He had just lowered the tailgate and waved his arms to encourage the youngsters out and away onto the lush grass.
He needn’t have bothered with the arm waving, because the black and white bullocks already had a plan.
Initially cautious, they quickly developed a taste for adventure with the smell of spring in the air and trotted away in search of their herd mates. There were just four in this load, so I guessed the happy farmer had made many journeys today!
Turnout is one of the best times of the year for farm animals. The long, dark days of winter have finally passed and cattle can wander freely outside as they are meant to. With less feeding and no bedding to do, the life of the farmer is approaching its best time too.
But it is not always without problems. When I worked in Thurso, in the very north of Scotland, turnout frequently brought its own dangers. After a winter diet which was relatively depleted in vitamin E and selenium – two essential factors in the development of healthy muscles – the sudden burst in activity could lead to a dangerous condition called white muscle disease.
At its simplest, the effects can be like running a marathon without any training. At its worst, it is a life-threatening problem which can affect the muscles essential for breathing and, worse, the muscle of the heart.
But the turnout cattle today showed no sign of this as they trotted off with cautious excitement. It reminded me of an occasion, many years ago, when a similar Friesian cross came a cropper in the very same fields. It had nothing to do with vitamin deficiencies
The ungainly ungulate had tried to negotiate a narrow footbridge. The bridge was designed for people and not cattle, and the animal had slipped, leaving its bulky body on the walkway and its legs dangling down on either side into the ditch below. It couldn’t work out how to extricate itself. The vet was called.
That evening the vet on call was recently qualified. This wasn’t an eventuality they had covered at vet school and she called for advice. “There’s a heifer stuck on a bridge. What can I do?”
As I talked her through the predicament, which had never been described in any veterinary textbook, her beeper went off again – this time a poorly cat.
“Why don’t I go and see the heifer on the bridge,” I offered, “and you can sort out the cat.”
When I arrived, a crowd had gathered. There was a small gang of youths, various dog walkers and two policemen, who had helpfully cordoned off the area with plastic tape, like a crime scene? If I couldn’t come up with a plan fairly promptly, it wouldn’t be long before there was the white outline of a recently deceased bovine etched on the ground.
Luckily, from the far corner of the pasture, a low humming noise could be heard. It was a powerful lifting machine with a big thing on the front, perfect for hoisting cattle. Once it was in place, I organised the crowd to position ropes and straps in such a way as to allow lift off.
Slowly but surely the heifer rose like a phoenix, hovering for several minutes above the river bank and the rest of the cattle. Once back on the ground, the heifer nonchalantly wandered back to her mates as if nothing had happened. I hoped today’s cattle would take care…
The Yorkshire Vet is back on Channel 5 at 8pm on Tuesday.