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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care March 2008

Hi Folks,

As calving season gets into full swing over the next 4-8 weeks, tips for getting cows off to a good start may be in order.  This of course means paying attention to detail in the last 2 weeks prior to freshening as well as proper calving procedures generally. If all goes well, a cow should calve on her own, drink 5-15 gallons of water, get up, pass the placenta within 4-6 hours, start eating and begin lactation. To have cows hit a decent peak and maintain persistence during lactation, correct body condition is extremely important. This is accomplished by feeding enough energy to your cows through a properly balanced ration. Many of you have taken me up on body condition scoring during herd checks as this is a way to keep an eye on how the cows are doing for the time of lactation or pregnancy that they are in. The following items may help to get your cows and calves off to a good start…..

One of the biggest factors that has been shown to hinder cows that are coming into 3rd lactation or older is hypocalcemia (milk fever). This needs to be prevented at all costs as it is a main reason that a cow will not clean and/or become ketotic and/or develop a displaced abomasum (twisted stomach). Studies have found that keeping potassium to less than 2.0% of the dry cow ration is the key. However, we still need to not be feeding calcium rich feeds, such as alfalfa, during the dry period. So, feeding grassy hay is a great way to do this but make sure it is from areas which do not have high potassium in the soil ( Lancaster county generally has high levels of potassium). In conventional systems, anionic salts are fed to counteract high potassium and calcium diets; however, they are often unpalatable. In organic systems, these additives are not generally allowed. Feeding apple cider vinegar is a fair substitute, at the rate of 2 ounces twice daily for 2 weeks prior to calving.

Cows should also be given a 10 cc shot of MuSe® 2-3 weeks prior to calving to help prevent retained placenta. MuSe® has also been shown to help the fertility of the cow as she goes into her regular cycles during the new lactation. Any vaccinations that you would like the calf to have the benefit from can be given to cows at the 2-3 week pre-freshening time as well. One vaccine that should be considered is the ScourGuard4KC if calf scours early in life have been a trouble.

Cows should be allowed to separate from other cows when it is obvious calving will occur. Signs would be dripping milk, a loosened vulva, deeper “pockets” immediately next to the tail head, the cow eats less, etc. A red discharge may also be seen at this time – if a red discharge is seen at any time of pregnancy, attention should be paid to the cow to make sure everything is OK. A dry bedded stall is very handy at this time of year until the weather starts getting a bit warmer at night. Generally green pasture is the best but right now it is mainly frozen or may be muddy. Try not to move your cow around once she is actively calving. This can mess up her concentration and may be cause for a dead calf as the cow has to re-orient to a new area.

If a cow looks like she is straining to calf and is not advancing at all for about 2-3 hours, she may have a twisted uterus/ uterine torsion. Uterine torsions are extremely common. Wash her up and reach in with an OB sleeve and lube. If you feel a turning or auger like feeling as you reach for the calf, there is a good chance there is a torsion present. Usually farmers will say that the calf feels like it is really far in before they can reach it. Call for assistance as a cow will never be able to calve on her own with a twisted uterus. Calves that are backwards are technically normal, except that the umbilical cord tends to snap earlier and the calf’s head is still in the uterus, which leads to drowning of the calf. ALWAYS have a cow standing up when trying to figure out what may be wrong or rearranging legs. It is so much easier to rearrange limbs when the floor is not blocking a potential area of movement. It is also usually better than kneeling in potentially damp bedding. Also, if there is a small calf delivered, check for a twin – especially if the cow is calving earlier than expected!

Cows Not Cleaning

Cows should “clean” (pass the entire placenta) within 4-6 hours of delivery. Cows will do this if there is a normal unassisted delivery and their blood calcium levels are normal. (See other side of sheet.) If an older cow (3rd lactation or older) has a normal, unassisted delivery and does not clean,  strongly consider giving calcium. Calcium levels not only affects the leg muscles in order to properly rise, it also affects all muscles – uterine muscles (to expel calf and cleanings), muscles surrounding the rumen and abomasum (to help proper digestion), muscles that control the teat sphincters (to help keep teats from leaking), as well as the muscles that constrict or dilate the pupil. Low calcium cows will have dilated pupils, trembling/twitching skin near the shoulders or thighs, be a little dull, not clean and perhaps mildly bloated – they can be low in calcium even though they are standing up and eating a little!

Cows that do not pass the placenta normally need to be tended to properly and in a timely fashion – especially so on organic farms. Even if a cow totally expels the placenta on the second or third day fresh, she will very likely have a uterine infection. Uterine infections need to be treated promptly and effectively within the first 14 days fresh in order to avoid a long standing uterine infection going into lactation. Conventional farms are lucky that they can use PG/Lutalyse® therapeutically at day 14 fresh to help “clean up” a uterus – and that is what PG was originally discovered to do. Prior to that, the only way cows would be effectively treated for a bad uterus would be with antibiotic infusions. This is not an option on organic farms obviously.

Therefore, it is absolutely critical to be treating the cow’s uterus with antiseptics of your choice – just make sure you do it and repeat it as often as needed (daily) - the cervix is open enough to pass your antiseptic through into the uterus until about day 10-14 day fresh. If a cow is having a bad uterus, she should be treated at least 3-4 different days prior to day 10 fresh. Unfortunately, I have seen organic cows leave the herd due to long standing uterine infections that could have been prevented in the first 2 weeks of lactation.  While there may be a cow or two that has gotten over a bad uterus when first detected at 4 months into lactation, most all others are not so lucky – and I have tried a variety of approaches. Other veterinarians working with organic herds have, too – but to no avail. When I feel a uterus full of pus at 4-6 months into lactation, I am always saddened to hear if someone treated a cow just one time when she was fresh, even though they knew she had a bad uterus at the time. It is the only time that, in the natural farming world, a truly aggressive stance has to be taken in order to prevent an ultimately untreatable condition. Many cows did leave farms due to bad uteruses in the days prior to antibiotics and PG. We need not repeat that on organic farms. By making sure that calcium levels are adequate, calving areas (and potential procedures) are clean and hygienic, and that we jump on uterine problems early and often, reproductive fertility on organic farms can be easily maintained.

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

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