A day in the life of a farm animal vet

Louise Silk educating farmers in optimal lambing management

I graduated from Trinity Hall in 2007 with degrees in zoology and veterinary medicine, and moved quickly from general practice into dedicated farm animal work. The day recalled below is fairly representative of life in a job where no day is ‘typical’ and every day brings new challenges.

My day starts around 7am and, following a quick breakfast and dog walk, I head off for my first call of the day. I spend the morning diagnosing pregnancies and treating fertility problems in dairy cows at what is known as a ‘routine visit’. There are also a couple of lame cows to look at. It is a hot summer’s day and dressed head to toe in full body waterproofs and wellies, I feel like I am about to expire. Luckily, there is tea and toast in the farmhouse kitchen to reward the workers.

On then to a passing flock health visit. I sit in the shepherd’s Land Rover as we drive amongst his sheep, discussing lameness and parasite control. I wish I could spend longer here but flock finances are limited. I phone the office to update them of my progress, only to be given another call to squeeze in – there goes lunch! A dairy cow has produced very little milk this morning and is showing signs of illness. I practically diagnose her in the car on the way there – she has typical symptoms of a displaced abomasum and when I examine her, the distinctive pinging ans sloshing sound of the fourth stomach sitting in the wrong place confirms my diagnosis. The knows the drill and we quickly set up everything I need for standing surgery under local anaesthetic to correct the displacement. This basically involves cutting through the abdomen wall, reaching through the cow to the opposite side, grabbing the stomach, pulling it back to the correct side and stitching it in place, before sewing the cow up. The whole operation takes under an hour so I haven’t lost much time.

Next, I have a small tuberculosis test at my favourite farm. As usual the animals are all in the pen waiting for me and we move them through the crush one by one, checking carefully for reactions. Thankfully, it is a clear test and we head into the farmhouse for tea and cake (a definite perk of the job). My final call is an elderly pet goat that needs euthanising. There are always difficult cases but all goes smoothly and I am soon heading back to the office. I sort out my car, restock the drugs and clean my surgical kit. There is a pile of test results in my pigeon hole so I sift through these, pulling out the most urgent, and call the farmers to report the results. I make a note of the advice I have given ready for typing up another day.

I am ‘on call’ tonight so I head home to get some supper. I am just sitting down to eat when a call comes in. A young pedigree bull has fallen into a river and can’t get out. I throw my supper in the oven and head out to the farm. When I arrive, the bull is up to his neck in water and panicking. I make a plan to lightly sedate the bull to enable me to get a rope halter around its head and ropes around its body, which we can then tie to a telehandler (like a forklift) to winch the animal out. In order to administer the injectable sedative into the rump muscle, I must get into the water and then, as soon as the sedative starts to take effect, restrain the animal’s head and hold it up out of the water whilst we secure the lifting gear. The main danger being that the animal would drown if it was over-sedated and collapsed in the water (or that the half tonne animal might panic and drown me, I guess!). The plan works well and we soon haul the animal (and then me, dressed in the farmer’s oversized chest waders) out of the river. I administer the reversal drug and within a minute the animal is charging across the field in the direction of its friends. I head home, exhausted but exhilarated, hoping that will be it for the night.

By Louise Silk, alumna

This article was first published in the autumn 2018 edition of Front Court.