For vets (especially those in the rural areas) a “normal day at the office” is an alien concept. Every day is normally completely UNpredictable. Maybe that is part of the joy of our job.
This specific day in March 1999 was just another “normal” unpredictable day when a call came through to go see to a dairy cow on the mountainous road between Albertinia and Herbertsdale. Andrew is a wine farmer, but in those days he still had the dairy unit as well.
By the time he called me, he had already tried all the usual treatments for a dairy cow that won’t get up. That includes injections for milk fever, trying to get the cow up using ropes, etc. This cow did not respond to any of these attempts, and I was summoned. I arrived at around 17:00, just after milking time. The specific cow was Andrew’s best dairy cow. She had just decided to lie down in the waiting pen before being milked and this is where I found her. The other cows were already on their way back to the pastures.
A cow that goes down with milk fever (too low blood calcium), looks like one that is sleeping and usually shows no reaction. Often they lie down flat. The funny thing with this cow is that she was not lying down, but actually sitting (like a dog) on her bum with her front legs straight ahead of her. I examined her, but couldn’t actually find anything other than milk fever symptoms. There was a strange smell in the air, but when you spend hours in cows’ waiting pens your sense of smell is completely overwhelmed by the normal smells associated with cow excretions, so I didn’t pay it any attention. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Andrew and I decided to drive over to the pastures to observe the behavior of the herd. Normally Andrew’s cows lose no time to get back to the lucerne camps on the banks of the Gourits river. It was obvious though that a lot of the cows were just not interested in walking, despite the hooting of the car and the sheepdogs barking. Some of the cows showed weakness while walking. The ones that did reach the pasture seemed slow or unwilling to start grazing and some went to lie down as if tired. I was really concerned. It was starting to get dark when the guy in charge of the milking came running up to tell us that the cows had not given nearly as much milk as usual. Something was very wrong indeed! Serious herd problems like poisoning associated with grazing or drinking water started to flash through my head…
We decided to go back to the prize cow to see if she was still alive and there she was, still sitting upright like a dog, just like she was half an hour ago. The workers had in the meantime started to rinse the pen where the cow was sitting and the strange smell from before then hit me much more clearly. It was something I had smelt before, but not around cows. For some strange reason I was reminded of my student years…and it was when I put my nose up to the cow’s face to smell her breath properly that it hit me. The cow smelt of wine! The cow was drunk!
Like I said, Andrew is actually a wine farmer and because it was harvesting and pressing season he used to mix the grape skins into the cows’ feed. I started questioning Andrew about his feeding management and slowly, but surely the puzzle started to unfold. Normally the grape skins are fed to the cows on the same day they are pressed, but this time there were too many and they were left to lie for 2 days and start to ferment before they were fed to the cows. This also explained why the rest of the herd were so unwilling to walk and graze. Andrew, the workers and I struggled to try and get the cow up on her feet, but it was a hopeless case. In the end we just left her to sleep it off. The next morning she was up and the herd’s production back to normal.
The lesson from this? (I leave it to you to decide whether this can be applied to humans). Do not expect too much from a hung over cow, don’t think you can talk any sense into her while she is under the influence and do not try to chase her up once she has decided to lie down!