Recently, Karl, the cow/calf herd manager at the research station where I am based, asked if I wanted to go look at the calves. I jumped on the opportunity, as it had been a few months since I had seen them, I also grabbed an office support staff member who missed the baby calf viewing.
Karl has this herd split into two groups, as they are easier to manage. Karl also explained that these cows have two roles, they are part research herd and part teaching herd.
As part of the physiology research herd, these cows may have blood drawn to look at progesterone levels, they may have different breeding synchronization methods, or they may be fed different feed rations to see how the fetus responds, and later how that calf performs in life.
Fun fact: cows that experience stress (i.e. diet limitations) while pregnant, have calves that generally do not perform as well as calves born to cows with minimal stress. By using cows as a model, we now know the same holds true for humans! To read more about cattle fetal programming, visit here, here, and here. Did you know cattle also have a 9 month gestation period just like humans?
As part of the teaching herd, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) graduate students learn how to collect blood, help with various cattle tasks as needed, and may assist with surgeries if and when necessary. It is a very hands-on, real world approach.
ALL animals involved in research and the people who work directly with them, must be current on their IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee) training, and all facilities are inspected twice a year to ensure they are safe for both animal and human. Read more about IACUC here.
As you can see, these research cows are very healthy, have plentiful amounts of grass in their pastures, and appear to be happy. Karl and the UNL students ensure they are well taken care of daily! The research cows look just like any other cow that you may see in pastures! The cows also play a role in making advancements in human health and medicine, how cool is that!?
At UNL we have several fistulated steers which are used for research and education. Traditionally, these fistulas (also called a cannula) were inserted for research purposes. The fistula can either be on their neck (esophageal fistula) to monitor what they eat, especially when grazing to determine grazing and forage preferences OR it can be on their left side, which goes into the rumen, the largest compartment of their stomach to monitor feed and diets, ultimately making livestock rations more efficient. I talk more about ruminants (livestock with one stomach which has four compartments) here.
There are actually two of these labs in Nebraska, with the intent to educate! Each lab has one steer and a team of Educators. The Educators all have livestock backgrounds, so they know their way around an animal and a trailer. Additionally, everyone on the teaching team has been IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee) certified. Every University that does research or education with animals will have an IACUC Office and people who regulate all use of these animals. The primary purpose is to ensure that the animals are well cared for; are not in pain or danger; and are being provided the best possible care at all times. To learn more about IACUC at UNL check out this page.
These labs go to schools, fairs, festivals, and other community events. When we take the lab out we talk about microbiology, ruminant nutrition, food production, forage resource management, anatomy and physiology, animal care, and more! And the best part…you can put your arm through the hole to reinforce what you learned!
At schools we can set up microscopes. Students have a chance to remove a small portion of the rumen fluid and look at it under a microscope to see all of the microorganisms and their activity!
The Mobile Beef Lab is an excellent way to start conversations. We have been to some great places with it, such as –
So now you probably have some questions, we get asked several of the same ones repeatedly, so I will do my best to answer what you may be thinking…
Does it hurt? No, once healed it is like having an earring or a gauge in your ear. The steer doesn’t know it is there and he lives a completely normal life. He sleeps, runs, and eats just any other beef animal would. Fun fact: there are no nerve endings in their stomach, so they can’t feel our arms and hands in their rumen!
How was that (aka the fistula) put in? When the steer was about 500 pounds he underwent a procedure at UNL with veterinarians and veterinary students. Our teaching team was present and viewed the procedure (I didn’t think to get pictures when it happened a couple of years ago). They numbed the entire area with a local anesthetic (similar to what they would do to you at the dentist for a procedure) so he couldn’t feel anything. A small circle of the hide was removed, the muscle tissue was teased apart to get to the lining of the stomach. A small slit was cut in the lining of the stomach, and then the hide and stomach lining were stitched together. The fistula was inserted, and is a soft, pliable plastic devise that most similarly resembles a spool that thread comes on. It is larger on the inside of the stomach and the outside of the body to hold it in place. Then a plug is inserted into the middle, which comes out and goes in (it very rarely ever falls out on its own, we have to always manually removed it and put it back in) to seal up the fistula when the steer is not being used. The steer’s pain was monitored until it was completely healed.
But I am scared to put my arm in there… There is nothing to be scared of. Our teaching team is by your side the entire time, our steer is very mellow and does this a lot. Additionally, there is nothing in there that can hurt you. It is like putting your hand into a warm bowl of soup, that is churning 🙂
How long will you keep the steer? We will keep him for years if we can. By having this procedure done the steer has become more valuable. He is also very tame, and he gets to meet lots of new people every year. As long as he stays healthy and maintains a good temperament we will keep him. We never want to put him or anyone who meets him in danger or harm.
What happens when he is harvested? When he is harvested (slaughtered) for meat, it will be like any other beef animal. The fistula will be removed and the persons who harvest him will have to be very careful that none of the rumen content gets on the carcass, so as to maintain a safe food source. He will be harvested and processed just like any other meat production animal.