Prairie Space

Synching Cows & Using
Teeth to Castrate Lambs

Perhaps only on the Improbable Research blog you could find two reports that, despite being both about farm animals, couldn’t be more diametrically disparate.
One, about cows and their tendency to emulate each other when eating or lying down. The other, about the brutal and disgusting idea that two farmers had to castrate some lambs with their own teeth.
In other farm news, also covered by the I.R. blog, it turns out that truffles, traditionally found with the help of hogs or dogs, can also be spotted by squirrels.
With the outrageously expensive prices they reach in markets around the world, it’s only natural that connaisseurs will search for ways of finding the buried specialty at the lowest possible cost.
What pigs, canines and squirrels have in common is, of course, a highly accurate sense of smell. Hogs have been used to find truffles since Roman times. Dogs can be successfully trained to do the hunt.
But squirrels, and of the flying kind, no less, being good at it is surprising, since truffles can be buried up to three feet deep.

They not just sniff them from above but also remember where they previously found them. Which is handy, since the much-sough after fungus tends to grow in the same spots over and over.
The findings about the squirrels’ ability, by University of Alaska Sanjay Pyare and Reno’s Agricultural Research Service William Longland, was first published in 2001.
But it’s unlikely that their study will make a dent on the price of truffles. After all, hogs and dogs can be demanding to raise but at least they can easily become household pets.
Squirrels, on the other hand, are wild and virtually untrainable for such a complex task. They may know where the truffles are, but getting them to tell you where may as well be a fool’s errand.
When an EU council directive mandated “that cattle housed in groups should be given sufficient space so that they can all lie down simultaneously,” the measure won praise by animal rights activists.
It finally addressed reports of abuse of farm animals that threatened to compromise the union’s strict standards for meat production by its country members.
The directive had also an unintended consequence: it prompted a British-American team of scientists to produce a study called A Mathematical Model for the Dynamics and Synchronization of Cows.
Come again? It’s quite simple, really. The team viewed the cattle as a working model for an oscillator: going from standing/feeding, which they called the first stage, to lying/ruminating, the second stage.

They noticed that cows have an increased desire to eat, if another cow is eating, and to lie down, if another is also lying down. And you thought that only old folk enjoy following whatever their spouses are doing.
The research, by Oxford University Mason Porter and Marian Dawkins, and Clarkson University Jie Sun and Erik Bollt, follows a rich tradition of scientific studies about animal behavior.
For at least 30 years, cattle idling and grazing has been the focus of applied science studies, and several papers have been published on the subject.
Sometimes, though, it’s the behavior of farmers that should be under scrutiny, not of the animals on their charge.
And what may pass as a curiosity, can easily be characterized as pathological abuse, regardless the folkloric excuses that may be used to justify it.
Let’s say that you and 12 of your neighbors have some 1,600 lambs to castrate and dock tail in a couple of days. The activity, of course, is a necessity and an integral part of being a farmer.
Now, how many people can you think off the top of your head who, pressured by time or who knows what, would decide to do the castration with their own teeth?
That’s exactly what happened to two local hands at a Wyoming sheep ranch in June. And no one would have said anything if they hadn’t fell sick with diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, nausea and vomiting.

It didn’t take long for doctors to put two and two together, since a few lambs reportedly had a mild diarrheal illness. When asked, the farmers told them, which prompted the Center for Disease Control to issued an alert about it.
Now, as we knew very little of common, accepted practices of castration of farm animals, we were about to scream, as any sensible lamb would. But alas, we’re not, so we didn’t. As it turns out, this is no stray habit and it’s been around way before your mother was born; our own research failed us once again.
In fact, one of Hollywood’s greatest, Errol Flynn, describes in graphic detail in his autobiography how he too was a sheep castrator as a young man. (Thanks Marc Abrahams).
But we’ve got to say it, we hardly needed Flynn’s description to picture these two jerks biting the balls off some tender lambs. And it is, indeed, the kind of gory scene that belongs to the Saw movie series.
In fact, we do feel a bit sick in our stomach at the prospect of such practice to be more common than admitted. But it is, ladies and gents, and with that, we rest our case.
Not wanting to end this post in a joking, upbeat note, it’s just fair to say that, when it comes to our dual relationship with farm animals, as pets and as food, we’re deeply screwed up, indeed.

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