Studying Cattle From Inside And Out

Life back in college is a bit different from waking on the ranch every morning. I’ve made a change from being on the go every day when I climb out of bed, to sitting in an office reading, writing, and waiting to bang my head on the wall when I am utterly confused by class material. But there is hope. I do get the opportunity to do things other than keep my nose in a book.

The past few weeks have been an awesome learning experience that not many get the opportunity to have. When conducting research (asking questions about how things work and trying our best to figure things out) we use the real stuff. This means an occasional trip to a cow harvest facility to collect female reproductive tracts, ovaries, and sometimes even male reproductive tracts. We use these materials to give students a hands-on experience in the classroom or laboratory. We can talk about it and post photos on a powerpoint, but there’s no better learning tool than holding the actual organs in your hand. (And good thing too, because I am a very visual and applied learner).

A few weeks ago I made a trip to a cow harvest facility to collect female reproductive tracts for a class. Now we weren’t harvesting cows just for this cause. Rather taking advantage of those cows already being harvested. I’ve handled cattle all of my life, pulled several calves, palpated a few, and studied the diagrams, but there’s nothing in comparison to holding a uterus in your hand to fully grasp (pun intended) the concept. Most of the uteri I’ve handled were large and expanded during or post-calving. But the actual tract outside of mid- to late-gestation is very small. Some even fit in my hand. Being able to palpate the tract in my hand, and actually visualize what I was doing was pretty darn cool for this AgNerd. I could see the ovaries, the follicles, and the Corpus Luteum that I’m supposed to be feeling during palpation for pregnancy palpation. A definite learning experience. Here’s what I was looking at:

In a class earlier during the semester, we actually had reproductive tracts for students to handle and dissect. We went through every structure and tissue and helped students to visualize what they were learning in class. This truly helps students gain a hands-on experience that leads to better understanding how animals function after learning about these things in the classroom. Here’s what the tract looks like opened:

This week in that class we’re dissecting cow and sow ovaries. This is a very important structure when it comes to understanding the estrous cycle of livestock. Students will be able to visualize follicles and Corpus structures on the ovaries at different stages in the cycle. These skills come in very handy when understanding the breeding patterns of livestock. Here’s a cow ovary and surrounding structures:

And here is a sow tract:

This week I also had the opportunity to put my knowledge into practice. My advisor brought me along to check a group of heifers for pregnancy status. We use an ultrasound, much like a human Dr would, only this is done via rectal palpation in cattle. There’s a lot of practice that goes into placing the probe in just the right spot and being able to translate what you’re seeing on the screen, especially when you can’t actually see where your hand or probe is inside the cow. The cattle we were checking were only 30 days pregnant (to put this into perspective – cows have a 9 month pregnancy) and the fetus shows up as no more than a few fluid pockets and a blob on the ultrasound screen. So ya have to know where to look (or feel). Here’s an example of how a 30-day fetus shows up on the screen – except this is magnified big time:

If ya can’t tell, I get kind of excited when it comes to the hands-on portion of my learning experience. Don’t get me wrong, the stuff in the classroom is pretty interesting (once I’m able to figure out what we’re talking about), but applying these concepts is where I really get excited.

Sorry if this was a little more graphic than you were expecting, but how can you really get worse than my holding a prize placenta? These photos are courtesy of Missouri Animal Science. They have a really great site detailing reproductive anatomy and physiology.

So what was difficult to understand here? Let me know so I can explain things a little better. Really, it’s what gets me excited, and I want to explain it better if you are interested in learning.


  1. Coming to expect your pics of fresh cow parts with my morning caffeine Ryan. Also know now your in field tweets is a signal that a nice “what I learned today post” will be right around the corner which I love. Thanks for taking us with you and sharing the info.

    The red arrows and labels of any alien like photos of ultrasound are always appreciated and help TONS. It blows my mind how far they have come with technology in what now is being used more often to make every aspect more productive and cost effective for the farmer/rancher.

    QUES: How accessible or common place is ultrasounding used today with breeding programs (only AI users, only during Vet Preg checks, or everyday farmers) on the ranch/farm? Wasn’t sure if used more with dairy or beef cattle (cost increase with days open).

    PS Nothing says Ag Nerd more than your big grin while holding up afterbirth in a field from some of your other posts. LOL Thanks for letting us Ag Nerd along with you!

  2. Great post Ryan. People just don’t realize how much we need to know or know how to do. Compared to other professions, we have to know way more than the average professional. As a side note to talk over with your professors… A couple of years ago I was involved in a minor wreck with a bunch of older smooth mouthed cows having their last calf. We’d find a prolapse that had been out for several days and inflamed beyond the point to being able to put it back in (especially working in the pasture with no facilities) I came up with the idea of placing a castration band just in back of the uterus, then cutting the uterus off. Sort of an out of body hysterectomy. A higher percentage survived than if we would have managed to get it put back in. As I don’t know of anyone else doing this, you might bring it up with your professor and see what he has to say.

  3. This is exactly what I was talking about! Now I can go about my day, and anytime I get frustrated with the suburbs I can stop and think about my friend who blogs about palpating bovid uteri…and suddenly all seems right in the world.

  4. As a freshman college student fresh off the farm, I am also sometimes frustrated by the amount of time that is required to read and complete my assignments. Hands-on learning is definitely more my style, and being able to apply my skills in a real world situation is greatly satisfying. Great post!

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