Public gets insight on touchy feely bovine research

Opening in stomach allows study of bacteria growth in cow’s digestive system

“It feels quite nice,” Nathan Grayston of Saskatoon said as he felt around inside Cinnamon’s rumen through a hole in the cow’s side.

Standing on a foot stool, the nine-year-old held a warm and soggy clump of freshly chewed forage inside the second compartment of Cinnamon’s four-chambered stomach.

Grayston was one of about 75 people who stood in line for the opportunity to reach inside a fistulated cow at Vetavision 2017 on the University of Saskatchewan campus Sept. 29. A fistula is an opening in the animal’s digestive tract that allows researchers to study bovine digestion.

“There was quite an array of emotions that you could see,” said Grayson Ross, 22, a second year student in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, who was on hand to educate participants on how to palpate the cow’s rumen.

“Some people were really gung-ho and excited to get their hand (and arm) in it,” Ross said.

Nathan Grayston of Saskatoon feels inside Cinnamon’s rumen during a fistulated cow demonstration at Vetavision 2017 at the University of Saskatchewan Sept. 29. Third year vet student Storm Bartsoff assists and teaches the public during the event. | William DeKay photo

“There were some people who were quite nervous about it and grossed out about it.”

The children’s enthusiasm for the event was a highlight for him.

“You can hear kids talking in the background, ‘this is kind of cool. I think I want to be a vet when I’m older.’ That’s kind of neat to hear,” he said.

Concerns about potential cow discomfort were common as people stepped up to take their turn.

“It’s definitely not a painful experience for the cow by any means,” Ross said.

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“I’d probably liken it to sticking your tongue into the side of your cheek. It’s sort of a little bit of a pressure sensation.”

Cinnamon and Spice are two “retired, 15-year-old pampered and spoiled” Red Angus and Simmental cows that have been outfitted with rubber fistulas for educational and research purposes at the college.

Ross said a fistula allows students to test how different feeds influence the pH and bacterial growth inside the cow’s rumen.

It’s also a handy tool during transfaunation, a process in which researchers transplant bacteria and other microbes from a healthy cow’s rumen into another animal’s rumen to reboot its normal bacterial range.

As the largest of the four stomach compartments, the rumen holds the bulk of what the cow eats. During Vetavision, that was a moist pile of masticated hay.

“It’s a big fermentation vat where there’s a bunch of bacteria, protozoa and what-not that break down the plant material that she takes in,” said Ross.

“You’re seeing a big mixture of stuff that she’s eaten there that’s gradually getting churned up. The rumen contracts and cycles, so it’s getting churned up and mixed constantly.”

Participants could feel the digestive process in action, though each wore a protective sleeve on their arm while doing so.

“You could feel the hay that she ate getting broken down in there,” Ross said.

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“As you move your hand along the lining of the rumen, you can feel how these little papilla in there help with the digestion process.

“The rumen contracts about every minute to two minutes. If you kept your arm in there that long you could actually feel it contracting and mixing the food around.… I remember one little guy who felt that movement and his reaction was, ‘whoa.’ ”

Ross said he urged participants to notice the cow’s natural body language.

“Sometimes the cow may cough, and that movement of her chest and abdomen can cause some stuff to spray out of there (the fistula). So keep your mouth closed,” he said.

“She got me when I was cleaning out some feed that she had taken in. I got a bit of splatter on the side of my face. All in a day’s work.”

Vetavision is organized by veterinary students every second year. It is an opportunity to showcase the diversity of veterinary science, which this year attracted 2,500 people over two days.

Other booths included poultry, hogs, sheep, goats, horses, dairy, dogs, llamas and falcons.

However, the fistulated demo at the beef booth proved one of the most popular.

“Vetavision is something I think a lot of schools look forward to, particularly the fistulated cow, be-cause that’s probably the most hands-on kind of demo at Vetavision that they can get to do,” said Ross.

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