By ANDREA VARGO
The days are long, and it is not the life for everyone. Cattle, a radio, and an occasional farmer are your companions.
Al Speigner of Howard Lake lives a life he chooses, trimming the feet of cattle for farmers in all directions.
Marlow Hecksel owns the dairy farm on Co. Rd. 20 where Speigner works this cold February day.
He and his son, Doug, run the cattle into the back of a converted truck box, one at a time.
When the cow gets into the chute in the box, the stanchion closes on her neck, and she is captured for the moment.
The chute is just one of the unique things to see in this operation. It has hydraulic arms on either side that control the lift of the cow.
Lift? Yes, he has a rubber mat under the cow that is winched up by hydraulic arms and lifts the cow off the floor.
He can lift back, front, or the whole animal.
"Those fancy contraptions that tip the cow on its side are kind of expensive," he said.
The cow is understandably nervous, and a nervous cow is a messy cow.
To control the direction of this "mess," Speigner has developed an interesting splash guard.
He has cut the bottom out of a plastic barrel, slit it up the middle and part-way around the top.
This creates wings that spread out on either side of the animal, the top rests on her back and the barrel extends to her hocks.
The whole contraption is secured to the sides of the chute by bungee cords and stays nicely in place.
This directs all excretions down and under the cow with nothing reaching the trimmer.
A guard that rests on the floor gives additional protection. Some nice fresh sawdust absorbs the problem liquids.
He also has a tail holder that keeps him from being beaten by an angry cow.
The next step is to place the hind foot in a specially designed, padded clamp to prevent the trimmer from being seriously injured when the animal moves it.
As Speigner sits on his well-padded homemade stool, the cow's foot secured, he explains the process of trimming the hoof.
"Cattle need to be comfortable. With more confinement operations around, they need routine attention," he said.
The cow needs to stand square. If the foot is really overgrown, it throws the animal back on her pastern, he said.
This would be kind of like having the heels on the front of your shoes.
Speigner uses dado blades in a grinder instead of trimming by hand. He has several machines, each with a different cutting blade or grinder.
As he shapes the hoof, he stresses the need for it to be level with a slight concave surface towards the center.
After the trim, a sealant is sprayed on the bottom of the foot to protect and dry it.
He does some show cattle as well as the regular animals.
Many barns are on a yearly schedule, and some are on a six-month schedule, said Speigner.
"Over the years, I have done as many as 3,000 per year, but now I'm slower," he said.
With all the cattle trimmed over the years, Speigner has developed his own style and equipment.
"I have about one-tenth of Werner Hardware in each of my trucks," he said.
The trucks are modified to accommodate the work he does, and he is an inventor at heart.
Instead of purchasing one of the units that confines a cow and tips her on her side, Speigner invented his cow mat lift.
He has metal hooks, ropes, and his splash guard to do specific jobs. There is even a trap door in the floor to scrape manure into with his homemade PVC pipe scraper.
He never bends over to lift a hoof, and everything is in its place, handy to reach.
He has to survive the winter just like the rest of us, but he has something special to keep him warm.
In the back of his pick-up truck is a wood furnace.
He fires up his furnace before he leaves home. When he arrives at the work site, he connects the furnace with flexible pipe and blowers to heat the box for the day.
Speigner can work in his shirt sleeves in the coldest weather. Efficiency and comfort are important when you work under difficult conditions.
Speigner said there were 12 full-time trimmers in the U.S. when he started in 1967. By 1977, there were 12 in Minnesota, and now there are around 30 trimmers in the state.