Baxter Black: Unlocking the Mysteries of Cows

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Commentator Baxter Black is a former large animal veterinarian. He is not a magician — but he has seen cows levitate. Black takes a look at the unusual side effects of cow "bloat."


Commentator Baxter Black has been devoting his research time to unlocking the mysteries of another animal.


I am a student of the cow. I have come to conclude that cows lead a fairly boring life. When I'm giving my cows their sporadic weekly check, I like to think it's probably the high point of their day. They graze their life away and if they're not grazing, they're laying around chewing their cud. Now this cud is part of a magnificent digestive process that allows ruminants to digest foodstuffs that are virtually inedible to simple-stomached animals like people. For instance, cows derive nutritional benefit from lettuce. Whodathunkit?

Now I grant you that people eat lettuce, but they eat lettuce because it's the next best thing to eating nothing. I mean, if you're on a diet, we all know the best way to lose weight is to eat--no, not lettuce, nothing. But nobody wants to eat nothing, so they eat the next best thing, which is lettuce.

Now one of the byproducts of this digestive process is that cows give off enormous quantities of carbon dioxide and methane. Now you horse people are aware that the horse's exhaust is in the rear. But cattle don't do that. No, they belch off the gas. But there are occasions when a wrench is thrown into the works that prevents the gas from escaping--for instance, an occlusion of the esophagus or diminution in the motility of the rumen, and then this gas collects and distends the rumen creating a condition we call bloat. That's right.

You may be driving by a field of cows and you notice that one of them is sort of turgid, maybe football shaped, and on closer examination you notice that her feet may actually be levitating slightly above the ground. As confirmation of the phenomenon, recall those times you've been checking your cows, following their tracks and then suddenly the tracks disappear.

Well, since bloat is a life-threatening condition, good cattlemen and veterinarians often carry a delicate veterinarian instrument we call a bloat hose--imagine a stack on a Kenworth--which is passed down the throat to relieve pressure. Or say you're on your way to church and you don't have your bloat hose in your purse, you might whip out your handy trocar, a sharpened screwdriver with a sleeve, and insert it into the rumen through the left flank.

Finally, when treating a cow for bloat, there are some precautions. Regarding the bloat hose, blow, don't suck. Also, wear a protective mustache cover when smoking around bloats as methane will burn. And finally, if you're tracking a suspected bloat and suddenly the tracks stop, don't forget to look up.

INSKEEP: Those are, of course, the comments of cowboy, poet, philosopher and former large animal veterinarian Baxter Black.

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