On the road with Hess: Large-animal veterinarian

  • Large animal veterinarian Frederick Hess checks on a weak cow at Mapleline Farm in Hadley with herdsman Rich West, left. Hess determined that she did not have pneumonia and took a blood sample to analyze.

  • Hess carries obstetrical lubricants and dairy detergent with him on a regular dairy herd health call.

  • A sample of what Hess sees in the goggles of his ultrasound scanner when checking a heifer for pregnancy. A calf (white oval), about 50 days old, is seen in the uterus (dark circle) of a cow during a reproductive exam at Boyden Brothers farm in Conway.

  • Hess dons an obstetrical sleeve and ultrasound scanner for a bi-weekly visit to check the dairy herd at Boyden Brothers farm in Conway.

  • Frederick Hess of Amherst tends his five cows first thing in the morning before heading out on his calls as a large animal veterinarian.

  • Hess and assistant Kristi Esposito prepare to lift an injured cow during a visit to Allard Farm in Hadley.

  • Hess is greeted by a herd of brown Swiss on a visit to Allard Farm in Hadley to check on an injured cow.

  • Large animal veterinarians Rose McWilliams, foreground, and Caroline Barstow, check stock in their trucks before heading out from Hess McWilliams Veterinary Services in Amherst.

  • Large animal veterinarian Frederick Hess of Amherst arrives at his practice after a morning commute of about 100 feet — from the garage of his home to his office on North East Street.

  • Hess uses a portable ultrasound scanner to check the pregnancy of a heifer during a reproductive exam visit to the Boyden Brothers dairy farm in Conway.

  • Hess checks the dairy herd for pregnancies at the Boyden Brothers farm in Conway with Will Boyden, right.

  • Roy Nilson, left, of Ashfield steadies his 12-year-old American Cream Draft mare, Molly, as Hess checks if she is pregnant, and estimates when she might foal.

  • Hess labels a blood sample to analyze.

  • Hess makes a few notes, including what he's dispensed, after a bi-weekly reproductive exam visit to the Boyden Brothers dairy herd in Conway.

  • Hess walks through a free stall barn while responding to a call at Mapleline Farm in Hadley.

  • Back at the office at midday, Hess takes a call about a weak cow. Assistants Sabryna Whitman, left, and Kristi Esposito help out in the busy practice.

  • Hess checks the teeth of a pregnant American Cream Draft belonging to Roy Nilson, left, of Ashfield before offering some dietary guidelines for the 12-year-old mare.

  • Hess prepares to give a vaccination to a pregnant mare in Ashfield.

  • Hess rinses off his boots after his last call of the day at Mapleline Farm in Hadley.

For The Recorder
Friday, December 01, 2017

Frederick Hess has liked cows ever since he was a kid growing up in rural New York. He remembers riding his bike up to his neighbor’s dairy farm once. “I hooked up with him, and after that I was probably home 30 percent of the time.”

After graduating from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1966, he turned that love into a career as a large-animal veterinarian, working eight years in Batavia, N.Y., before establishing his own practice in Amherst in 1974.

Hess agreed to let me ride along for a day of calls to witness a small slice of what he does at Hess McWilliams Veterinary Services. Though spring is his busiest time — when beef cattle, horses, goats and sheep give birth — dairy cattle calve year-round, and they accounted for three of his four calls the day I rode with him.

We started off at his farm and office at about 6:30 a.m. on a frigid Monday, tending to his own mini-herd of five heifers. Hess, now a man of 75 years with an appreciative wit and easy smile, says he has kept as many as 40 cows, but scaled back to concentrate on his practice. After dividing up the day’s appointments and known emergency calls with his veterinarian team of Rose McWilliams and Caroline Barstow, he headed to Allard Farm in Hadley to see an injured Brown Swiss.

Having to check on individual cows is not as common as it used to be. When he started out, much of his practice would involve going to one farm to look in on a sick calf, then going to another to help a young cow have a calf. He still gets calving calls, but better farm management and proper nutrition, care and housing keep the emergencies to a minimum.

Instead, the bread and butter of the bovine part of his practice is scheduled reproductive work. The economy of the dairy hinges on cows having a calf about once a year, and Hess visits with farmers every two weeks to do pregnancy/unpregnancy checks.

As we stopped next at the Boyden Brothers farm in Conway on such a visit, Hess said that what he was looking for was the “open” cow — a cow that isn’t carrying a calf — so that she can be put on a reproduction program. He drew his finger through the condensation on the truck window to illustrate the curve of a timeline.

“When the cow calves, if this is milk production (y axis) and this axis (x) is days from calving, the day she calves is here, and two months later she peaks in her milk production and from then on production goes downhill.”

It’s not unusual for a cow to give 125 to 150 pounds (15 to 18 gallons) of milk in a day.

To determine which cows are open, or to check on the health of a heifer that has recently calved, Hess uses a portable ultrasound scanner and probe to perform a rectal palpation — a convenient way to “see” the health of the uterus and any fetus within.

Needless to say, it can be a messy process. Perhaps in testament to Hess’ experience — and bedside manner — most of the 20 or so Holsteins he examined that day barely registered a reaction. But it’s not always this easy. Last year in his practice, Hess was kicked by a cow and broke his femur.

As he evaluated the image projected inside his goggles and confirmed a pregnancy, he called out, “Good to go,” to owner Will Boyden, who was keeping notes on each cow. Then, he stopped, and before releasing from the cow, he asked Boyden to push the “freeze” button on the scanner. He beckoned me over to don the goggles. “See the uterus with the fluid in it? And that little item to the left?” I saw a dark oval with a white circle nestling in it. “About 60 days (old), that baby,” he said. It’s quite a wonder.

Back in his traveling office, a 2000 Dodge truck with a manual transmission and 440,000 hard miles, Hess logged a quick note on the visit and tracked what he had dispensed.

En route to the next call, he told me that the real driver of the profit in dairy is a simple concept — cow comfort. That means plenty of room at the feed bunk, plenty of fresh water and dry comfortable places to lie down. The trend today is away from “stanchion” barns, where the cows are tied up when not pastured, and toward “free stalls,” where the cows can come and go as they please. A comfortable cow produces more, he said.

We soon arrived in Ashfield, where Roy Nilson, owner of an American Cream Draft horse, wanted to know if his 12-year-old mare was pregnant. This also required a palpitation with ultrasound. But as horses are larger, more skittish and less forgiving, Hess lined her up at the edge of a barn, keeping the wall and a sturdy post between them, and bid, “Hey filly, keep your ears up!”

Fifty years of caring for large animals has taken its toll on Hess in the form of two knee replacements and a shoulder surgery, but he said the key is to just keep moving, like the laps he swims when he can find time.

The exam confirmed that the mare will foal within a couple of months, so Hess gave her a vaccination, set up some prenatal care and urged Nilson to give her only first-cut hay.

As we headed back to Amherst, Hess recalled the scholarship he won to an agricultural college in Sweden between his undergrad and graduate years at Cornell. He got into a friendly argument with a farmer about how great the United States wheat yields were compared to Sweden’s.

The farmer said, “No way.” Hess consulted his USDA yearbook and was surprised to find that the U.S., though tops in volume of production, was only 10th in yield per hectare.

“That was the biggest revelation of my life — that you better listen to the other guy,” Hess said.

We were only back in the office for a few minutes when Hess took a call from Rich West, the herdsman at Mapleline Farm in Hadley, concerned about one of his Jersey cows. West suspected pneumonia but, after we got there, Hess ruled that out and drew a blood sample.

For some reason, perhaps the cold, his portable analyzer wouldn’t boot up. He saved the blood sample for the office, but in the meantime, he continued to diagnose using old-school analytics, turning over the cow droppings in his fingers.

“My favorite old professor used to say, ‘Smell the doodoo.’”

At the truck, Hess rinsed and disinfected his boots with an onboard hose while he did some catching up with West.

For 40 years, Hess was the only doctor in the practice, never taking days off, except to go away. But in 2014, he was joined by McWilliams, a Cornell undergrad who graduated top of her class at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, and, in 2016, Cornell grad Barstow joined as an associate.

Hess is clearly relieved to share the workload with this team.

“I can’t believe I take a day off every week now,” Hess said. “How about that?”