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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care March 2011

Hi Folks,

Last month I talked about pneumonia since I was called for many cases over the last few months. But in almost all cases, I was called as a second opinion since other treatments farmers had been using hadn’t been working. Being called in late can put anyone in a difficult position but especially when it comes to organic cows where antibiotics aren’t routinely used.

Being that we who are in the organic realm don’t reach for antibiotics except in dire infections, how best do we prevent dire infections from arising in the first place?

The key words here are “dire” (meaning critical and immediately life threatening) and “prevent”. Obviously we can’t prevent everything. Things happen as part of life - oddball things, infrequent things, and accidents. Prevention is great, but when it doesn’t work, then what? Clearly, there is a time line between “prevent” on one end and “dire” on the other end.

The difference between prevention and a dire situation then comes down to timely treatment, doesn’t it? In using natural treatments, timing is critical as natural treatments rely on a functional immune system. But if the immune system is overwhelmed, there is little chance for any treatment to work, let alone natural treatments.

Timely treatment doesn’t necessarily mean involving a veterinarian. Timely treatment does mean, however, that when the farmer gets the slightest hunch that something is wrong with an animal, that prompt action is taken. For example, when feeding the cows, if a cow simply doesn’t “look right” in her eyes or in whatever way you get a sense that something is wrong, by all means investigate the situation. This means that even if you have no idea that anything is wrong but something inside you makes you think even a moment extra about that animal (or bunch of animals) – take the time to stop what you’re doing and quietly observe the situation. Yes, stop shoveling out the silage or scooping out the grain or cutting the strings off the hay and just stand there for a good long moment. If you get no further indication that something is wrong, then resume what you were doing but keep a mental note about what got your attention. Then next time you are there again, stop everything, and simply observe and see if there is anything at all, no matter how slight, that is different than normal. Doing this will help guard against becoming numb to what is around you in your daily routine. I once read a very interesting statement: “where your attention is, there is your energy and where your energy is, there is your attention.” In other words, what you focus on is what you will likely be acting on. As you go through your day, are you really tuned in to your animals or is your attention on other things?

Unfortunately, it’s only too human to become numb to what we do routinely. This is especially true in factories that assemble equipment. But when it comes to animals that are dependent upon us – be they dairy cows, pigs, chickens or pet dogs and cats – we simply cannot become numb if we want to be good stewards of life that surrounds us.

Again, this is especially critical for those caring for organic animals since reaching quickly for a strong antibiotic when something is finally noticed to be really bad is simply not a preferred situation. And remember that the organic consumers who are the steam for the organic sector have faith that organic farmers are taking the best possible care of their animals.

So if the first step of timely treatment is simply stopping and taking notice of something/anything which triggers your sense that something is not right, then what are some simple signs to look for? Obvious things like a change in appetite, milk production level, color of manure and its consistency, breathing/coughing, staying apart from other animals, red discharge from a cow to calve, the way an animal walks, calves that don’t finish their bottle….all these things should trigger immediate investigation on the part of the farmer. If you don’t look into it now, your focus on it will likely fade as you go to your next task. Further investigation usually means counting how many breaths an animal takes per minute (should be around 20-24 for a cow) and depth of breathing; what she is (or is not) specifically eating; taking the animal’s temperature (100.5-102.5 is the normal range for cows); reaching into a cow nearing birth to make sure everything is OK; personally looking into a calf hutch to see the amount and type of manure; lifting a hoof to evaluate it; etc. In other words, not just eyeballing an animal but actively checking an animal.

The above list is a set of basic activities that any good farmer will do to make sure that his/her animal is OK (or not). Unfortunately, all the best intentions (like personally checking an animal) are meaningless unless there is active follow through. Follow through is the most critical component in timely treatment, especially with organic animals. If the calf that is not drinking also has diarrhea, what will you do and when? Wait until tomorrow because “it’ll get her hungry”?  No. Or if a cow has a red discharge a couple weeks before freshening, wait until tomorrow morning to see if she’ll be calved in by then? No. If a cow is off feed and has a swollen quarter, just give her a probiotic and see if she’s eating by next milking? No. Even with relatively tough animals like cows, life is fragile and things can go downhill surprisingly quickly. Calves are even more fragile. With common conditions like mastitis, farmers can by all means start treatment. But even if a common condition like mastitis seems odd (like the quarter secretion smells horribly, indicating possible gangrene setting in), a consult with the veterinarian is probably in order.

While I have witnessed that there are dramatically fewer problems with organic dairy cows, farmers sometimes are lulled into a sense of complacency if nothing has gone wrong for a good stretch of time. Working with animals – living beings that can feel pain and suffer very much like we do – demands that farmers take the extra few moments to look at an animal(s) and take prompt action so that dire situations do not arise. Stopping everything to quietly and closely observe your animals to nip things in the bud will add maybe 10 minutes of time to your work day. Aren’t your animals worth that extra effort?


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

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