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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care September 2013

Hi Folks,

The immune system is such an incredibly important system in our daily lives and we rarely think of it, unless an illness arises. The immune system is a constantly changing, dynamic aspect of each of us - and every animal life form, to greater and lesser extents. Frogs have immune systems, crayfish have immune systems, salamanders have immune systems, snakes have immune systems - as do lobsters, swordfish, haddock, penguins, otters, armadillos, loons, moose, cows, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats, and mice. The immune system separates every living being from every other living being, essentially saying, “this is me, not you”. The immune system protects us every breathing moment that we are alive, whether we think of it or not.

So how do we maintain a vigorous, vibrant and effective immune system? Diet. Our diet has direct, immediate effects on our immune system. Why? Because our gut is the first stop for food to be broken down and absorbed into our system. Food either makes our digestive system happy or it does not. If ingested food is irritating in any way, it will cause inflammation, which leads to leaks along the intestinal walls, letting toxins gain entry and causing serious damage. Most food, when absorbed normally, is sent with blood that drains the intestines through the portal vein to the liver. Then the liver performs major transformations of the ingested substances, forming simple nutrients. These nutrients are then sent into general circulation via the hepatic vein and to the heart to be pumped into circulation as nourishment. Along the intestines are immune glands called Peyers patches, essentially strings of lymph nodes which are ready to attack bad foreign substances trying to gain entry in to the body at the gut level. If the Peyers patches are constantly on high alert (due to poor dietary choices and/or germs, like the Johnes bug) this will lead to inflammation and send signals to the rest of the body that something is wrong at the gate of entry. Additionally, diets that are constantly irritating to the stomach lining due to acidic pH (too much grain or slug feeding it) will cause an inflammatory reaction in the intestine since the pancreas which neutralizes low level acidic contents of the stomach is overwhelmed. An inflamed gut makes for easier entry of things into the system (taxing the liver) that otherwise would stay in the intestinal tract and would be sent out with manure.  Inflammation of the gut will also result in diarrhea or irregular stools.

Organs beyond the digestive system that are part of the immune system include the spleen, tonsils, thymus, lymph nodes and bone marrow. These are nourished regularly with each pump of the heart sending blood which has been originally filtered by the liver.  Lymph nodes are the “regional cops” that react when there is a challenge - bacterial, viral, or parasitical - in that area of the body. They swell when they react. Think of the lymph nodes at the top of the throat or under your arm pits or where your legs attach to your torso – they swell when challenged. Cows have lymph nodes in the same areas. Lymph nodes drain lymph fluid. Lymph fluid is made up of immune cells that have swallowed up bacteria, viruses or parasites, which is whisked away through the thoracic duct to the heart. The lymph system does not have its own circulation and sends build-up away only by the animal’s or person’s movement – that’s why exercise is always good: it helps to circulate everything, moving bad things away and moving good nourishing things in.

So how can we eat to best help our immune system at the ground level? Perhaps the main method that I’ve always thought was prudent was to eat to satisfy our genetics – that’s usually a good and easy start. For me, with Holland Dutch genetics on my mom’s side that goes back to the 1500’s in Friesland and on my dad’s side for generations in Zeeland in Holland’s south, my system feels best when I eat fish, dairy products, and starches like potatoes and beets. It’s simply what my digestive enzymes are adapted to primarily. Obviously vegetables are part of the diet, too, but if I eat too many vegetables, my digestive system tells me that pretty quickly. Diets obviously will be different for people of different backgrounds.

So how should we feed ruminant animals? Ruminants, like cows and sheep, have eaten fresh green grasses and other forages, as well as the tops of maturing grass plants (seeds/grain) for countless generations. Dried versions of fresh grass – hay – is also well received by the rumen digestive tract as are silages of grass plants (corn is a grass). So maybe we should feed them in the same manner for them to have the healthiest digestive system and immune system: high forage intake with little/minimal grain. Unfortunately, modern Holsteins and Jerseys have been bred to eat relatively energy dense (grain) diets geared for high milk production whereas “minor” dairy breeds such as Milking Shorthorns, Linebacks, Normandies, Dutch Belted, etc generally do quite well with only a little grain in their diets. The minor dairy breeds keep their body condition much better with low/no grain diets than Holsteins or Jerseys ever will. Cows which get skinny, due to not being bulked up on fiber but receiving too much grain (acid in system) and are pumping out lots of milk will become run down, with their immune systems being only borderline effective. They may be more prone to high somatic cell counts remaining high rather than their system overcoming the challenge and returning to lower levels. Looking at the consistency of their manure or seeing undigested grain in it will tell you if they have rumen acidosis – which is the beginning of the downfall of their immune system.

As I’ve always said, you can never feed enough dry hay to dairy cows - it’s always OK to feed dry hay. Indeed, feeding even a little dry hay during feeding transitions will help digestion – and thus their immune system. You might want to keep this in mind as we transition to winter feeds over the next couple months.

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

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