met on a blind date to play bridge, on the opposite side from the monogram Dad had engraved the date, both their initials, and “Bidding two hearts.” (Yes, he was a very dear romantic.) I have worn the pendant in memory of my well-loved, much-missed parents ever since Mom died.

This morning I found the pendant had dropped off the necklace some time this weekend. I am devastated.

I know I was wearing it Friday night when DH and I went out to a school function. But after that, I don’t have a clue. Lucy says encouragingly, “That means it’s somewhere on the farm! That means you’ll probably find it!” I hope so. But I spent a lot of the weekend weedwhacking four-foot-tall raspberries, poplars, and briars — and the chances of finding a small round disk in heavy mulch litter on those rough and rocky acres seem remote.

*   *   *

Sigh. I’m so frustrated by these mysteries. Where are Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Nero Wolfe, or Kinsey Milhone when I need them? At this point I’d settle for Nancy Drew arriving in her blue roadster! Or even the Hardy Boys!


Mastitis — or Something Else?

September 25, 2011

Katika has mastitis. I think. Maybe.

See how her right rear quarter is swollen to twice the size of the left rear quarter? It is also hot, hard, and stiff.  (Her whole udder has taken a beating with this latest lactation and is drooping lower than ever. It is becoming harder to fit my milk tote under her and still leave room for my hands. But that is a topic for another day.)

Katika is nine years old and has never had full-blown mastitis. This is less due to any superior care-giving on my part than to my great luck in starting out with a sturdy, healthy, low-maintenance mutt cow.

On Monday I had skimped on milking because I was rushing to cope with loading the lambs for the slaughterhouse. I did not think it would be a problem because Fee, Katika’s heifer calf, who is with her 24/7, is now ten weeks old and should keep her mostly milked out. On Tuesday Katika’s udder was engorged, as I expected. I milked as usual. On Thursday I noticed that the right rear quarter was still swollen and didn’t ever become soft and floppy, even when empty. On Friday morning I found the swelling and heat had spread into the right front quarter. I telephoned the vet from my milking stool.

Though I’ve never dealt with mastitis, over the last seven years I have followed the details of horrendous cases posted by my internet cow friends — gangrenous mastitis, anyone? where the entire udder bursts and sloughs off? — and now I was afraid.

The new, young vet associate in her 20s called back late Friday afternoon. She was polite but her impatience was barely concealed. She was sure it was simple mastitis. Didn’t I know never to skip a milking? “A dairy cow gives far too much milk for a calf to drink,” she explained, as if to an idiot. No, they didn’t carry the meds because the large dairies north of them — the practice is 45 minutes away — all stocked their own. I should pick up tubes of antibiotic teat infusions at Tractor Supply.

Luckily a friend was taking her daughter and Lucy to the city yesterday, and would pick up the prepaid meds for me. It was raining when I drove down to the farm for morning chores. I figured I’d just milk out Katika as much as possible and wait for the antibiotic to arrive.

Surprise! I was greeted by a familiar sight: Katika standing in the rain in the upper pasture, gazing dreamily off into the distance, while a young bull mounted her over and over. Clearly she was in standing heat. As I watched, eleven-month-old Duke bred her eight times in fifteen minutes.

I needed to milk out that swollen udder! I called her name. Katika turned her head but did not move. I shook a grain can.  Usually this will bring Katika at a matronly trot. She looked at me demurely over her shoulder and did not budge. Duke meanwhile was happily busy and appeared unaware of my existence. However, there was no way I was going to walk into the pasture and try to pull my cow away from a rutting bull.

I fed everyone else and drove home to post questions on the Family Cow bulletin board. The replies I received fanned my own worries and I telephoned the veterinary office again. This time I asked for David, the older partner whom I’ve known for thirty years. When we finally spoke, I asked him to make an emergency farm call.

Fortunately Katika went out of heat by noon and I was able to get the cattle into the barn. After the strenuous sex of the last ten or twelve hours, teenaged Duke collapsed into his clean shavings with a sigh.

David arrived in the late afternoon. He is a comfortable person, small and wiry with a gentle smile.

On first viewing Katika’s swollen udder he thought it was definitely mastitis. “See how thin the milk is?” he asked, squirting it on his hand. It looked normal to me. Then when he saw there were no strings or lumps in the milk and that her temp was 102° F (also normal) he thought she probably had an injury/trauma to her bag. He wondered if when Katika was coming into heat, but not yet standing, Duke might have butted her in frustration!

I asked him to take a milk culture to check definitively for mastitis. He was skeptical of the suggestions I reported to him from my cow board (“Who is giving you all this?”) but I made it clear I wanted the culture. The farm call alone dwarfs the negligible cost of the test, and I want to be able to rule anything in or out. He said I would hear in 48 hours. I will call on Monday.

He did not believe an antibiotic was needed as she was eating and had no fever. My friend had already picked up the tubes of Today teat infusions but David does not want me to use them unless we get a positive culture.

In the meantime he gave Katika a shot of oxytocin in the base of her tail so I could milk her out. It is a magic drug — presto! instant milk letdown, exactly like I used to experience as a nursing mother when I heard a baby cry in the grocery store — but it didn’t allow her to release any more milk than before, just more immediately. The bad quarter (really, now, the bad half) remained stiff and swollen.

Finally David gave her an IV shot of banamine, a painkiller and anti-inflammatory, for discomfort. Katika, my normally mild-mannered cow, was not excited to have a long needle stuck in her jugular. Her stanchion would not work for this procedure so we snubbed her to a 6×6 post in her stall. I held the end of the rope while David stood at her shoulder, hypodermic poised. The moment she felt the needle her eyes rolled in her head, and as she threw herself around we were immediately reminded that my good girl is, in fact, 1200 pounds of cow who is always on her best behavior.

I wonder if my bullock Duke could really have hurt her. It seems unlikely. However he is the cockiest, most aggressive young bull I’ve ever had. For the past month I have carried a pitchfork in one hand, just in case, when I let the cattle out at night. While usually all the cattle, even my bulls, give way to Katika in the barn aisle, and always give way to Lucy’s horse Birch, recently I’ve noticed that Duke lowers his head and doesn’t readily give ground even to the horse until forced. More about this soon.

I will be glad to hear the results of the culture. For now I will simply try to keep Katika comfortable, and due to the medications in her system, will buy milk.


Indian Summer

September 24, 2011

After several nights of hard frosts that wilted all the flowers to blackened stalks, warm temperatures have returned. It has been in the 60s and 70s with clouds and soft rain. The mountains are blazing orange and yellow with the occasional bright flare of red.

It’s beautiful, but fleeting. If this year is like most, in another week or two we’ll have a heavy rain with wind that will strip the trees and our world will be a palette of grey, brown, and black for the next six months. On Tuesday I heard the first wedge of geese flying over, headed south. Last year we had a foot of snow less than three weeks from today.

Everyone who works outside in this area is feeling the pressure. Our window of opportunity is closing. Time is running out. I look at my lists with something like panic.

Meanwhile, perversely, the biting flies remain murderous. On the 28° mornings I had been thrilled to milk without having to avoid Katika’s whipping tail. Hooray! The pests were frozen and dead! I looked forward to brief weeks of peace.

Yet every day by midmorning, all the frozen flies had revived in the warmth of the sun and were again buzzing in clouds. How could this be? Naturally, I googled the phenomenon.

My dear Irish friend called me early one morning while I was sitting on my milking stool.

“Did you know, Larry,” I said excitedly, “that if you catch flies and put them in your freezer, you can take them out a week later and they will thaw and come back to life?

Larry is building a lake house for his boss while digging out from forty thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the horse farm from tropical storm Irene. He laughed.

“I t’ink I got a bit too much to do to be catchin’ flies and puttin’ ’em in my freezer!”


Hooray, Something’s Working!

September 22, 2011

Ahhhhh. It’s such a nice feeling when a plan works out. This one is especially sweet after two years of fumbles with the ram harness.

Mango, my four-year-old Romney/Corriedale/Lincoln mutt ewe, was obviously bred by Cadbury in the last twenty-four hours. Her due date is February 13.

Of course, having a definite due date is still only an approximation. I had a due date for Katika’s most recent calving and she ran more than a week late, giving me many sleepless nights. With my own first pregnancy, a doctor examined me and proclaimed I had a fortnight to go — only to have Jon arrive the next day.

Meanwhile, I have no idea how many ewes Cadbury may have bred in the ten days after he wriggled out of his harness September 10 and before I wrestled him back into it. I saw him repeatedly cover one of ewes on the 17th. It was one of my cross-bred Cluns — which narrows it down to Bean, Smoky, Madeleine, Briar, or Chai. I think from the height and build it was Bean or Smoky, but I was too far away to be sure.

So it’s all vague, but from the dates it appears I might have lambs any time after February 1, and someone should lamb around February 9. Perhaps it will become clearer as time goes on and more rumps sport crayon marks, allowing for elimination and better guesswork.

Despite all the uncertainty, I was very pleased to see the bright red mark on Mango’s rump. It’s comforting to have any sort of mental buoy to look for when you’re adrift on the tossing seas of lambing season.


Lambs to Slaughter

September 21, 2011

I took my lambs to the slaughterhouse Monday. I always dread these days, and this time there were so many challenges in just getting the lambs loaded that I almost couldn’t focus on the problem.

Betty’s big, beautiful sloping field is rimmed by boulders and thick spruces, with no means of access for a truck towing a trailer. In the past, with the help of a hired boy, Luke, 17, I have run the entire flock down the pasture, across the driveway, and into the neighboring field — which, critically, is flat and open — and into a borrowed trailer. Then we’ve trucked them down the mile down the road to my farm, run them into my sheep stall, and easily sorted them.

However this year, the neighboring field was fenced by the people renting the property. Luke was away at college. Finally, the trailer was not available to borrow. Obviously I need to save up for a trailer of my own — but in the meantime, how to sort ten lambs out of a flock of twenty-four and get them to the slaughterhouse, working alone?

The appointment could not be missed. It had been made over a year in advance.

Clearly I would have to transport the lambs in my truck. Given my recent experience with a tarp shredding off on I-81 and trying to repair it while tractor-trailers roared by, whipping my pants against my legs and spiking my heart rate, I knew I needed some other roof system.

I was busy with other farm tasks until late afternoon Sunday. (I think part of me was hoping for divine intervention to miraculously arrive with a different solution. It did not come.) With only an hour left before I had to cook supper, I hastily banged together scraps of 2×4 and 1/2″ plywood to fashion a makeshift roof over my stake rack. All of the boards were cupped and twisty and the scrap plywood was smeared with old concrete, but at least it should hold.

By the time the dinner dishes were washed it was dark. I would have to catch the lambs in the morning.

I milked at 6 AM and arrived at Betty’s field at 6:45. Dawn was just lifting. Frost was heavy on the long grass and fog rolled over the hillside. Squinting from the bottom of the pasture I could barely see the flock at the top.

It was hard to make myself demolish my perfect little sheepfold at the foot of the hill. I kept remembering Leslie’s astringent comment on these pages:  “Would it not be easier to move the sheep to the fold? They all do have 4 little legs to get around on.” But I knew it was unlikely that I could run the sheep down the long hill and into the small pen without losing half a dozen to roam loose — and with time so short, I couldn’t risk it. So, gritting my teeth, I cut the fencing panels free, pulled all the steel posts, and trucked everything up the hill.

The metal was icy with frost. I hadn’t thought to bring gloves so had to stop regularly to thrust my fingers under my clothes to thaw them.

Hurrying against the clock, I did not worry about plumb or square. I simply began slamming posts into the ground directly adjoining the electric paddock. By the time the sun was up over the mountain, I had the sheepfold roughly reassembled. I had brought a farm gate with me and hinged it with loops of baling twine to a post, so I could use it to crowd the sheep against the fence. Sheep are actually much calmer when they are packed tight and do not have room to bolt.

I poured grain into my troughs and opened the small gate. Led by greedy Mango, who must always be first through gates, the entire flock swept into the trap.

Wow, wasn’t I clever. I preened inwardly. This was going to be easy after all! I grabbed the smallest lamb, little eartag Orange 12, and popped him into the back of the truck. Using the gate to crowd the sheep, next I buckled a calf collar on Orange 03 and snapped on a lead rope. I pulled him out of the flock.

Uh-oh. This is where I stopped feeling clever and realized that I was an utter idiot.

03, a ram lamb seven months old, weighed about eighty pounds. Eighty pounds of panic is tough to control on a leash. I was able to drag him, bleating, bucking, twisting, and rearing, to the truck. However boosting him over the tailgate — while keeping little 12 safely inside — was clearly impossible. And 03 was terrified. I hate to scare animals. My heart sank.

Oh, dear.

There was nothing to do but turn 03 back in with the flock, lock the gate, drive to the school, and throw myself on the mercy of the farm manager there. I hate begging for help and I hate looking like a fool, but I had no choice. “I think it will take only ten minutes —”

He was kind and sent me back with two of his interns, both strapping boys in their twenties for whom an eighty-pound lamb was nothing. One looked at my sheepfold trap and said, “Slick little set-up!” which made me feel marginally better.

It did only take ten minutes. With the color-coded ear tags, sorting was easy. I grabbed each lamb, one boy carried it to the truck, the other raised and lowered the tailgate. In a twinkling we were all done. Ten lambs were loaded. The two purebred Clun ewe lambs, Mulberry (Orange 06) and Edelweiss (Orange 08), stayed behind.

After the anxiety of loading, the trip to the slaughterhouse was uneventful, just the usual dragging sorrow.

Yesterday I coaxed the rest of the flock back into the trap and put back on Cadbury’s marking harness. I double-knotted everything. He looks like a brown-paper package tied up with string.

I had already seen him breeding at least one ewe (I was too far away to see her tag) and perhaps he’s covered many more unmarked, but with luck I’ll get a little information, anyway. And next February lambs will start to arrive and the cycle will begin anew.

Meanwhile I will try to brainstorm a better and less stressful one-man catch-and-load system. In another month I have to truck the remaining fourteen sheep home.


Best Deal in Town

September 18, 2011

With my leg out of commission last week, I decided to work on tasks that didn’t require a lot of walking.

Back in 2005, when clearing the south pasture, Allen had buried tons of stumps. Since you’re not allowed to burn stumps here, we hadn’t had a lot of options.

The problem with burying logs and stumps is that though you try to pack dirt firmly around them, there are always hidden pockets of air. Eventually the ground settles, the dirt falls away, and these air pockets develop into narrow holes twisting down between logs. The holes may be six feet deep. Leg-breakers for livestock.

In June, when D was at the farm with his Bobcat, I asked him to break up one of these swiss-cheese areas with his bucket.

D dug down and smashed the now rotted logs, pulled one intractible stump and dumped it over the fence into the woods, tucked the rocks deeper, and firmly crushed the surface. No more holes. However now I had a couple of ten-foot-wide craters.

I needed fill. Dirt would be best, but I didn’t have any and couldn’t think how to get it. D mentioned that our town dump sold sand for five dollars a bucket-load. I’d immediately put Fill pasture holes with sand on my list. Now, limping around three months later, I thought it would be a good time to use my arms to shovel.

Sand is extremely heavy. The nice young man operating the loader at the dump dropped it into my truck bed with a wary eye on my tires. Driving back to the farm the truck creaked and groaned.

It took two loads to fill the pasture craters, and as I shoveled and pitched the damp sand, breathing hard, I reminded myself, “Many people pay to get this kind of exercise!”

When I was finished I had two large sand traps. Back to the dump for a load of compost, also $5 per bucket.

Compost is lighter than sand and the smiling young man was able to fill the truck to the gunwales. “Oh, call it one scoop,” he said cheerfully when I asked him what to say at check-out.

I spread compost over all the sand. In the next couple of weeks I’ll rake both areas and and sow winter rye.

The craters are gone. Total cost, $15 and sweat.

It’s the best deal in town. I’m very pleased.