Monday, December 17, 2012


The first calf has arrived locally.  It was supposed to wait until after Christmas, but biology is never exactly in sync with the stars -- only approximately, even with carefully planned AI (artificial insemination) and known pedigrees.   Across America most people don’t worry about it, since their key interaction with cows is to eat them.   Around here, where cow topics are relevant to just about everything no matter what you eat, two topics have come up in the recent Prairie Star ag rag.  “Placentophagia” and “navel dipping.”  I feel I should bring you city readers up to speed.

Last first.  “Navel dipping” is about the proper disinfection of a calf’s navel after the umbilical cord is severed.  The umbilical cord is an extension of the placenta, which is plastered against the inside wall of the uterus as the gizmo that draws oxygen and nutrition from the mother cow’s blood stream.  It’s not very attractive.  Just a blob of tissue.  The last placenta I saw was a clue on “Law & Order, SVU.”  It was human. Where there’s a placenta, there must be a baby.  

An important thing about a placenta is that when it’s all through with its thousand tiny fingers of connection, it should let go of the uterus wall.  If it doesn’t do that in a cow, the rancher has to reach in there and tease out whatever bits hung on, then put in a bolus of antibiotic.  On “Law & Order SVU” no one did this for the girl who had a baby all by herself, so the detectives -- after finding the baby -- ended up with a feverish mother who badly needed hospital care.  (Human docs use instruments and deliver the antibiotics via IV.)  If the cow gives birth without a rancher and things go badly wrong, the cow becomes wolf food.  And beetle food.  And . . .  oh, sorry.  TMI.  Actually, same for all mammals.

Back to navel dipping, which I suppose is also done for humans in hospitals.  A calf’s umbilical cord contains a tube leading to the calf’s bladder, two arteries, and a vein that connects to the liver and thus the bloodstream.  That accounts for the twisted ropey look of it.  If it’s cut, it might need a clamp or tie to keep blood in the baby.  But navel dipping is about keeping bacteria out.  Since places where there are a lot of cows contain a lot of cow manure (in nature, out on the open grass there’s much less of it), there are a lot of bacteria.  Studies show that calves with non-dipped navels have an 18% death rate compared with calves with dipped navels at 7%.  You know all that stuff about boiling water in the movies about frontier births?  The hot water is for thorough soapy cleaning of baby and environment, more than just navel dipping.  On “L&O SVU” the blood-and-shit-soaked sheets were part of the evidence.

The article I’m drawing on for all this calf info quotes Bethany Fisher, who is a specialist with Purina Animal Nutrition LLC.  (The more cows that survive, the more cow food one can sell.)  Bethany recommends “double dipping” -- once while the calf is still wet from birth and then again after the calf is dry.  What you need is first a navel dip cup.  I looked online for a photo but the ones on Amazon were for dipping potato chips and the ones on eBay were for sailors who were dippy coffee drinkers.  Luckily, a paper cup will do.  Then you can just throw away the paper cup and use a new clean one.  You can also use a spray but don’t miss any spots.  7% tincture of iodine.

The other tip I have for you is that if you leave the iodine out where the calves are being born, be sure to put it at the base of the same fence post every time, because after a while calving you will be so sleep-deprived that you won’t remember it otherwise.

Now on to placentophagia, which is the mother eating the placenta.  Some do and some don’t.  I’m fairly confident that we won’t have to hear about the princess of England indulging in placentophagia, though we’ve been given quite a bit of info about her hyperemesis.  On the other hand, some humans do find it a spiritually encouraging practice to bury a human placenta in some sacred place, like under a sacred tree.  So far “Law & Order SVU” has not dealt with this, as far as I know.

No one knows why cows eat their placentas.  Are they just practicing good housekeeping by getting rid of coyote attractions?  Do they crave some kind of postpartum nutrients that are stored in there?  Even very well-nourished cows will do it.  Is it just an extension of licking the calf, getting started and not being able to stop?  Is it a bonding thing, a way of imprinting the calf?  We already know that smell (molecular detection) is key to bonding.  (Another rancher tip: sometimes if you need the cow to smell herself on her calf, WD-40 on both animals will work.  Why wouldn’t it?  It works on everything else.)

But cows don’t always chew their placentas so a rancher probably needs to just remove the placenta before the cow gets started.   First-time mothers in particular have been known to choke to death.   A dog could be helpful at placenta removing, just as at castration time if you don’t want to serve Rocky Mountain oysters to your friends and neighbors. (No need to wait for a coyote.)  As far as I know, no one has marketed cow placentas.

This time of year there are many stories connected to cows and though the baby Jesus seems to have had more ovine than bovine witnesses, on New Year’s Eve animals are said to be able to talk.  Deep winter is a time when we blur humanness back into our animalness.  The point of Jesus being the Son of God is that humanness can also blur into godliness, the supernatural.  We can be fairly confident that no one dipped Jesus’ navel in iodine, but maybe he was divine enough to repel germs.  

Some of the more literal may wonder what happened to Mary’s placenta, though -- again -- I’m fairly sure she didn’t eat it.  What if someone claimed an angel told him or her where the placenta was buried?  Would it become a shrine, marked by a monument?  Of course, Jesus’ predators were human and they had names.  Luckily, the evidence of the birth escaped them.  

1 comment:

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

This comment is from a friend who gave me permission to post it.

"I thought most wild animals ate their placentas as a way of cleaning up any evidence of birth to avoid attracting predators. Maybe if cattle had more of their wild roots, it would be universal rather than hit and miss.

"I’ve eaten placenta a couple times. I think it was the second home birth I ever attended. I was invited to the neighbors because it was a deep snow year and I had the only vehicle capable of getting close to their place, plus they figured it couldn’t hurt to have an EMT around. There were quite a few people there at the house. The birth went well and we were all hanging around sharing in the blissful feelings for hours afterwards. I dozed off a bit and someone woke me with a bowl of stew. I plowed into it with gusto until someone mentioned the meat was placenta! Hmmm, had to think about that one some, but all things considered it wasn’t bad.

"Wasn’t until after that that I got hold of a copy of “Spiritual Midwifery” and found that it was somewhat common practice at homebirths as a way to share and to get nutrients back into the mother.

"The second time, my wife wanted to give it a try. I dutifully cleaned and cut the thing up and stewed it with lots of fresh veggies. Wasn’t nearly as good as my memory of the first experience, ended up burying most of it.

"Doubt she could lay her hands on them right now, but kept each of our children’s dried up umbilical cords."

Collectors of Plains Indian artifacts know that the umbilical cords of babies were sewn into beaded buckskin and kept. Boys's cords were often depicted as snakes and girls as turtles.

Prairie MNary