Our Annual Learning Curve with Cows

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw
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Our 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.

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.

Old timers say you can diagnose mastitis by squirting the milk from the teat onto the toe of your black muck-boot. If you observe any clumping or stringiness, you’ve diagnosed mastitis. We want to avoid antibiotics, and were successful in clearing two of the cases of mastitis by using warm packs to the cow’s bag, some massage and frequent milking of the involved quadrant. During the infection, the milk is fed to our grateful pigs. Two of the cows quickly cleared this way, but the third cow’s milk wouldn’t filter well even though it appeared normal. This was how we learned about “sub-clinical mastitis.” Because we had been doing the standard treatment for two weeks, we then used “intra-mammary” antibiotics for two doses. The milk immediately cleared and we were able to drink it again three days after treatment was complete.

That felt like enough learning for this season, but there was one more thing that we became aware of that should help us in future breeding seasons. The Dutch Belted cows are so rare, that to help preserve genetics they are bred by AI (artificial insemination) to full-bred Dutch Belted bulls. Timing for insemination is judged by when the cow first begins to mount other cows, followed in eight to ten hours by when she allows others to mount her. This is called “standing heat,” and AI is done about eight hours after standing heat is observed. We’ve learned that hot summers diminish this activity, and because we don’t want to miss cycles and have a late birthing season the following year, we’ve decided to do AI even with minimal activity. Next year, a cow will get AI’d on her cycle date even if she only moos excessively or paces the fence!

In a year’s time, I may not agree with some of what I’ve written here, but that’s also part of the learning curve. What’s important to us is that we do our best for these cows that have become part of our farm family.

Mary Lou Shaw and her husband homestead on a 13 acre Ohio farm where they raise most of the food they eat. Their “Milk and Honey Farm” is home to old-breed chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs and cows as well as a large vegetable garden, orchard and bees. Mary Lou is the author of Growing Local Food.