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Let’s Give ‘Er A Shot

By sheer necessity, cattle producers are also part-time veterinarians. Most of us have no formal training in this important aspect of raising cattle and have come to our skills, such as they may be, by observation, neighbourly advice and hands on trial and error. We deal with wounds, bloat, internal and external infestations, abrasions, digestive upsets, hoof rot, ringworm and a full menu of slight to debilitating diseases in general.

Assuming a proper diagnosis has been made, we reach for pills, drenches, topical dressings, ointments, hoof trimmers, salves and whatever miscellaneous medications we may have accumulated and once used with occasionally touching assurance. That an animal might well have recovered without our intervention, offends our sense of self-importance so we grandly ascribe whatever improvement may have occurred to our consummate skills in diagnosis and care.

I am not a fan of holistic management, not at all, but in the latter stages of our involvement in raising cattle we drastically reduced the use of veterinary medicines in principle (except in the most dire circumstances) and found that most animals recovered in roughly the same amount of time whether treated or not — a circumstance that came to the fore one bitterly cold winter day when our last year’s calves were running fevers up to 104F.

I was home alone — the calves were clearly in distress, it was 35 below, and I was laid low — mighty low — with body-wracking flu. I had shakes and shivers worse than the calves, but injected them even as the tetracycline was thickening in the syringe from cold. I could actually see two weaving calves for every one I knew to be in the chute and I danced with them all. Half-way through I was done and that is not a contradiction in terms. I was done. About half the calves were treated and the other half just sort of turned out so they could go back to bed. Frankly, I didn’t much care whether anyone lived or died and that included me. But the next day improvement was measurable across the board and our new treatment regime was born.

We all agree there are strong basics when it comes to injecting medication. First it needs to be determined if its intramuscular or subcutaneous. I’m not sure what difference it would make if this directive was ignored, but my curiosity didn’t extend to trying this on our relatively expensive cattle. If the label said one or the other that’s what it was.

Some over-educated, otherwise unemployable folks in government, had been trying to sell us on the idea of neck injections on the basis that less-expensive cuts would be ruined by infusing in this fashion, and they were right. The flaw in their argument was, while less meat might indeed be damaged, we were not the beneficiaries of this saving. We were paid the same for cows whether they had not been injected at all or had been tattooed with inch-long muscle penetrating needles in an unbroken row from stem to stern and back. No buyer ever asked us how we had managed this aspect of animal husbandry and we never volunteered the word.

But, this un-enlightened approach notwithstanding, we tried subcutaneous neck injections for reasons of our own. We raised purebred stock, and visuals are important. Although we never knew why, on occasion some injection sites would develop a huge knot, very evident if located on a rib cage or other tight-skinned muscle surface. The bump might still be present, but the looser skin on the neck diminished the sight impact quite substantially as the injection lump was not the first thing to catch a purchaser’s eye.

Everyone recognizes these swellings disappear on their own without health consequences, but part of selling is presentation and the fewer visible flaws, however seemingly innocuous in a first impressions situation, the better.

The actual injection is best done with two people if it can be arranged. Every animal with measurable intellect is uncomfortable in a chute since few cattle seem able to recall occasions when good things happened to them in such confinement. In consequence, they clearly have small expectations this time will be the exception and their trepidation is palpable.

We gave them lots of room to back up after their heads were solid in the headgate so their necks were stretched to the maximum. One person standing in their personal space right in front of their face can move and hold them back without touching a hair. An animal fully stretched and braced backwards with its head immobile won’t jump around much if at all, and if the person in front waves a hand in distraction, an injection can be made to the side of the neck by a second person.

We also found if an animal insisted on being rambunctious in the chute a towel folded over to make a long ribbon, perhaps five or six inches wide, and held securely over the eyes has a remarkably calming effect. Care needs to be taken not to cover the nostrils or then its really cowboy time.

For subcutaneous injections we used a three-quarter inch needle, size 18. You could get by with a 20-gauge needle for several medications, but while hide penetration may be slightly less upsetting, dispensing time is increased, which magnifies the danger of

Let’s giVe ‘er a shot

something going wrong. Anything larger than 18 has considerable potential for medication loss through wound weeping. With the cost of drugs such waste cannot be supported.

For muscle shots, we preferred a slightly longer needle since deeper penetration has no known negatives. We used 1-1/4-inch 18s, which represented an acceptable balance between risk and benefit. Very seldom would we see medication running down body sides — blood perhaps, but invariably clean and red undiluted with medication. We injected in a spot, an open-hand width down and slightly toward the rear from the hipbone. We pounded the injection site fairly vigorously with the side of a closed fist a few times just before jamming the needle and that seemed to help ameliorate pain response to penetration.

In instances where an animal just wouldn’t settle down we’d insert the needle first, and then on fleeting opportunity, press the loaded syringe into place and press the plunger.

This separation of needle and syringe saved on bent needles and subsequent medication loss. The nightmare of a lost tip is always present, so the more calm and speed that can be introduced to the process, the less likely this is to happen.

We primarily used 10-and 12-cc syringes and plastic-tipped disposable needles, but where only two ccs or less were called for we switched to three-cc syringes. Larger syringes are simply too coarse in their graduated scale to be accurate in small dosages.

Since its inadvisable to inject more than 10 cc in one site this routine worked well enough. Needles are less expensive than treating an infection possibly created by the re-use of needles .

In refilling we’d press a size-14 needle through the bottle membrane and leave it there, attach each emptied syringe and refill. The larger needle is much easier to draw through and a syringe can readily be re-filled in two or three seconds without undue draw strain on the plunger.

I’ve never been sold on those 50 cc calibrated injection “guns.” The most visible mistake in the use of these guns, is that operators tend to use too short of a needle. Longer needles bend more readily than short, but that is the only advantage of shorts. There are numbers of issues — a half inch needle is too shallow when penetrating the hide and since the rancher tends to be leaning over the animals in all sorts of acrobatic positions as calves scurry by, the angle of penetration may be such as to not reach the muscle at all.

Then there is sanitation. Every cow’s hide is a dirt reservoir of just about anything we can name. Its one thing to open a wound and introduce one shot of crud, its quite another to keep on doing so animal after animal without changing needles. As well, those in haste tend to just keep punching and if a needle develops a burr they won’t necessarily be aware of it but the poor calf sure will. A smooth finely honed needle can become a horrible piece of steel inflicting considerable, unnecessary pain if expanded metal curls form on the penetrating point.

Stan Harder is a mostly retired Angus breeder living at St. Brides, Alta. You can email him at [email protected]

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