Thanks to the very kind folks at the New Jersey Agricultural Experimental Station at Rutgers, I was able to visit their fistulated cow, Lily. I met up with Clint Burgher, the Director of the farm, and he introduced me to professors Carol Bagnell and Barry Jesse, and Preshita, a student who studies the microbial populations of the rumen. The fistula allows them to witness a wildly complicated ecosystem – it’s basically a tangle of alliances and hostilities between bacteria, viruses, fungi, and bacteriophages.
Barry showing how it’s done.
I would’ve guessed that for a cow, having a rubber tunnel implanted in your side would be like drawing the short straw in life…but Clint said it’s the exact opposite. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for cows that no longer produce milk, and they’re usually shipped off to the slaughter. By winning the fistula lottery, Lily has effectively lucked into that rare thing, the bovine golden years. She is now in her eighth year of retirement. But does she know that? Is she happy to have a fistula? Hard to say. I have no idea if the word “happy” applies to a cow, but through the whole visit she seemed totally placid and content, even when I was rummaging around in her lunch.
One thing that doesn’t really carry over the radio waves is the smell of a cow’s rumen. Every few seconds the rumen contracts on your arm, a strong but kind squeeze, and gas from deep inside shoots past your arm and into your face. It’s a noxious, poisonous smell (“primarily butyrate, and the C5 and C6 gasses are pungent as well,” explained Barry), but since your arm is being held hostage by a cow’s stomach, you just have to take it. The look of horror in these photos is me realizing why Mary Roach told me to bring nose clips.
As luck would have it, a Future Farmers of America class from Woodbridge High School in Bridgeville, Delaware, was taking a tour of the farm the day I visited. A few of them were brave enough to take a tour of the fistula.
Closing the cow.
Many thanks to the folks at Rutgers, and to Lily.