Question: How does one perform a pregnancy check on a water buffalo?
Answer: Verrrrry carefully. And quickly.
I had given two requests to the water buffalo breeders who sold us Lil’ Bit and her year-old calf, formerly #38, who we named Betty:
1) Even though she’ll be overdue for it, please don’t wean the calf before they ship, so Lil’ Bit will still have milk and we can start figuring out this milking-the-water-buffalo thing, and
2) Please include Little Bit in your breeding program so she can arrive also pregnant.
This was because as far as I know, there are no boy water buffalo on San Juan Island, and since birthing is an important step in lactating, somebody had to step up.
The first request was easy. Lil’ Bit was extremely maternal, the water buffalo ranchers told me, so much so that she would nurse other calves who weren’t her own, an unusal thing in the water buffalo world.
The second one was not so easy. Apparently water buffalo are not as easy to breed as cows or horses–they are known for only producing a calf every second or third year. But the breeders obligingly included Lil’ Bit in their scheduled rounds of artificial insemination for their herd, so I crossed my fingers.
“Sorry, she’s open,” Thomas, the co-owner of the ranch, called to tell me in early June after the vet checked Lil’ Bit at their ranch as part of the travel health check (to say a livestock animal is “open” means they are not pregnant, or are open for breeding).
And it was too late to try another round of AI, as Thomas and his wife were heading to Italy for some big water-buffalo conference. So I made one final request.
“Can you put her in with one of your bulls before you go?” I asked. “Let’s try it the old-fashioned way.”
Sure, he said, although it may not do any good.
“We’ll put her in with Dino,” he said. “She won’t have much time with him before she’s scheduled to ship, though.” I began Googling water-buffalo fertility cycles.
Fast forward a few days later in early June, when the shipper called to tell me they were having an unfortunate delay, and wouldn’t be able to deliver our water buffalo until after the fourth of July.
I checked the calendar, did some quick math and happily told her hey, no problem.
“Take your time!” I told the shipper. “We are in no hurry!”
And then I promptly called the water buffalo ranch and talked to the foreman, since the owners were still in Italy.
“Please, please make sure that Lil’ Bit is in with Dino,” I begged him, and, sounding surprised, he said he would.
“So, will you be able to tell if Dino is, um, taking care of business?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. “Water buffalo are pretty sneaky with that kind of stuff. They do it at night.”
When “the girls” as I call them finally did arrive, I took one look at Lil’ Bit’s bony hips and huge girth and had no clue if she had arrived with a little something extra.
Then the race was on: We needed to build a milking stanchion to make good use of Lil’ Bit still having milk, evidenced by the fact Betty would walk up to her, butt her udder a few times with her head and then nurse. True to her reputation, Lil’ Bit was very good-natured about it, even though Betty was a pretty big year-old calf and it was clear Lil’ Bit’s milk was starting to dry up.
Since Matt was busy with fencing and I was worried we were running out of time, I asked contractor David Meiland to help. A talented carpenter, David is also an easygoing, pleasant person, traits that are handy when trying to measure a newly arrived and rather suspicious water buffalo to determine how wide you need to build her milking stanchion.
I can sum up our first attemps at trying out Lil’ Bit’s stanchion in four words:
Nope. Try again.
We learned a lot. We learned that the neck of a water buffalo is much thicker than that of a cow, and that they do not enjoy putting their heads inside anything, that they are incredibly powerful creatures who can move with lightning speed when they choose, and that nothing short of a steel gate will contain them once they decide to leave. But finally, we had success, and even managed to hook up the brand-new milking machine and squeeze some milk out of Lil’ Bit before she dried up.
A month after the water buffalo arrived, some other horse owners on San Juan Island were planning to share an “island call” from an off-island vet, and we hopped in the queue to have the vet file down some teeth on a gelding we were boarding. I also wanted to have a pregnancy check done on my mare, Neela.
I had tried to have Neela bred two months before we moved, but she didn’t take on the first two AI attemps. The third time was charm, but right up to the wire: Although vets like broodmares to be at least 28 days along in pregnancy before they travel, we found out Neela was two week’s pregnant on a Monday and loaded her into the horse trailer on Tuesday. So I wanted to make sure that she didn’t reabsorb the pregnancy due to the stress of the move, which can happen.
So once the gelding’s teeth were done, I crossed my fingers while Neela was subjected to an ultrasound wand being inserted in her rectum in order to see what was going on in her uterus. Neela took it in stride. Brood mares are amazing that way.
“She’s still pregnant!” announced veterinarian Laura Waitt of Mount Vernon Veterinary Hospital, pointing out the image on the portable ultrasound screen. “Her uterus is the size of a big basketball, and the baby is the size of a large rat.”
“Thank you so much!” I said happily to Laura. “Now, are you game for doing a pregnancy check on a water buffalo?”
I wasn’t hitting her up blind–I had queried on the phone to see if checking Lil’ Bit was possible, and I was told yes, it was, as long as we were able to safely contain her.
Sure, Laura said, so we lured Lil’ Bit into the milking stanchion stall with some grain, swiftly fastened the gate behind her and Laura immediately leaned against the stanchion and “threw an arm in there” as it’s called (and yes, it’s an arm covered by a long latex glove).
Lil’ Bit turned her head to the side and glared (we had learned the hard way to not give her enough room to turn her head very much as one of the things we had discovered is she can cantort herself like a gumby doll to escape). She snorted, but stayed calm and went right back to hoovering up her grain.
Laura leaned, and leaned, and felt around, and then shook her head.
“Sorry, she’s open,” she said, and I felt a sharp pang of disappointment. Dang it! There went our water buffalo milking plans!
“Paulene, can you please go grab the ultrasound machine so I can make sure?” Laura asked her assistant, who ran to their truck and returned with the machine moments later.
Then I watched in shock as Laura, ultrasound wand in hand, matter-of-factly opened the gate behind Lil’ Bit, stepped up and inserted the ultrasound wand inside of the increasingly-annoyed water buffalo. With the gate open.
Oh. My. God.
I hurriedly threw more feed to Lil’ Bit, wondering how much grain a water buffalo can eat at one sitting before they get sick, and Matt, who she adores, stayed at her front end, talking to her in a reassuring manner.
A few seconds later, Laura spoke again.
“Whoops, there it is! I was wrong. She IS pregnant!”
I whooped with joy. We then released a very, very grumpy Lil’ Bit, who backed out of the barn like a locomotive on full steam, whirled and ran away, snorting angrily through her nose and shadowed by Betty.
So if my math is correct, Lil’ Bit’s new calf will arrive in April, to be followed by Neela’s foal in May.
Double babies on the farm. Yay!