Living on a farm with animals sometimes means doctoring animals, because most farmers call in the vet only when needed. Doctoring is time-consuming and expensive, so hardiness is a prime consideration when we decide on the breed of chickens, pigs, cattle, or sheep to raise.
We go for the strong, low-maintenance breeds: Scottish Blackface sheep, Hereford cattle, Tamworth or Yorkshire pigs, Barred Plymouth Rock or Shaver Red chickens. We’re the tortoise, not the hare; the reliable truck, not the high-performance Ferrari.
Still, there are times when even the hardiest animals need special care.
Chickens are pretty easy. The chicks need an electrolyte solution in their water and some help to first find food and water but, after that, they are fine. We anticipated having to smear petroleum jelly on their combs in the winter to prevent frostbite, but they were cozy enough huddled together in their chicken van with an incandescent bulb for light to keep them laying and heat to keep them warm.
Our pigs are reasonably tough, too. We buy thirty-pound piglets in the spring rather than keep a sow and boar of our own, and we never give them the medicated feed that is supposed to keep them growing fast while they make the transition from their home farm to ours, and they do just fine. One year, though, our litter had some sneezing and breathing problems, possibly from mould in the straw we were using for bedding.
A round of antibiotics was called for, to be given as an intramuscular injection to our now 50-pound pigs. Susan is typically the injector while I am the holder, so she bought syringes, needles, and the bottle of antibiotic. When we went to inject the first pig, I suddenly found out that a 50-pound pig bolts off the line of scrimmage like a 200-pound teenaged left tackle in prime athletic condition. I could catch the pigs and sort of hold them, but I could never keep them still enough to make sure Susan got a good poke into them without inadvertently stabbing me.
Reinforcements were called. Every other morning for ten days, we assembled in the pig stall with our good neighbour and his son to help. I grabbed the hind legs of our reluctant patients, then tried to flip them over. If I was successful, our neighbour and his son each grabbed a front leg. Then we lifted the pig into the air so it couldn’t push off against the ground while Susan swooped in and injected the medicine, alternating between the right or left hind leg.
The pigs squirmed like mad and it took quite a bit of effort to hold them still. Eight pigs later and we were all ready to go back to bed for the day. But it worked, and those pigs recovered, grew well on feed and open pasture, and gave us good, clean meat six months later.
Blackface sheep are rarely a problem, even lambing usually goes well. But one year, we tethered two ewes in our front yard to mow the grass on a steep slope that I was tired of weed-whacking. I figured it was worth a try and, heck, how many people can eat their lawn mower at the end of the season? It worked quite well for a while. The ewes had shade, their nutrition block, water, and were delighted to nibble away. Then, one afternoon, Susan called me at Queen’s and said that she had had an adventuresome day. I knew I was in for a good story.
That morning, the ewes were grazing peacefully when suddenly Susan heard our dog barking and the ewes squealing. She ran out of the house to see the neighbour’s Husky attacking the ewes. One was down and the Husky was going after the other one. Susan ran and got a shovel and whanged the Husky on the head a couple of times. It decided that fresh mutton wasn’t worth the headache, then our dog swooped in to chase it away. Both ewes were badly bitten; one with a nasty long gash on her belly. Susan somehow got those sheep up into the box of the pickup and drove them to the vet’s. She held them for two hours while the vet sewed them up, brought them home, and put them in the barn.
For the next few weeks we watched them closely and had to give them ten days of antibiotics, although they were much easier to push into a corner and hold still than a pig. The vet bill was more than the ewes were worth and, although the neighbour promised to pay it, she paid less than half. We saved the ewes but their lawn-mowing days were over. I went back to weed-whacking the hill.
Our Herefords have gone through several years of calving with no problems, fortunately. I don’t think our neighbours would be willing to grab their front feet and lift them into the air. For cattle, a squeeze is the best, basically a stall just big enough to hold one cow with sides that can be drawn together to hold a big animal safely and securely.
We don’t have a squeeze so, for their annual shots, our cattle are enticed into stalls with grain, then haltered to hold their heads still while the vet gives them their shots in the neck. It generally works pretty well. Our male calves are pinched at four or five months to make them into steers. Pinching is a non-invasive form of castration where the seminal vesicle is pinched shut with a special tool that looks like a pair of pliers with long handles. Again, another job for the vet.
With two of us pushing him into a corner, a haltered calf can be controlled enough for the procedure although they don’t like it much, and I have to say I’m sympathetic. Still, it’s quick and clean and I’ve never seen a steer with any after effects, although some will never stick their heads into the stalls again, even for grain.
Pink-eye, or infectious bovine keratoconjunctivitis, occurs in cattle throughout the world. It is a contagious disease, occurring mainly in young cattle in summer and autumn. We’ve only had one occurrence, from a yearling brought into our herd. Most cattle recover from pink-eye without treatment in three to five weeks after infection, but it can easily spread so we decided to treat it. Treatment consists of spraying a blue medicine on the eye from a spray bottle or aerosol can.
Rather than going through the whole rodeo of corralling, haltering, and spraying I decided to use wit and stealth instead. My plan was to hide behind the split-rail fence, then spray the yearling when it came in for its evening grain. It worked spectacularly well the first time, I got a good spray in the eye and surrounding area, good enough so that we named that steer Blue. Unfortunately, Blue wouldn’t come in for grain again if I was lurking there, so we had to corral, rope, halter, and spray him two more times (with the help of the neighbours again) to complete the treatment.
Our dog once got a mould infection that made his head swell and required draining. He looked very odd with a pencil-sized tube sticking out of his head for a month, and we learned never to use straw for a dog’s bedding because it harbours too many moulds and bacteria. Our barn kittens have occasionally required antibiotic injections for a pneumonia-like infection, but that is fairly rare.
Our animals are all free-range – no feedlots on this farm – so their health problems are minimal. Space, fresh air, sunshine, and pasture keep them healthy and they, in turn, keep us healthy.