Ballottement: a physical diagnostic technique used to detect solid objects surrounded by fluid, as abdominal organs or tumors. . .

These ladies were a bunch of tough old broads and not terribly cooperative

These ladies were a bunch of tough old broads and not terribly cooperative


A few weeks ago, the cows came home for pregnancy checks and vaccines. I was infinitely curious about how all of this was going to take place and The New Boyfriend graciously invited me out to lurk (Probably so I would stop asking questions). I did want to watch but the last thing I wanted to be was in the way. I may be completely inexperienced with animals and livestock but I do know one thing: cows are big and have tiny brains. The last thing he needed was some stupid woman in the way. I would not be that woman, either.


When I got to the ranch mid-morning I had already decided I wasn’t going to the corral and watch the process. He was short a couple of hands and the last thing he needed was a “tourist”. I would stay in the house, do some reading and research. It was the safest place for me to be and I wouldn’t be in the way. He text messaged me a couple of times asking if I was coming out and my replies were insisting I was fine in the house where I wasn’t underfoot. After the third message he convinced me to come outside and watch the proceedings.


“Ballottement” is the fancy word I learned in nursing school that describes the process of checking a human abdomen for fluid outside of the stomach and organs (ascites) It’s also the picturesque word vets use to describe checking a cow for a fetal calf. A process involving sticking one’s arm fully up the ass of a cow that is restrained and captured in “the chute”. I think Dr. Doctor expected me to be shuttering and gagging around the flying cow poop. It didn’t really bother me or surprise me. It didn’t bother or surprise me when he greeted me and he had specks of green on his face and all over his shirt. I was more worried about the shit on his lovely new hat. Of course I wasn’t in old clothing so I wrapped his weathered barn jacket around my clean clothes and stood next to the vet’s wife to watch the cows coaxed with a holler and a swat into the chute to bear up under the doctor’s arm in the ass on one end while the cattle buyer pulling back lips to check teeth. Before releasing them from the chute, the vet would vaccinate. I’m sure the cows didn’t notice the needle in their flanks after having an arm up their bums.


I bantered with the cow buyer. He had a notebook on the table with pithy comments about each cow he was trying to sell. One described me: “Old but a good cow.” He hooted when I pointed it out in mock offense that he hadn’t known me long enough to make such judgments about me even if they were accurate. The vet’s wife had the most remarkable eyes I’ve ever seen; a beautiful shade of green. The only way I can describe them is completely cliché: when she smiled they lit up her face. She was so completely capable and comfortable in the corral. Not hanging back by the fence. But then she has been assisting her husband for almost 50 years.


The shit really does fly from the chute when they do pregnancy checking. But goodness, I would defecate too if someone had my head in a metal box while an arm was up my ass and a needle pierced my flank.


I loathed just standing there. Everyone had a job but me. My job was to stay the hell out of the way.   I watched the vet’s wife efficiently change out the needles, reload the power pump syringes. By rote she measured out the appropriate dosages. Handing a loaded syringe to her husband with her right hand and taking the just spent syringe from him in her left hand. It was exquisite to watch. I remembered what it felt like to be so capable with a physical task. There is a Zen feeling to it: turning the mind off and just letting kinesthetic memory take hold of my hands. Dr. Doctor’s partner in cows was working the chute. Repetitive work and over his head. One lever this way…another the other. Again and again with each cow. The hired man would make sure the cows wouldn’t get distracted and turn hard left and running us over after leaving the chute. Dr. Doctor moved the cattle from holding corral to chute. It was daunting to watch him stand behind those beasts and wave the green flag, holler, and give them a little smack to move them towards the chute.


I’ve never felt so useless in my life. I’m not accustomed to feeling incapable of helping. It reminded me of being a child when I was told to stay out of the way. I was always told to stay out of the way when Mother was doing things. She didn’t have the patience to teach so I grew up feeling useless and incapable.  Those are two things I absolutely loathe feeling too. But the old childhood tape in my head made me too careful so I was mostly quiet and intensely watching the work.  If I made too much noise I would certainly be banished from the corral. I was so quiet and pensive at one point The New Boyfriend asked me if anything was wrong. Poor man has been more exposed to my nattering chatter rather than my watchful silence. But the corral wasn’t the place to explain how I hate feeling useless and can’t stand being an accessory to an event. Give me a job; keep my hands and my mind busy even if it does mean I get cow dung on them.  I would rather have that on my hands than the snotty spit from the other end, that stuff was nasty.



About Laura

When my nest emptied I moved from the big city to a little big town to tend to a ramshackle yellow house on the edge of town. These are my Yellow House Days.
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8 Responses to Ballottement

  1. A lovely word for a dirty job, no? Well, my (cowgirl) hat is off to you for going. Not sure I could do it. But I wouldn’t feel useless and incapable. I’d feel glad it wasn’t in my job description!


  2. I agree with Carol! Sometimes not being able to do something is blissful! I’ve seen this done before and not a pretty sight for sure!


    • Laura says:

      Wow, you’ve seen this? I had never heard of it. I was taught how to perform external ballottement on human adults as a way to check for fluid but I had no idea you had to such acts to figure out if a cow was expecting.


  3. Suzanne Fluhr says:

    What a coincidence. Just the other night I was watching vet shows on NatGeo and performing pregnancy tests on cows was one of the featured activities. The sh*t really does fly. I think this might be one of those few times I’d be content to bat my eyelashes and look helpless.


  4. Michelle says:

    I would never survive on a ranch. I mean, I could survive on ranch dressing, I guess


    • Laura says:

      I can’t imagine working on the ranch. I’m observing on the ranch. Over the weekends. And eating ranch dressing at the “country club” when we go out to dinner.


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