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.

 


Valuable Pasture Swine Genetics

March 31, 2016

DSCF2342

 

This is not valuable pasture swine genetics.  This is the sow who helped me realize how valuable pasture swine genetics are.

Sows that are able to build a nest and farrow unassisted in a hut and nurse and wean a large litter are amazing.  I didn’t fully appreciate them until I brought in some new genetics via AI and farrowed the resulting offspring.

I’ve always liked the Landrace breed and have used Landrace semen in the past with good results.  Landrace are known as a maternal breed, but I also know there is tremendous variability within the breed.  Back when I was a student at Iowa State using ultrasound to evaluate thousands of hogs, some of the craziest hogs that came through my chute were Landrace.  And out of all the hogs I evaluated, I found three with loin measurements of over 9 square inches, (very muscular), and all three were Landrace gilts.

So I used semen from two different Landrace boars resulting in four litters.  The Landrace boars were from two different, but well-respected Landrace breeders.  Right away I could see a difference in the piglets. Two of the litters had the more traditional Landrace look with larger ears and deep bodies.  The other two litters looked more thin-skinned with smaller ears.

I kept sixteen gilts as breeders, roughly four per litter.  Eight are farrowing their second litter now.  I couldn’t tell much difference last summer because of the problem I was having with piglet scours.  The diarrhea was much more of a problem than sow behavior, sometimes affecting a whole litter, other times leaving a litter untouched.  Many piglets died, as I wrote last fall, but as I hoped, the disease worked though the herd and I’m seeing no evidence of it now.  Patience and experience helped me have faith, as it is always very difficult for me when my animals are not healthy.

Now with their second litter I can see a difference.  The larger-eared, deep-sided sows calmly picked a hut and made a nest and are raising nearly all of the piglets they farrowed. The leaner, thin-skinned sows were agitated before farrowing and it continued for the first few days after farrowing.

The worst sow farrowed twelve nice piglets and crushed five.  This is the sow in the photo.  Possibly she would have done better in confinement?

So I continue to learn.  I will cull the sows that do poorly, and incorporate the genetics of the good ones, joining my herd of excellent red sows and boars, which I appreciate now more than ever.

 


Winter/Spring Farrowing 2014

February 21, 2014

Farrowing Huts in Hoop Barn

This is my newest farrowing setup.  Last winter/spring when I had all that trouble in March with snow and cold, I decided I would try putting the farrowing huts inside a hoop barn.  You can see by the ice on the bottom of the closest hut that it’s still cold in there, but I shouldn’t have as much of a  moisture problem as I did outside in the snow and cold.

Since I stopped farrowing in my parents’ heated barn in 2011, I’ve tried four different ways of farrowing:

The warm, dry months of July, August , and September are ideal for farrowing outside.  I’m convinced that if sows had plenty of space and material to build their own nests, no predator problems, and feed and water, a farmer could do absolutely nothing and would average over 8 piglets weaned per litter during this perfect time.

Farrowing in huts on frozen ground with snow and ice surrounding is what I tried last winter/spring.  I managed to wean 7 piglets per litter,  but it took tons of bedding and manual work and was stressful.

Farrowing in huts in the warmer months is easier than when it’s cold.  I probably sleep the best with this method as I know if a sow and her litter is in a hut with a roller on the door to keep the piglets in, they are safe from predators and the elements.

Finally, farrowing in a hoop barn with homemade pens is the first method I tried in January of 2012.  This worked surprisingly well except for a couple of litters born when the temperature dipped to zero F.  I made temporary pens out of wire hog panels, giving the sows plenty of space, removing the panels when the piglets were a couple of weeks old.  It was quite a bit of work, letting the sows out of their pens for feed and water twice a day, but it was a nice environment for the pigs and the farmer.

So putting huts inside a hoop barn is my fifth iteration.  I plan to use this system only until mid-spring, then I will go to huts outside.  As always, I plan to keep statistics and share the results by the end of the year.


Goodbye to Cow 521

November 26, 2012

We pregnancy-checked my parents’ spring-calving cows a few weeks ago.  Cow 521 came up open.  I have always liked this cow and I posted a picture of her a couple of years ago, shown below.

I am tempted to add her to my fall-calving herd which is in the midst of breeding season now, but instead I chose to buy cow 447, which the vet said he thought may be pregnant, but only a month along.  447 is a better bet than 521 because it’s unknown why 521 is open.  She may have reproductive problems which render her infertile.

Still, it’s sad to see her go.


Artificial Insemination of Swine II

November 12, 2010

I wrote about how we use Artificial Insemination to bring new genetics into our swineherd in one of my very first posts, “Artificial Insemination of Swine.” Click on the link if you want to read about our AI protocol.

I didn’t use any pictures in the beginning, because I didn’t have access to a camera.  My sister bought us a digital camera, and I’ve loved it.  So easy. When we AI’d some sows in October, I snapped a few photos.


Breeding Season II: Problems

August 10, 2010

My early July post, “Breeding Season Starts”, was full of optimism.  We started breeding season with five, virile bulls, breeding 131 beautiful cows.  We now have one, extremely popular bull, with 131 cows.

The bull in the bottom of the picture above, “New Chapter”, fought with the other bulls instead of breeding the cows.  We took him to market after he hurt the other five-year-old bull, “New York.”  “New York” is refusing to rejoin the herd and is recovering his confidence in the back pasture.  “Red Direction” and “Judge” are lame and limping along with the herd.

But “Julius”, “Julius” is thriving!  Look at him in action!

Even though he’s busy, he still makes each cow feel special after he puts a kink in her tail.

We’ve kicked around some options to make sure the cows get bred.  We could take the yearling bulls out of the heifer pasture and put them with the cows.  We could buy bulls, but we may not find quality bulls on short notice.

We’ve decided to watch and wait.  We aren’t seeing many cows “in heat” now.  We think the bulls settled many of the cows during the first heat cycle.  A cow’s cycle is 21 days.  We are nearing the end of the 2nd heat cycle, so a decision needs to be made because the 3rd cycle is their last chance to get bred.  All cows that don’t breed are butchered.

We won’t know for sure what percentage of the cows are bred until November when a veterinarian pregnancy checks them.  I’ll let you know how we did, then.



Breeding Season Starts

July 6, 2010

Our cowherd at the end of June.  We turned the bulls in with the cows on July 1st.  This means they are due to start calving about April 8th.  This is early enough for us as we remember early April snowstorms.

Cows have a tremendous ability to fluctuate their weight based mainly upon environmental conditions.  Low-cost managers time the peak nutritional requirements of the cow with the time of peak nutrition in the environment.  Put simply, calve in late spring.

May and June pastures in the driftless region are tremendous.  Our cows gain at least 100 lbs. from calving in April and May until breeding in July.

The picture below shows a cow in excellent condition in the foreground.  The background shows two cows engaged in homoerotic behavior.  This is common for cows when they are ‘in heat’.

This is a good sign, because it shows the cow is ovulating.  It takes good genetics and good management to keep cows on a yearly reproductive schedule. They need to calve, lactate, and have their reproductive tract return to normal so they can start cycling again.

Our breeding season last year was six weeks for the heifers and nine weeks for the cows.  We only had two cows calve in the last week of calving, so I’m thinking of shortening our breeding season to eight weeks.

Ian Mitchell-Innes is a South African rancher I heard speak at a Mob Grazing seminar.  He claims to have a 30 day breeding season.  I wonder how short of a breeding season we could have.