Country World Archives 2001-2008

Medicating cattle made easy
Northeast Texan perfects innovative method

By KARI KRAMER | East Texas Edition

Long-time cowman Bud Swayne has found utilizing a dart gun to inject medication into a sick cow or calf is a time- and labor-saving method.
-- Staff photo by Kramer

July 14, 2005 - C.H. "Bud" Swayne has mastered an innovative way to medicate his cattle. He shoots them.

Bud and his wife, Phyllis, have been raising cattle since 1969. After selling off the registered Red Brahman herd they raised near Denison, the couple relocated to Cooper in 1999.

Once settled on their new property they began raising two herds of cattle, a Beefmaster cross herd and a Red Simmental Angus cross herd. While the two were plenty experienced to run a cattle operation, they still needed help in critical situations from time to time. Swayne said he did not know of any good helpers when he first moved to the area. Most of the help, available to him at the time, was at least 80 miles away, which was unhelpful in emergency situations. The problem escalated.

Bud Swayne loads a medicated dart into his gun. The process of preparing and filling the dart takes between three and four minutes.
-- Staff photo by Kramer

One of his cows was a having a difficult birth. He called on a veterinarian and a cowboy for help.

"By the time I got help, it was actually the next day," said Swayne. By then, the cow and calf were both dead. "That's what you're up against if you have to find help," he added.

It was after that situation that Swayne noticed the success a friend, who raised elk, was having with tranquilizers shot from a gun. Swayne began searching for a gun he could use to shoot darts of medication into his cattle. After several dead-end searches, he again confided in his friend, who directed him to Wylie and Sons in Wills Point (903-848-7912).

At Wylie and Sons, Swayne found what he was looking for. He purchased a pump-style gun that could shoot darts filled with medication. The system is relatively simple.

Swayne described three different gun options, ranging in price from $225 to $700. First, there is the style of gun he prefers. It is a cheaper, pump-action gun that allows a person to shoot at distances up to 30 yards. The bargain is accurate and gets the job done, according to Swayne.

"It's fast. They're not going to get away," he said about the action of darting cattle.

The mid-range gun is powered by a carbondioxide cartridge. While these are slightly more powerful, Swayne noted the disadvantage to this type of gun.

"The pneumatic rifle, with the CO2 cartridge is simple, but if you don't use it a lot, that cartridge is going to bleed off," he explained. "I don't average a shot a month," he said. In that case, when the gun is not used often, the carbondioxide cartridge may empty itself between uses.

The most expensive choice also allows the user to shoot from greater distances. This rifle uses a blank 22-caliber shell to power the dart.

Swayne is happy with his more economical pump-action gun, and the darts are inexpensive, ranging from $2 to $4 a dart. Most darts are equipped with an inch-long needle, but Swayne says darts can be ordered in a variety of sizes.

He fills the darts himself using a longer, narrower needle that can be inserted into the needle on the dart. Darts may not always be available in the size Swayne needs, so he improvises.

"The dart must be full to work properly," he explained. "You can mix medication with sterile saline solution."

Once the dart is full, there is no seal or pressure barrier to hold the fluids inside the dart. To solve the problem, Swayne discovered the perfect sealant.

"I just take a bit of Vaseline® and put it on the hole," said Swayne.

Once the dart is ready, it is loaded into the chamber of the gun.

Swayne's cattle are accustomed to his four-wheeler, so he uses the vehicle to get close to the sick animal, then fires off the dart of medication into the animal's neck.

The needles each have a small wax piece near the base. Once the dart enters the skin of the animal, the wax slowly warms and eventually shrinks enough to allow the needle to fall-out. The process, according to Swayne, takes between 10 and 15 minutes.

"It's nice to pick them up (the needles) when you see them," said Swayne. He added that the needle tips do not create more of a hazard than any other random pieces of material in a pasture.

The innovator has mastered his system, though he admits that he only needs to use the tool 10 to 15 times a year. Still, he is always prepared. When he goes to check his cattle, he carries a small lunchbox-type cooler, complete with medication, Vaseline®, darts, and ice packs to keep the medication from heating. He carries the gun on a standard gun rack mounted on his four-wheeler.

"I have the gun, and this little bit of medication with me when I go out," he said. "If I see a problem, I can fire the dart. It takes three to four minutes to get ready. Then, I shot the calf and I'm done."

Swayne is a Certified Texas Quality Beef Producer (CTQBP) through the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. TSCRA regulates aspects of CTQBP operations.

"You actually sign a contract with them that you will only give neck shots," said Swayne. It is an agreement he abides by with his dart gun.

While he mostly uses his dart gun for intramuscular shots, he noted that the system also works for subcutaneous injections. When delivering a medication subcutaneously, Swayne uses a three-quarter-inch needle on the dart and sometimes shoots the medication at a slight angle.

"You don't want too much of an angle, or it'll just ricochet off," he added.

The availability of the darts, medication, and treatment time has saved Swayne trouble and dollars.

"This saves money, but mainly it saves animals," he said. "Without a question, this has saved animals."

Cowboys available to rope sick cattle are becoming more of a rarity, and veterinarians are not always readily available. A single person would have trouble roping, holding, and treating a sick cow or calf.

"The whole problem is really one of getting that animal penned and caught," Swayne explained. "That's stressful on the calf. With the dart, the calf doesn't even know anything has happened."

The system makes Swayne more self-sufficient. He can treat cattle for a variety of sicknesses without causing the animal additional stress.

He warns that the availability of the medication and darts does not mean that they are a replacement for a veterinarian.

"A lot of stuff you're going to be giving is only available from a veterinarian," he said. "I always visit with my vet and see what's new out there."

Swayne says he still regularly discusses treatment options with his veterinarian and together they have created a herd health program. Twice a year, a crew of cowboys and a veterinarian visit Swayne's ranch and work his cattle. Castrations and vaccinations are preformed, in addition, the herd is sorted and cattle are pulled for sale.

Under the advice of his veterinarian, he is able to use the dart-medication system for minor problems.

"During the course of the year there are little problems that come up," he said. "And that's where this will help."

Swayne also has several recommendations to minimize and simplify treatments. He suggested buying cattle from a reputable breeder, working with animals to calm their temperament, coordinating a herd health program with a veterinarian, and checking the herd daily.

He has recommended the use of dart-injected medication to several people.

"It lends itself to anyone who is single-handing it," he said. "Everyone I know who has tried it has liked it.

"It's a really good tool for anyone in the cattle business."