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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care October 2009

Hi Folks,

As the harvest comes off and we start looking back a bit at the year, we hopefully can see some positive aspects while we await better prices. Probably the best you can hope for is health for your family and loved ones at home. But how do we maintain the health of the farm and land from which we generate a living? Better yet, how do we see health on farms – farms which sustain many, many people? Is it by simply maximizing production from your cows? I doubt it. Some people really believe that the main definition of a healthy cow is a cow that maximizes her production. They reason that she simply must be healthy in order to achieve maximum production. Also, I think it is fair to say that just because you make lots of milk does not mean you make a lot of money, even when prices may be good. How are cows fed to attain that maximum yield? Is it by maximizing your tonnage taken off each acre? Maybe – but only if the quality of the feed produced is where it should be. The way cows are fed impacts other parts of the internal system than just simply directing the udder to release a lot of milk. For every action, there is a reaction. Is not a simple 1+1=2 when it comes to biological systems. How is the liver affected? What about the thymus? How about the thyroid glands and parathyroid glands?  Sure – everyone likes a high producing cow, but there may be unintended side-effects. As I will discuss, self-sufficiency in a biologically balanced manner is critical to netting the most profit while having healthy cows and maintaining farmland sustainability as well.

There probably is a general production line which, if greatly exceeded, may give rise to certain problems popping up until you sometimes may wonder what all went wrong. In general, I have found that Holstein herds making 20,000 lbs and over tend to have more digestive disturbances than those herds making 18,000 lbs or less. Sure, it can be done, but it is a tight wire balancing act – one wrong step and there are major problems. Part of this is because the digestive tract is the starting point for an animal’s (and human’s) immunity. Stressing the gut with high energy carbohydrate feeding is just not sustainable to a ruminant’s system. Things like sub-acute rumen acidosis, stomach ulcers, hemorrhagic bowel syndrome and twisted stomachs start to surface quickly. Maybe 18,000 pounds is actually the optimum for Holstein cows, without the need for lots of support, either in the way of high energy rations, lots of feed supplements and/or veterinary work to fix things when they break.

Of course this can vary somewhat and it totally depends on the quality of your forages. But unfortunately, there are many farmers that succumb to the idea that grain can replace forage with no problem as long as the cows are eating everything up and pumping out major amounts of milk. Not true. Only by feeding lots of high quality effective fiber will a rumen be able to function effectively. Any cow without a healthy rumen simply does not function well long- term because their immune system is constantly being ruined due to excess toxin build-up. You can never have enough dry hay on a dairy farm.

Essentially, to balance milk production with longevity, you should aim to optimize your production. The definition of optimum is: the most favorable condition in which an organism will flourish (Webster’s). For dairy farming, this probably means that the carrying capacity of the land is not exceeded. The carrying capacity is what the land will yield long-term when it is properly taken care of in terms of fertility and soil structure. Your animals, their manure, the root structure of crops in the rotation, bought fertilizer, passes across the field with tillage implements, and exposed ground during storms all effect carrying capacity in the long term. When we constantly extract from soil for maximum yield and when we constantly extract from cows for maximum yield, we tip the biological balance in favor of pests and disease. Part of the reason for this is because when we go about farming in a very monoculture system (such as Holsteins being fed alfalfa hay, corn and beans), we aren’t allowing the natural web of plants, birds and beneficial insect to occupy their spot in the cycle of life. We eliminate and control everything in order that we get what we want, without much thought to the secondary effects. When there is no biological balance, then there will be negative effects upon the living organisms (including us) that still do live in that same area. Think of parasites. If farms are overstocked, tipping the balance in favor of those creatures which thrive on excesses of life type (cattle in this example), then pests will seize upon the opportunity and thrive upon the one species. Then we need wormers…..all the time. But if there is healthy competition within the web of life, no one species of pest will prosper. Yet stocking rates are high to off-set expensive farmland land. And then corn has to be bought (shelled corn), hay is bought (alfalfa hay, which shatters and loses any fiber qualities), beans are bought in (roasted, toasted or raw) - and this is in order to make lots of milk. This is all with only good intentions. But the high wire act (the cycle) gets more intense….and something breaks along the way (like the cows). Then comes the bill, both as a function of cash flow and the hidden bill upon long term health.

A much more reasonable way to live – both for you and your cows – would be to graze your animals as much as possible, perhaps more than currently and buy in forages (dry hay) and corn silage (for energy forage) to offset the land taken out of production to create new grazing ground. This may actually need to occur with the proposed new pasture rule for organic dairying, where possibly 30% dry matter will need to be achieved from pasture for at least 120 days of the growing season. How will this be done on farms with 50 cows with the young stock when there is 70 acres total on the farm? It may be tough for some folks.

But by taking a step back and assessing your available on-farm resources and by looking towards being as self-sustainable as possible, optimize is the word which you should be thinking about, not maximize. Be realistic about the carrying capacity of your land. Maybe get more out of your land by adding diversity such as chickens, turkeys and hogs to your pasture system (to keep cattle parasites down). For sure, the healthiest cows that will make the cheapest yet most nutritious milk will always be predominantly grazing herds on a biologically diverse system of crops with deep rooted species to take up minerals and enhance soil structure, hedge rows, shade trees, plentiful birds and beneficial insects along with cows that can efficiently convert forage to milk and meat. To sum it up, those herds that mimic mother nature as closely as possible.


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

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