Today was one of those where I am reminded about how great it is to be in school. There are so many knowledgeable and experienced professionals in this university and it is a privilege to work with them. Some days. And by the way, I Googled "ultrasound piglet" to find the images. Let's just say that I did a lot of sorting before finding a good one from Purdue. And I've seen tons of things I never wanted to or expected to see.
Back to topic, today was one of those days for learning great new things. We took a trip out to the farm where I will be conducting my research and brought the ultrasound machine along to preg-check the gilts there at the farm. Preg-check is just short-hand for checking them to see if they're pregnant. Since pregnancy and new life is a critical part of the economic chain on farms, it's important to know whether animals are pregnant and how far along they are so that you're not just sitting around waiting every day or randomly surprised when it starts raining babies.
I've never actually ultrasounded before, so I spent a good part of the first pens just trying to understand what I was looking at. Since you probably haven't done this before either, I'll try and make sense of it for you. If the image is in the right place, determining pregnancy takes less than 2 seconds. We are looking for round dark shapes in the image at this age. Each one of those round dark images is a piglet in the uterus. Where things get tricky is the correct placement of the image itself. If the probe is in the wrong spot, you can get cool (but useless) images of the GI tract which can be misinterpreted for a non-pregnant pig. I also a few times today got images which were blurred in some places by poor contact between skin and probe and these blurrs weren't helpful either.
We went through about a half gallon of vegetable oil today, lubricating up the probe. No, that's not because it was going where the sun doesn't shine. Lubricating the probe helps eliminate image blocking by skin and hair on the underside of the pig. We can better press up against the side of the pig and apply even pressure which leads to a better image. Surprisingly, while there were very few pictures of ultrasound images, there were tons of pictures of people ultrasounding, so I will include one here for you as well. The basic gist of the procedure is to oil up the probe, place it under the pig near the flank and to angle it at about a 45 degree angle through the pig. This should give a good view of the uterus.
This is by no means an easy thing to do, but it is very non-invasive and so it's important to become good at doing this so that we can limit the stress of the mothers and promote a higher pregnancy success rate for them on the farm. My advisor is unbelievably quick at this and was a patient teacher today as I stumbled through my first few before really grasping what I was doing. What a great day for learning!