2017 Spring Calving, Fatty Udder Syndrome

May 21, 2017

 

Some years we can’t remember helping a single calf nurse.  This calving season has been difficult, with one problem after another.  Sometimes we have had more than one problem pair in our corral, which is where we keep the pairs separated if they are having problems until they can be on their own.

Admittedly, a big source of our problems this year has been our decision to keep and calve very old cows.  Cows that are productive into old age is a nice problem to have, and one that I largely attribute to a better nutrition and feeding strategy.  Better rotational grazing has improved the green season nutrition, and unrolling round bales of hay has improved the winter nutrition.  Unrolling the hay instead of feeding in feeders reduces the competition with younger, stronger, cows, and it is also easier to chew as the hay is loose after unrolling instead of packed densely.  Older cows teeth wear down, resulting in more difficulty chewing which can become a nutrition issue.

Unfortunately, older cows udders break down over age and the teats become larger, sometimes resulting in teats so large a newborn calf fails to get started nursing.  We get the pair into the corral and the cow in the catch chute and help the newborn calf nurse.  Usually one or two nursings will be enough for the calf to get the idea and start nursing on its own.  When we see the calf nursing on its own, we turn the pair back out to pasture with the herd.  Annoying, but doable.

But the problem which has baffled us this spring and a couple of times in the past few years, is when a heifer calved without problem, but failed to produce any or enough milk for her newborn calf.  Until a few years ago, we had never seen this problem.  But it has happened again, and this time with this beautiful heifer, 527, pictured above.  We called our local vet and she took the heifer’s temperature and palpated her udder, assuring us there was no discernible health issue.  The udder is soft, not hard as if it had mastitis.  And there is no pussy discharge, just nothing.  The vet didn’t have a theory, which is frustrating, but also a relief that the heifer wasn’t sick and we weren’t having a disease problem.

So we started brainstorming.   What is different about our herd?

Genetically, the base breed going back to my Grandfather’s cattle was Shorthorn.  We used some Lincoln Red genetics in the 80s and 90s, an ill-advised foray into Maine Anjou genetics in the 90s, and finally, when we could no longer find good Shorthorn bulls, we started using Red Angus genetics around the year 2000 and have been very pleased with the results.  Our cattle are moderate- framed, thick-made, and able to finish on grass, which worked great when I began to direct-market grass-finished cattle around 2008.

Red Angus genetics didn’t seem to change the udders of our cattle very much.  I would say the conformation of the udders would be a little better and they give a little less milk.  Shorthorns are known for producing a lot of milk for a beef breed, so it makes sense that Red Angus would decrease the amount of milk, but not by much. I don’t think the problem is genetics.

We have improved our pastures and especially the rotation and resting of the pastures as we’ve implemented our own version of mob-grazing.  And we’ve started grazing some hay pastures during the summer slump when some of the cool season grasses are growing very slowly.  The end result is our cattle are gaining better than they ever have, with some of the fastest-gaining calves gaining close to 3 lbs per day from birth to weaning.  We recently viewed an old vhs tape of our cattle in the 80s, and the difference was remarkable.  Without video evidence, we never would have believed how much better the pastures and how much thicker our cattle are now.

Why am I writing about how fast the cattle are gaining?  Sometimes I have an insight or notion which I’m not sure where it comes from.  Maybe I read something sometime.  I don’t know.  But I woke up one morning with a theory that the reason these heifers have no milk is that during a critical stage in their mammary development, they were gaining weight so rapidly, instead of normal mammary development, their udder became fatty.

I asked the vet and she didn’t think it made much sense.  We even stopped in one day and visited our old retired vet from Mineral Point, and he didn’t think this theory made much sense.  Undaunted, I was going to put this theory onto the internet and see if any of you concurred.  But a little research, and a few key articles later, of which I will link to, I’m 99% sure this is what is happening to these heifers.

The reason we need to decide on a theory is because it will affect our decision making.  If for some reason these heifers are genetically deficient in milk, we would want to purchase bulls with higher milk epds, (expected progeny difference).  But if my theory is correct, and these heifers are actually receiving too much nutrition, then we would want to select bulls with lower milk epds.

The first article I found that pertained was written by University of Illinois extension in 1999.  They talked about the five different stages of mammary development and how sometimes mammary development is isometric, (growing at similar rates as the rest of the body), and other times mammary development is allometric, (growing at two to four times the rest of the body). A key allometric stage is prepuberty, 3 to 9 months of age.  This paragraph was particularly illuminating:

“Prepubertal nutrition can have a significant effect on future milk yield. Raising heifers on high planes of nutrition during prebubertal mammary growth has been shown to have a negative effect on milk yield. Feed restricted heifers can have up to 30 percent larger mammary glands at puberty. Furthermore, mammary tissue on heifers fed ad libitum was over 80 percent fat, while heifers fed a restricted diet have around 65 percent fat, and 13 percent more parenchymal tissue (tissue that will eventually become milk producing tissue) compared with heifers fed ad libitum. It should be noted that mammary parenchymal tissue grows into a layer of fat referred to as the fat pad.”

Ok, are you convinced yet?  I also found this article published in Asian-Australasian Journal of Animal Science.  Both articles are written pertaining to the dairy industry, as most dairy heifers are raised in confinement on a diet that can be regulated.  They suggest a feeding strategy which restricts the diet at critical times during mammary development, and then more feed at other times so as to not waste time and money as the sooner a heifer is producing milk, the more profitable the industry feels the dairy producer will be.

However, I’m wondering if the dairy industry is thinking about this wrongheaded?  A big problem in the confinement dairy industry is how quickly cows are “burnt up”, (culled for one reason or another).  I used to think the reason that cows fell out of production so fast was because of the way they are managed as cows.  But actually, dairy cattle are on a fasttrack from birth.

Maybe the dairy industry should go to a policy of raising their replacement heifers slowly on a high forage diet.  Maybe they shouldn’t worry so much about rushing a heifer into production by age two, and instead should be satisfied with a heifer calving at two and a half or three years of age?  Most of the big dairy farmers in my area are outsourcing the raising of their dairy heifers.  There may be an opportunity for farmers to do a better job with this?  I don’t know.

As far as our problem, so far we have had a very few that exhibited this problem.  I would hate to change the way we are managing our cattle and pastures as the whole herd is doing so well with our rotational grazing.  I’m thinking our problem is rare and only affecting a very few heifers that may be very early maturing, thereby coinciding the allometric mammary growth phase at just the wrong time when they are gaining 3 lbs per day.  Not sure, but I will continue to monitor.

 


Farrowing Sows Need More Space

March 14, 2017

 

“I don’t know how you do it.  We tried that years ago and it was terrible.  The sows laid on most of their piglets.  We’d have sows wean two, three piglets.  We didn’t do that long.  That’s when we got into beef cattle,” said the old farmer I was visiting with at a free lunch at the Bobcat dealership.

“We farrowed in A-frame huts.  We made bumpers to keep the piglets away from the sow.  We even had a corner where we hung a heat lamp.  Nothing seemed to work.”

 

The sows in these photos average 11 piglets each.  After hearing other farmers’ horror stories about not using confinement to farrow, I figured if I could average 7 piglets per sow I would be happy.  It turns out that switching from confinement to farrowing huts has not come with any drop in production as my sows consistently average 9 piglets weaned.  I have been pleasantly surprised and attribute this success to a few factors.

The one factor I think farmers think of first is the genetics of the sow.  Even though I studied genetics in college, I think this factor is overrated.  My Duroc sows, while not farrowing as many piglets as my Landrace, still wean a good average.

I think it is possible to find a line that doesn’t work well outside of confinement, as mainstream genetics are not being tested for farrowing success outside of confinement.  Consequently, I look at genetics as more of a pass/fail type of trait.

By far the bigger factor in my mind is giving the sows enough space, and getting out of their way.  This is difficult for farmers, because we have a craving to control and a strong work ethic.  Its taken me awhile to understand this, but I’ll explain my thinking.

First, I remember my Dad’s stories and my personal experience as a kid.  Dad built A-frame huts and farrowed in them with little success.  Dad transitioned to all farrowing crates in a heated former dairy barn.  He would have to move the sows from their gestating pen/pasture to a farrowing crate before they farrowed.

Being busy, sometimes Dad would miss a sow and she would build a nest and farrow in the pasture.  Remarkably, these sows would consistently raise large litters on pasture with no shelter.  We always attributed the success to the quality of the sow.

I had an inkling that space could be a factor, so I purchased the English style farrowing hut, which is the largest I could find.  They are 9 ft. by 5.5 ft, whereas the basic farrowing hut is 7 ft. by 4.5 ft.

I didn’t plan to use a heat lamp or bumpers to try and keep the piglets away from the sow and I’m glad I didn’t.  As these “solutions” would just confine the sow more, and common sense tells you newborn piglets want to be as close to their mom as possible.

The final thing I do is allow the sow to build her own nest.  Apart from making sure the bottom of the dirt hut is dry with a little bedding to absorb moisture, I place loose straw or hay outside the huts and watch as the sow carries mouthful after mouthful until she has determined the nest is ready.

Sometimes it appears to me the sow has carried in too much bedding.  The sow in these two photos built her nest and started farrowing sometime between 4 pm and 7 am.  I found her with new piglets this morning as the thermometer read 11 degrees F.  I actually had to remove a little bedding so I could fit the roller on the door of the hut.

 


Farm Dogs: Rottweiller

January 10, 2017

We’ve had a lot of dogs on the farm.  Thinking about the Rottweillers.  I guess we had only two.

The first one had kind of a weird looking head.  Gus was his name.  He had seizures so we had to put him down.  I think Dad got what was considered a good buy, but of course it didn’t turn out to be.

The second, Hans, is the one everyone remembers because he got so big.  Well over a hundred pounds.  He was a pretty good dog.  He showed some aptitude for livestock herding, but was generally too rough.

I remember one time loading hogs with Dad.  Hans bit into the rear of a hog and a chunk of quivering ham fell out onto the ground.  We stopped having him help us load after that.

Another time we were checking cows with new calves out in the pasture in the spring of the year.  The dogs liked to run along with the jeep or ATV and most of the time the dogs were very aware of the momma cows as they are protective of their newborn calves and will charge dogs or anything else that looks threatening.  Hans never paid any attention to the cows.  He just trotted along like the top predator he was.  He must have gotten too close and one of the cows decided to chase him away and started towards him.  Hans didn’t appear to notice her until the last instant when he turned and ferociously bit her on the nose.  That’s all it took for the cow to hightail it away from him.

When we ran the calves through the corral for vaccinating and castrating, we always locked the dogs up because its already stressful for cattle to be corralled and seeing dogs just makes it worse.  But dogs, at least every dog I’ve ever been around, always know what is going on in their surroundings, and when we let Hans out of the basement, he ran straight down the hill to the corral.  We forgot about him until a couple of hours later when we saw him waddling up the hill, his belly visibly distended, filled with all the testicles of the calves we had castrated that day.

Hans was never trained as a guard dog, but he had some natural instincts.  The dogs slept in a non heated porch in the warm months of the year.  My parents would latch the screen door shut last thing at night.  One morning when my Dad went out to do chores, he found the screen door broke open.  He was kind of upset until he went to open up the driveway gates and found a golf club lying in the driveway.  Someone, we never found out who, so it may have been someone with bad intent, was down our half mile dead end road opening up the gates into our yard at night. Hans sensed trouble and met them at the gate.  They didn’t get the gates open, and they never came back for the golf club.


Resilient Swine

December 18, 2016

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December 18th, 2016, 4 pm.  3 degrees below zero Farenheit, 17 degrees below zero windchill.  8 week old piglets with their mothers.

Pigs are resilient.  I continue to be amazed at just how resilient.  My background and education in the commodity swine industry tells me these piglets should just die in this environment, but I’ve always tried to be one who observes what is actually happening, rather than closing my eyes and “knowing” what should be happening.

I have a hoop building cleaned and bedded with feed in the feeder.  I’ve been trying to let the piglets self-wean for a few days, and even though they are going in the hoop building to eat feed, they prefer to spend their resting time with their mothers.  I guess I’ll corral them one of these days to finish the weaning process.

 

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Weeds

September 7, 2016

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I’ve learned some psychological coping tricks to deal with weeds.  I learned which are edible and take great pleasure in eating them.  Some I appreciate for the wildlife they support.  Some are eaten by my animals.  And some provide a service of conserving soil by opportunistically covering bare soil.  So I’ve had a laissez-faire attitude toward weeds, but that is changing.

My Dad had an uncle who claimed that velvetleaf, Abutilon theophrasti, seeds could survive in the soil for thirty years, because he hadn’t let a velvetleaf plant produce seed the entire time he had been farming, but he still had velvetleaf weeds in his fields.  So I figured what is the point?  But I’ve let some weeds go to seed and watched the results and am not happy with what I am seeing.

Below is a photo of dozens of small burdock plants in a pig pasture. I had let some large burdock plants go to seed the prior year and the rooting of the pigs provided a perfect environment for the seeds to germinate. Above is a photo of a dandelion and its long taproot, showing you how tenacious some weeds can be.  Weed control is a concern and is moving up on my list of priorities.

 

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Grazing Hay Fields with Cattle

July 11, 2016

 

 

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I’ve always made dry hay for my cattle and swine for winter feed.  I make big, round bales when it seems the weather will cooperate.  In this part of the country though, when it’s “hay-makin’ weather,” as the old-timers would say, it’s past the best quality point of the hay.

Based on the maturity of the grass, late May to early June would be the best time to make hay.  But we seem to get rains every few days until late June or July when the hay would be way over mature.  One solution many farmers in this area use is to make haylage or balage, the former is silage made from hay, and the latter is hay baled wet and wrapped in plastic.  I’ve never wanted to deal with all the plastic and also prefer to not transport and move and feed all that extra water.  But, I’ve struggled in the past, getting hay rained on, making hay that is too wet and having it ruined, making hay when it’s too mature, etc.

Last year I made a lot of hay that was too mature.  My cattle are used to eating very high quality forage in the grazing months and they don’t want to eat this hay very well.  You can see on the right of the photo below all the hay I have left over which I will largely use for hog and cattle bedding in the winter months.

Not wanting to repeat this mistake, I started brainstorming solutions.  One possible solution that Joel Salatin uses is to graze his hay fields until he’s ready to make hay, thereby keeping the quality high.  Since all my fields have a good perimeter fence, and it would just take some electric fencing to subdivide the fields so I could rotationally graze, I thought this would be a good idea to try.

 

 

 

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My cattle were tired of eating hay and they were eating the permanent pasture and woods down to nothing, so I decided to turn them into the first hay field April 14th.  It seemed too early and I feared I would damage the forages in the field.  But one strategy I planned to use was to only leave them on the forage for a week or less.  Keeping animals on a forage for a week or less should prevent overgrazing.

Overgrazing occurs when a plant’s regrowth is bitten off, because a plant is the weakest when it has used its root reserves.  A plant is using its root reserves to regrow when there is no green or very little showing, because when it can, a plant will use photosynthesis to meet its energy requirements to grow.
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Well the experiment worked very well as far as the cattle were concerned.  They had plenty to eat.  And the forage wasn’t damaged at all as far as I could tell.  But it regrew so well, and the grass is so intent to go to seed, that it was tall and mature by the time I came back with the cattle to graze a second time on June 7th.  It had been rested since April 21st, so that is nearly a 7 week rest.

Maybe too long, as the top and bottom photo show the cattle back in that hay field.  In the bottom photo you can see the neighbor’s alfalfa field in the background which he harvested for haylage twice as I grazed twice.  The calf in the bottom photo is a fall calf which probably weighs around 500 lbs to give you a reference.  The heifer in the foreground of the top photo is 20 months old weighing over 1000 lbs.

The good news is even though you can see all that tall orchard grass headed out and mature, the grass and alfalfa and clover down lower was mostly new regrowth and higher quality which the cattle enjoyed grazing.  The other concern for me would be potential eye problems with the cattle reaching through that tall grass to graze.  But there have been no problems.

The second and third photos in this post show another hay field from the same vantage point.  The second photo is May 16th with the cattle grazing.  The third photo is after I cut the field for hay on June 27th.  It was rested from May 20th to June 27th, a little over five week rest.

Even though there was quite a bit of tall orchard grass which is what makes the hay look so light in color, there was fresher regrowth down low.  I baled it up and have fed one bale to the cattle.  They are munching on it, so I’m thinking I may have made better quality hay than last year, even though I made it later by the calendar.

One benefit is it was very easy to make dry hay as the weather and ground had dried out quite a bit compared to a month earlier.  I plan to give it another five week rest and then take a second cutting which should be very high quality.

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Pick the Best Sow Contest: Conclusion

May 4, 2016

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This is the conclusion of a contest to pick the best of four sows.  The best defined as the sow with the most live piglets at one week of age.  The previous two posts give you more background in case you missed them.

Previously I wrote that sow #3 had 13 live piglets and sow #1 had 10 live piglets.  At a week of age, sow #3 still had 13 piglets and sow #1 lost one and had 9 piglets.

Since then, Sow #2 farrowed 11 piglets of which she has 9 left.  The third photo is of her red piglets.

Sow #4 farrowed 17 beautiful, live, piglets, top photo.  At 24 hours, she still had 15 live piglets and I was counting chickens and thinking about setting a new farm record and awarding the prize to Valerie who guessed sow #4 with 13 piglets.  Sow #4 was also my guess so I was feeling a little smug.

But as is so often the case in farming, my celebration was short-lived.  It rained all day and in another 24 hours, 13 of sow #4’s piglets had died from diarrhea.  The next photo shows two live piglets and one dead.

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Sow #3’s litter of 9 piglets.

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The two remaining piglets of sow #4 are doing fine.  She has joined her litter with the other white sow #3’s litter.  The photo below is of those 15 piglets.

The red sows are choosing to keep their piglets segregated as of now.  Probably the longer they can stay apart from the herd, more of their piglets will live as some may be crushed or starve if competition is too great.

I really appreciate the pasture mothering ability of the red sows.  The white sows are more unpredictable, but I like the extra numbers they produce, so I’ll probably keep some daughters and incorporate their genetics into my herd.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the contest.  Congratulations to Gordon who picked sow #3 with 12 piglets.  Gordon is a new farmer in Iowa.  Edmund came in a close second, picking sow #3 with 11 piglets.

I decided to give a $25 Kiva gift card to each of them.  Let me know guys if you don’t receive an email from Kiva or have trouble redeeming your card.

 

 

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