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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care May 2011

Hi Folks,

As we finally get the cows onto pasture (what a cold, wet, late spring it’s been), thoughts about feeding cows come to mind. Last year at this time, I wrote quite a bit about the new pasture rule for organics requiring that animals over 6 months of age need to eat at least 30% dry matter during the grazing season for at least 120 days. That law becomes fully effective next month. Enough said about that.

As I look at the calendar on my wall, I see a picture of a boy walking in front of a long line of about 100 cows eating a total mixed ration (TMR) at a feed bunk. While it can be easy to simply see the long line of cows as identical to each other in terms of a production unit, it is just as easy to see each and every animal as unique and individual from each other. Seeing the individuality of animals allows us think beyond the simplistic view of group averages to realizing that each animal has specific nutritional needs. This concept is true whether we are looking at a herd of cows, a herd of goats, a flock of sheep, a band of horses, a pride of lions or even a school of fish. Each animal will respond differently to the feed it is fed or that it finds. This is because of different individual metabolic needs. Metabolic needs will differ upon each animal’s genetic make-up as well as the stage of life.

A TMR is designed to perfectly feed only the perfectly average cow in the herd. While TMR’s provide a herd with a desired forage to grain ratio, the mineral needs delivered will not be accurate for most cows. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that there is a quite a range of animals in a herd, varying in body size to different stages of lactation and pregnancy and growth. So if you have a herd of 80 cows with 65 of them being Holsteins and 15 of them being Jersey it is rather obvious that each of their needs will be different. Add to this that some of each will be early lactation and climbing in milk production while others are past peak as well as some being recently bred while some are long bred. It becomes very obvious that their mineral needs will vary greatly. And yet the TMR delivers the same homogeneous mineral mix to them all.

Some animals may need relatively more of one mineral than another. This would hold true for any mineral element. For instance, fresh cows need lots more calcium in a day than near dry cows. Calcium is tightly regulated in the blood stream via the parathyroid gland and we know that Jerseys typically have more problems keeping calcium in balance than other breeds. Zinc, needed for good hoof health, will be needed in different amounts for Holsteins with their white hooves than for Brown Swiss with their black hooves. Each animal will have different proportions of minerals needed in her diet than the next animal, yet the TMR delivers the same proportion day after day after day.

What am I trying to get at?
Well, it seems to me that regardless of how smart (or not) you may think cows to be, simply realizing that individuals will need and respond uniquely to what is in front of them would seem to make sense. And, additionally, it has been proven that cows can select what they need by various internal bio-feedback mechanisms. It is well known that foraging animals will seek out what they need – sometimes in depraved ways: cows eating rabbits to get phosphorus they desperately crave, animals eating dirt to take in minerals that are lacking in the diet fed out to them, pre-weaned calves eating their bedding because they are being denied hay until weaning, etc. It is also known that animals will select plant species that would seem to play no real part of their diet: calves eating burdock leaves, horses eating willow leaves, monkeys eating bitter, tannin containing leaves, etc. In these cases they are self-medicating. How they sense what to eat is still a big mystery, but it is clear that they are drawn to certain things to satisfy deep urges. Call it intuition, call it instinct, call it whatever you will, but whatever it is, they are trying to tell us something: that as individuals they can select what they need in their diet.

Therefore, maybe we should provide only the basics of the ration in a TMR so that the baseline of the animals is covered, but then rely more heavily on them to self-select what else they need, especially in terms of minerals. In practical terms, this would mean providing free choice minerals such as kelp, bioavailable sources of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, bicarb, clay, trace mineralized salt, etc. But be prepared to watch some of the minerals you offer to disappear quickly. Yet be happy, for you have then allowed your animals to balance their own ration.

This same concept holds for pasture: try to have a biodiverse pasture. Having only one or two plant species in a pasture will not lead to a very balanced intake whereas a pasture full of variety (and yes, “weeds”) will allow animals to pick and choose to their heart’s content. If worried about “weeds” being refused, please know that animals will eat almost any plant that is young and hasn’t gone to head yet. And eating “weeds” should tell you something, for the “weeds” usually have quite a good mineral profile as many are somewhat deeply rooted or at least provide variety to the one or two plant species purposely planted for pasture intake. The only time I can see a monoculture being grown would be a warm season drilling in an annual like sorghum sudan to germinate appropriately (make sure it’s planted by the last week of May in southern PA).

Providing diversity, both in plants and minerals in the diet is a good thing, for it parallels both the diversity of individuals in a herd as well as allows them to choose what they specifically want to eat. Diversity is the opposite of homogenization. Too many things in life seem to be “homogenized” these days. Isn’t it ironic that individuality is both highly prized in our general society but also made bland by everyone buying the same stuff at the same chain stores? Growing as God intended each of us to individually be is certainly good, right? Likewise, each animal is an individual with individual needs - whether it is one of a line of 100 cows at a feed bunk or individually named animals in a small tie stall herd. Each and every one of them has individual needs that can best be met by careful attention to feeding them correctly. But maybe even more important is careful attention to what they themselves select in terms of pasture plants and various minerals at the feeder.

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

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