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.

 


Fall-Calving, Grass-Finished Beef

November 12, 2013

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Bruce King asks, “why fall  calving?”  The short answer is “serendipity”.  The long answer is the rest of this post.

When I split my farm from my parents’ farm, I had to figure out how I was going to farm and keep the beef and pork markets I had built up with Jordandal Farms supplied.  With a much smaller land base I realized I would need to purchase more of my inputs.  So I started purchasing spring-born feeder steers in October when they were weaned from their moms.

I take the steers through the winter on stored feed, shooting for a pound and a half gain per head per day.  They then go onto the lush spring pastures, gaining three pounds per day in May and June.  I start butchering the biggest steers at the end of June weighing around 1000 lbs.  As the summer pastures fade I start to graze hay fields to keep high-quality feed available at all times.  I continue butchering the biggest steers at a rate of eight per month and they’re all gone by October.

But back to the fall-calving herd.  Even though I realized I needed to buy feeder steers to keep my market supplied, I was a little sad I wouldn’t have any cows or calves.  The breeding through birth process is always fun to experience.

But the fall before our farms split up saw many cows returning to estrus, after the herd bulls had been removed.  This is a bad sign because it means the cows are “open” and will not have a calf the next spring.  We sell almost all of the open cows for beef, as it doesn’t pay to feed a cow for a nonproductive year.

But in a bit of serendipity, the neighbor’s bull jumped the fence and spent a month with our cows.  When the veterinarian pregnancy-checked our cows, sure enough many were open, more than usual.  Some of the cows we considered best in the herd.  I realized some of these cows may be short-bred by the neighbor’s bull, (less than a month and the vet wouldn’t be able to determine).

So I decided to start a fall-calving herd.  I picked out the best cows, ones the vet said were reproductively sound even though they were open.  And I moved them to my farm and borrowed one of my parents’ bulls to breed any cows which weren’t bred by the neighbor’s bull.  The neighbor’s bull was black and he sired the black calves last year.  I had 8 black calves and 4 red ones.

I wasn’t sure where this herd would be, as I didn’t think I had room for them on my farm during the grazing months.  Luckily I was able to rent a neighbor’s wooded pasture from May 1st to November 1st.  After November 1st I bring them home and turn the bull out with them.

I wasn’t sure how the small calves would handle the winter, but last winter they did fine, nursing their mothers and eating some hay.  I weaned the calves from their moms at the end of April.  The weaned calves really took off on the spring pastures.  They spent the summer grazing with the feeder steers.  And now I’ve started butchering them weighing around 1000 lbs.

I think the economics of the fall-born calves is better than purchasing feeder steers, because although the cow and calf eat more hay than a feeder steer, I don’t have to spend the money purchasing the weaned calf.  Furthermore, the cow will have a salvage value at the end of her productive life.

If I didn’t need to keep a consistent supply of beef, and could just sell quarters to customers at one time in the fall, I think I would only have a fall-calving herd and market all the fall-born calves the following November.

What makes both systems economical is taking the animals through only one winter.  Feed is a huge cost in beef production, and the cost of winter feed dwarfs the cost of summer pasture.

The photos were taken recently and show two, fifteen month old fall-born calves above and below, from a different angle.  They weigh about a  thousand lbs and will be butchered in a few weeks.

The top photo also shows one of my fall-calving cows on the right.  She is eight years old and had something wrong with her udder so I took her calf away from her.  She is one of the biggest cows, I’m sure weighing over 1500 lbs.  She also will be butchered soon.

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Wood Chips from Menards

October 9, 2013

DSCF1484Menards is a home remodel retailer similar to Home Depot.  They have a facility in Illinois which takes all the old wooden pallets used in their business and grinds them up and runs it by a large magnet which removes the nails and metal.  They then give the finished wood chips away if you will haul them.

My uncle has a large straight truck which is used mostly to take mulch and potting soil into Chicago in places a semi tractor trailer can’t access.  He brought me a load for $450, which covers his gas, but not much for his time.  The photo above shows about 60% of the load, as I had him dump it in front of two hoop buildings.

I’m able to use my loader and put it about a foot deep in two hoop buildings.  It makes a great base onto which I spread straw weekly, or as the pigs need it.  When I haul the manure onto the fields I can still see some of the wood chips, but it appears they break down rapidly in the field because I have never seen any intact later.

In the bottom photo you may be able to see a sow eating at the large feeder.  Since I’m using more pasture for my hogs I’m using some of my hoop buildings differently.  In the warm months when they can be out, I have shelters in the pasture, but I let the hogs come into the hoop building for water and feed, fencing off the rest of the hoop building and using that part for machinery storage.  In the cold, wet months I’ll give the hogs access to the rest of the building.

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Pig Feed: Mix-your-own vs. Bulk-delivered

August 5, 2013

I used all the corn I grew last year and have been purchasing corn from my parents, but it looks like I may use up that supply before fall harvest.  It’s going to be close, though.  So instead of purchasing a small amount of corn which would be a pain to auger into a bin only to shovel back out, I priced a complete feed delivered right into my pig feeders.

The price Big Gain has right now for 16% protein pig feed is $825 for two ton, delivered into my feeder.  If I were to mix my own ration, I could do two ton for $510, not counting the cost of my time and machinery.

Breaking it down for a two ton batch:

80 lbs of vitamin/mineral/amino acid premix for $30

550 lbs of soybean meal for $143

3370 lbs of corn for $337

The cost of the bulk feed is $.21 per lb and the cost of the mix-my-own feed is $.13 per lb.  This seems like a hefty premium to pay for convenience, but I may buy some if I’m cutting it very close.


Solar Fence Charger

April 9, 2013

Solar Fence Charger

I purchased a Parmak solar fence charger to power the electric fence around my farrowing pasture.  This is my first experience with a solar charger and it’s working fine.  I paid $200 at my local hardware store.

I hung it on the electric pole and grounded it to the ground running down the pole.  Does anyone know if this is a bad idea?


Trouble-Spring Farrowing 2013

March 10, 2013

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17 of the first 22 piglets born to my spring litters.  I guess labeling them as spring litters alludes you to my delusions, which the past six days have exposed.

I thought farrowing in a hoop building in January would be the most difficult farrowing I would ever experience.  Farrowing in huts in 30ish F weather in a blizzard followed by over an inch of rain has proven more difficult.  I guess Jude Becker purchased insulated farrowing huts for a reason.

I put one bag of wood shavings in each shelter along with a couple slices of straw.  I thought I could add straw for warmth as needed.  What I didn’t think about was the frozen ground underneath.  Last year farrowing in the hoop building I had the advantage of a bedding pack for warmth, not frozen ground.

On Tuesday a couple of sows acted like they were ready to farrow.  A blizzard was forecast for that night.  I locked one sow up in a shelter and for some reason I can’t remember did not lock up the other one.  At first light I checked on the sows.  The sow who was locked up had four out of twelve piglets alive.  The other sow had one out of ten alive.  The problem was moisture along with cold.  Snow had blown into the shelters, especially the open-door one.  I transferred the lone piglet to the litter with four.  All five piglets are still alive.

I realized I needed more bedding and it needed to be absorbent.  So I started buying wood shavings and have probably put at least four bags of wood shavings in each shelter over the past five days.  I knew the piglets needed to get dry if they were going to resist the cold.

It has been raining the past two days.  Below is a picture of a shelter I abandoned because I didn’t need it.  The rain is not soaking into the frozen ground so instead is pooling.

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So I keep adding wood shavings trying to build a little dry hill for the sow and piglets.  It seems to be working.  If a piglet lives the first day, really the first couple of hours, it is staying alive.

This has been another learning experience for me.  Yesterday as the rain fell I despaired, but today I’m back to my optimistic self.  Below is probably the best litter so far.  I’ll let you know how many piglets are weaned from this difficult farrowing group.

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Daily Winter Cattle Watering

January 14, 2013

Cattle Tank Waterer

I wanted to house my fall-calving cows with calves on the south side of my farm this winter.  I couldn’t figure out a good way to walk them back over to where the heated Ritchie waterer is, so I purchased the 110 gallon tank, pictured above.

465 is the cow in the photo.  She is my oldest cow at nine years old.  Coincidentally, she was the model cow in last year’s post about the Ritchie waterer.

I needed a way to keep the water thawed.  So I purchased a sinking tank de-icer.  The first cold night it blew a 15 amp fuse.  I thought I was in for trouble, but I replaced it with a 20 amp fuse and it has worked flawlessly since.

Sinking Tank De-Icer

One drawback is I fill the tank with a hose at least twice per day, draining the hose well after each fill.  I figure each cow is drinking between 15 and 20 gallons per day.  I don’t notice the calves drinking much because they are still nursing their mothers.

In the photo below you can see the herd eating hay out of a feeder.  13 cows, 12 calves, and 1 bull are eating a half of a round bale of hay per day.  If similar quality hay is valued at $200 per ton, and a round bale is 1500 lbs, then the herd is eating $75 worth of hay per day.

Tank Waterer and Cows Eating Hay