Our Annual Learning Curve with Cows

| 10/9/2013 11:15:00 AM

Dutch belted cowsOur first two Dutch Belted cows arrived at our homestead eight years ago. This breed is “dual-purpose,” and therefore good for both meat and milk. The first year’s learning-curve was steep as we experienced the births, began milking and then figured out what to do with all the milk. Our herd has now grown to six cows and their babies, and our learning curve still continues.

Old-breed cows are known for easy births, but we’ve been extremely vigilant after one cow lost her calf six years ago. That vigilance results in nights of interrupted sleep when a cow is due, but we want to be present if there’s a problem. The calf we lost was poorly positioned and born dead. We simply should have called the vet sooner. We now use the “20 minute rule”; if the calf hasn’t made good progress 20 minutes after the bag of water breaks, we call the vet. Better yet, when labor begins, I put a clean hand up the birth canal and make sure I can feel two feet with a nose above them. That’s possible even if the bag of waters is still intact. The cow doesn’t seem to mind at that stage, and I feel ever-so-much better!

What we learned this year is that it doesn’t take a lot of muscle to help the birthing process. It was 3 a.m. and we had watched two little feet repeatedly withdraw back into the birth canal after each contraction. My husband and I finally wrapped the protruding ankles in small towels and pulled during each subsequent contraction. It only took that much assistance and three more contractions to get a healthy baby out-- and to get us back to bed.

Some people never interfere with births, and I can see how they would gradually develop a herd of cows that have easy births. My personality hates to allow difficult labors or a preventable death, so we’ll just continue to lose some sleep during the birthing months.newborn calf

Easy births and healthy calves require more than occasional physical assistance. As with most aspects of animal husbandry, nutrition plays a key role. “The year of the dead calf” was also “the year of the retained placenta.” Our vet explained that retained placentas are common in this part of Ohio because our soil lacks the mineral selenium, which is necessary for good muscle tone. Our grass-fed cows are dependent on the nutrients in soil, plus daily mineral supplements. Although there are many warnings about the dangers of excessive selenium, we began supplementing liquid selenium a month before birthing. Since then we haven’t had another retained placenta. We’ve recently begun supplementing selenium with “Redman salt” instead, which we will offer over a longer period of time. We hope this will also result in stronger uterine contractions and more unaided births next year.

When the calves are young, the mothers have so much extra milk that we’ve begun selling “herdshares” in order to distribute this beautiful, fresh milk to others. That makes us extra fastidious in keeping everything clean—from teats to the milk room. This year was an anomaly in that three of the cows got mastitis before we realized that doing a preliminary wash with soapy water was actually allowing bacteria to get up into the teats. We returned to using only sanitized wipes followed by chlorhexidine dip and the problem resolved.

10/13/2013 1:51:52 PM

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Jacob Landis
10/12/2013 9:30:29 PM

Something else you can use for mastitis is garlic. We milk about 70 cows certified organic and use garlic for many different ailments. Give the cows 1-2 cloves of garlic 1-2 times a day and the mastitis should be cleared up in a few days. The easiest way for us to do it is to cut up the garlic and mix it in with a handful of grain and feed it to the cow that way. I'm not sure what's best for you though. You could also try a garlic tincture in water. A good resource for organic remedies is Dr. Paul Dettloff who is a cow consultant for Organic Valley.

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