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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care August 2013

Hi Folks,

This month I’d like to talk about dry cows, as more and more farmers start to freshen cows in the autumn to gain from increased milk pay for fall/winter milk. Also, in June, I spent a few days in Holland at a follow-up CowSignals® course specifically on dry cow management.

In general there are three parts to dry cow management: the time period of drying off, the dry period itself, and then the time just before the cow calves.

Drying off cows can be a stress to a cow, simply due to changing the daily routine of milking twice a day. The more they are still milking, the harder it can be for the cow to switch into dry cow mode. Cows can easily be dried off when making less than 20 pounds of milk a day. If still producing higher amounts of milk, simply feed poor feed-quality roughage for a few days – even straw – to dramatically cut milk production. 

For normal cows, it is well known that completely stopping milking is better than milking a cow once a day for a few days, then every other day for a few days and then drying off. The reason for completely stopping milking at one time is that the cow’s hormones will respond the best – the cow’s brain will get the signal that it is time to stop producing milk. BUT, if the udder is touched, the signal will tell the cow to continue producing milk – that’s why it’s important not to touch the udder after the last milking when drying off a cow. When no longer milking, a natural teat plug will form that is the barrier to the outside world until she gets ready to calve. In the conventional world, there is a commercial teat plug (Orbeseal®) that many use. While this product is OK in Canada and the European Union for organic use, it is not approved for US organic use, unfortunately. So we need to let the natural plug form as fast as possible – therefore don’t touch the udder, or oxytocin will be released from the brain to let down the residual milk in the udder and she will drip, inviting germs from the environment into the teat.

But what if we have a problem cow that has had high somatic cell count or actual mastitis at the time of dry-off? In this case, we do need to milk her a little longer than planned, using natural treatments to cleanse the local area and/or stimulate the immune system to overcome the current problem. While not as effective as antibiotics, Phyto-Mast® has been shown in a study at NC State to help with problematic milk quality at dry-off. For simple high somatic cell count, ImmunoBoost® would be good to stimulate the general immune system prior to dry-off, and should be given 2-3 days prior to dry-off.

At dry-off, a cow’s body condition score should be noted. Ideally, body condition should be between a 3.5-4 (“1” being skinny,“5” being fat). The dry period is not the time to put weight onto a cow, as fat gained then may “clog” the liver and reduce its vital functions. Also, any lameness should be noted and properly addressed at dry-off. So, three areas topics need to be noted and corrected at dry-off: udder, body condition and any lameness

In general, dry cows should be monitored twice daily, especially for irregular swellings of their udders during the first 2 weeks and last 2 weeks of their dry period. In the middle of the dry period, monitoring dry cows for feed intake is crucial. Any significant body condition changes should make you pull that cow aside for closer inspection. Also, any discharges from the vulva (aside from normal straw-colored mucus) should have you examining the cow. Unfortunately, with the busy summertime field work and dry cows not being as closely monitored, a problem may fester, and then a seriously sick cow (and heavily pregnant) needs to be quickly and effectively treated.

For example, a cow that gets mastitis in the middle of the dry period (oftentimes creating a very hard quarter with a stinking, pudding-like discharge and a significant fever) is not noticed right away and the mastitis can become life-threatening and/or negatively affect the calf in the uterus. As the udder becomes very tight, circulation to it is impaired, and then, occasionally, gangrene mastitis happens. This is a disaster, of course, and I’ve only ever seen antibiotics effectively save the life of the cow (and calf).

Around 3 weeks prior to estimated freshening, any immunizing that you want to do should be done. Immunization by vaccination of a dry cow at this time will enhance the antibodies of the cow going into calving, as well as the colostrum she will provide to the calf. Scour Guard 4KC® is my vaccine of choice against calf diarrhea, uterine infection and coliform mastitis. If retained placenta in normal freshening cows (without twins or assisted calving) has been an issue on the farm, an injection of 10cc MuSe® 2-3 weeks prior to calving is wise. This can also help ovarian/egg health in the upcoming lactation.

If you know they are carrying twins, dry off the cow 7-10 days earlier than normal as cows with twins will calve in 7-10 days sooner than the expected due date. Closely watching dry cows within two weeks of the due date is very important because the teat plug starts dissolving and there is an increased likelihood of environmental mastitis. This may be even more likely in older cows a day or two prior to freshening if they are starting to be low in calcium (sub-clinical milk fever) as muscles everywhere, including teat sphincters, are weakened and may be more open to the environment than they should be.

If actual milk fever is an issue on the farm at freshening, try giving 2 ounces of apple cider vinegar 2 times daily for 2 weeks prior to freshening (2-2-2). For a reason not too well understood, this treatment works wonderfully. I have gotten only positive feedback from farmers when they have started this prevention/treatment program.
 Exercise is critical for dry cows. Cows should get plenty of exercise during their “vacation” time. Exercise strengthens all muscles, including the uterine muscles needed for calving. Exercise will also help move lymphatic drainage away from the udder while it is refreshing itself.  Exercise keeps cows from getting fat. Clean, grassy pasture helps udders stay clean, and time on pasture also has been shown to help hoof health. And…. the most natural place for a cow to calve is on pasture when the weather is nice. Walking to check on dry cows in pasture will also keep you in good shape!

For Bovinity Health, information on functional alternatives to antibiotics see:

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