When humans fall ill, it usually doesn't take very long to figure out what's wrong. With cattle, though, diagnosing maladies is a combination of educated guesswork and the process of elimination. And, sometimes, we never figure out what happened or what's wrong. I've been thinking about these unsolved mysteries most of the week.

Lucky was one of our first unsolved mysteries.

As I'm sure many a farmer has learned, it's never good luck to name an animal 'Lucky'. We named Lucky for the '7' on her forehead. She was one of those trouble-free cows we didn't have to pay much attention to. Then, one morning Lucky's luck ran out.

While I was pushing up feed, I noticed her knees were scuffed up and told Glen maybe we should make Lucky an outside cow. We had a half dozen cows that winter who had trouble maneuvering in the tiestalls so we let them out every night to sleep on the pack in the cow yard. His response wasn't what I expected.

"Did she have trouble getting up?" he asked.

"No, I noticed that her knees are scuffed up; why?"

"Well, she wouldn't get up when I went to milk her," Glen explained.

"Really," I said and walked back to take another look at her. Nothing about Lucky looked terribly amiss, with the exception of her left hind leg, which I thought looked a little swollen. I told Glen about her leg and finished my chores.

Later that morning, Glen broke the news to me: Lucky's leg was broken. Snapped in two like a brittle twig. We shook our heads in disbelief, wondering how on earth a cow could break a hind leg that bad while standing in a stall.

Then, that afternoon, Lucky's case became even more bizarre. While moving Lucky from the barn, Glen found that Lucky's right rear leg was broken in two as well. The guy helping Glen move Lucky asked in jest, "Are you sure you didn't run over her with the skidloader?"

Nobody we asked had ever seen or heard of a case like Lucky's. I wouldn't have believed it myself if I hadn't seen it.

Mara's story was no less bizarre, but a little more believable.

Over the course of a couple weeks, Mara developed a large growth on her front shoulder. We hemmed and hawed about what to do with Mara as the growth got bigger and bigger. Was it a tumor? An outrageous case of arthritis? Should we have Doc look at it?

Then, the limp that had accompanied the growth went away. Since Mara no longer seemed to be inconvenienced by the bump, we decided to just let happen whatever was going to happen with it.

Weeks passed with no apparent change in the lump, until the day we found Mara with no lump on her shoulder. The growth had exploded. So, we knew then that it had been an abscess, but could only speculate about what caused it.

Well, on the farm, answers usually come after you give up trying to find them. Three days later, something about Mara's shoulder caught Glen's eye. Upon closer inspection, he found a three inch piece of ultra-thin wire sticking out of the healing wound. He plucked it out to show me later and we shook our heads again. We've found wire and other miscellaneous items in cows' feet, but, thankfully, never lodged in other body parts.

"Well, at least she didn't eat it," Glen said.

Even if we'll never know how the wire ended up in Mara's shoulder, at least she survived the ordeal and we have an explanation for her condition.

Unfortunately, our current medical mystery is still unsolved.

Ginger, one of our heifers, started limping a couple weeks ago. Glen took a look at her left front foot and couldn't find anything abnormal - no rock stuck between her toes, no injury to the hoof, and no swelling in any of the joints. She was still getting around pretty well, so we decided to just to keep an eye on her.

Then the limp worsened. She started laying around a lot and not coming up to the bunk to eat. Glen looked at her foot again and didn't find anything. We let her out of the headlock and, after watching her limp away, Glen decided she was limping on the other foot. So we locked her back up again and examined her right front foot. Once again, nothing looked amiss.

The next day, Ginger started kneeling. Instead of going from laying to standing, she'd stop half-way and kneel for a long time before finally standing. She also developed a fever. Baffled, we figured something must be going on internally, so we moved her to a pen by herself and treated her with an analgesic and an antibiotic.

Her fever came down with the treatment but she was still kneeling a lot. It also became apparent that her hind feet were sore, too. What on earth, we asked ourselves, could make a 500-pound heifer lame in all four feet? Was the fever a symptom of a secondary condition or related to the lameness? I was sure we were missing something, so I called the vet.

After we ruled out laminitis, our vet said she was probably suffering from hardware disease or peritonitis. (We had checked for hardware, but Ginger didn't even flinch, so we didn't give it any more thought.) He said she was probably kneeling to shift the weight of her stomachs around and reduce discomfort. He suggested we give her a magnet, keep treating her as needed and wait and see.

So now we're waiting. Ginger appears more comfortable and her condition seems to be slowly improving, but we're not out of the woods yet, so to speak. I'm just hoping that her story has a happy ending, even if we never solve the mystery.

Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 70 cows near Melrose, Minn. They have two children - Dan, 3, and Monika, 1. When she's not parenting or farming, she's writing for the Dairy Star. Sadie can be reached at gsfrericks[at]meltel.net.