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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care October 2012

Hi Folks,

The seasons are changing once again and it’s time to start thinking about getting animals ready to come inside. But not all animals do best indoors, depending on the group of animals being considered. Why is this? It gets back to the foundations of health which I periodically talk about: dry bedding, fresh air, high forage diets and grazing.

Obviously grazing of any meaningful dietary intake will not be in the equation during winter time. However, grazing way into late autumn is certainly a possibility, especially with fescue since it is more palatable after a frost. It is almost cutting and too tough for animals to like to eat during the summer season (pre-clipping it helps), but after a frost it softens up nicely and its former toughness allows for it to persist well into late autumn. If grazing clover and alfalfa into the autumn, be careful as the bloat potential markedly increases after a frost. Always wait 2 hours until after the frost is off before setting the cows out on to clover and alfalfa. In any case, once real winter comes, any real grazing of whatever type will be lost until next spring.

So once grazing is finished, why and how would you keep animals primarily outside? Two of the other foundational pillars of health apply: fresh air and dry bedding. Certainly the freshest air will be outside. The main thing you need to keep in mind for animals outside is for drafts at ground level to be minimized. This could mean having a 3-sided structure so the animals can get into the back areas (much like individual hutches are designed) as those chilly 34°F degree rains can quickly damage animals – any size or age. And of course enough dry bedding is needed so they retain body warmth when lying down. Feeding enough dry matter for animals to extract calories is critical to not only keep warm but also for them to grow. Which groups of animals are then best suited to be outside? Pretty much all of them. However, milking cows could easily be the exception as they need special attention due to their metabolic demands for lactation and the fact that their teats are being wetted and dried a few times a day by prepping for milking, pre-dipping and post-dipping. Thus chapping is a real possibility for cows put outside right after milking (as is frost bite under certain conditions).  However, I also do not recommend that cows are kept inside 22 out of 24 hours a day for a couple reasons. One is simply due to their need of getting fresh air into their lungs  - and to exercise. On those days where it is not muddy and it is not icy, there is no reason at all that cows need to be kept inside. Those sunny and deep blue skies are great for them to enjoy. Also, by walking around outside, their muscle tone will help their lymphatic systems to function optimally since the lymphatic system does not have its own circulation and relies solely on moving around. For example, ever notice that a fresh cow with a retained placenta does better during the grazing season than a cow continually tied-in, being fed lots of ensiled feed during the winter? Another reason for animals to be outside is simply for them to experience a change of environment from being confined to the  indoor surroundings, allowing their senses to experience what they normally would if they were in their natural state.

OK, so that’s a set of positive reasons for having animals outside rather than continually inside during the autumn and winter months. Now let’s look at life lived mainly indoors. One of the most predictable things I experience every year is getting calls about coughing calves after a spell of bad weather in October or November. Why do calves seem to so easily start coughing when brought inside? Or similarly, why do fresh heifers sometimes break with pneumonia? Well, after enjoying fresh air since being born on pasture in the spring and perhaps having never even been inside at all yet in life, a box pen full of animals grouped together without good fresh air almost guarantees stress, thus negatively affecting the immune system. Add in the bedding not being added to enough or changed enough. Contact with damp concrete is the worst situation.

Then also add into the situation a possible stomach worm infestation that has been accumulating since the calves were on the same pasture the whole summer, consuming more and more parasites, and you have a recipe for disaster. This is because the calves will already be anemic from the blood sucking internal parasites and their immune systems will be on very shaky ground. Even if the calves aren’t parasitized but simply haven’t grown well outside due to lack of groceries, they can still easily succumb to situations of damp, stale air. (Poorly fed calves and parasitized calves are difficult to distinguish from each other). Either way, the stresses of damp, stale air all happening all of a sudden often overwhelms them. This is especially true in wooden and cinder block group structures whereas curtain structures provide much better air movement – but always keep in mind not to have drafts at ground level. If you do see some coughing starting, put the animal immediately back outside and the coughing will usually go away quickly. Another thing to keep in mind would be to give intra-nasal vaccine to animals to give their immune system an extra boost to specific germs prior to coming inside. Definitely get young stock checked or treated effectively for worms if they have been on the same small area for the entire summer. And remember that calves housed indoors near older animals will more likely be affected by the exhaled air of the older animals. While the older animals may have antibodies to typical respiratory bugs, the young animals don’t - and can quickly show it by starting to cough.

As can be seen by the reason above, animals thrive on fresh air and lose out with stale air. Except for us needing to properly feed and milk lactating cows, cattle are otherwise hard-wired to live outside. For their own good, we need to have them outside as much as possible (within reason) when autumn and winter weather is pleasant. This will ensure healthy lungs as well as animals happy being in contact with their natural environment.

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

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