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Cattle Calls

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This is how you get a cow to stand still: round up the herd, then urge them into a chute. Some chutes begin as wood, but all end as metal, with what is called a headgate. Today’s chute, in north-central Iowa, is inside a large barn, which protects against the November chill. In single file, the cattle pass through the chute, whose far end faces open doors. As each cow nears daylight and seeming freedom, the farmer pulls a lever to close the headgate, leaving the cow’s head poking out the end of the chute and her body immobilized inside. A veterinarian named Renee Bertram administers injections in the muscle around the left shoulder. Her boss, Zach Vosburg, meanwhile steps into the chute behind the cow, his right arm encased up to the shoulder in a latex glove. He has just applied lube, and as a farmhand lifts the cow’s tail, the thirty-four-year-old vet slides his fingers into the animal’s rectum.

“Come on, darlin’, let me in.

The cow hardly flinches. Vosburg gazes into space as he feels around inside: he’s hoping to discern the shape of a calf’s head through the walls of the intestine and the uterus. All human eyes are on him, awaiting the verdict.

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’s most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Way of All Flesh,” appeared in the May 2013 issue. He is the author of many books and teaches at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

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