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Milk Fever and Cattle (Specifically Milk Cows)

 
Elisheba Meyer
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Hi Everyone!

We bought a Milk Cow last year and when she came to us the previous owner warned us that she had had milk fever before and so needed to be watched carefully. I wondered if Adam, or any of you would be able to share reasons why this happens and possible natural options to prevent this. She is not due to freshen for about 5 more months so we have time to work on her nutrition.

So as of right now she is on natural hay that is full of different herbs and grasses, that has not been sprayed or synthetically fertilized. We haven't been supplementing her at all really, and during the "green" months she has free range of the land and gets to browse on whatever she likes. We never feed her corn and during milking the grain we have been feeding is organic barley. So my questions. Is this kind of feed enough for her? Should I change what I give her as far as grain? Is Milk Fever a symptom of a condition that we should supplement to help her with? Are their natural options for treatment that I should have on hand for a crisis situations?

We would love to get into Dairy farming with our family, so she is hopefully the first of many and she is definitely our guinea pig (or should I say cow) and I would love to spare her any discomfort because of our learning curb. I am also really excited to hear about Adam Klaus's book. It seems like exactly the kind of information we want to have, so thanks for bringing it to our attention!!!

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Adam Klaus
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So Elisheba, the answer I have might not be what you want to hear, but I'm a straight shooter, so here goes-

Stop feeding grain. Period. Forever. It messes up the bacterial ecology of the cow's rumen, causing her entire system to become acidic, which weakens her in a deep and systemic way. Zero grain is an essential component to my system of dairy management.

Now, of course, many cows lineages have become so dependent on grain, especially Jerseys and Holsteins, that the farmer will have to endure a high cull rate to get his herd to breed reliably without the grain. This is a necessary, but painful step to regaining cow genetics that perform for permaculture farms.

The key feed that will help to replace the energy value of the grain in the cow's diet is alfalfa hay. Of course, there are all sorts of misconceptions about alfalfa hay causing milk fever in the first place. Which is somewhat true. The key, in this as in all things in farming and life, is timing.

Cows need to eat low quality pasture when they are dried up. Then, once fully dry, feed them alfalfa hay through their dry period, to build up the minerals, especially calcium, in their bodies. Assuming you are calving seasonally, which is another essential tenant of good dairy farming, you should have your calving timed to transition the cow off of alfalfa hay and onto spring pasture a week or so before calving. The cow then eats good pasture only during the milking period.

What I advocate in my book is a complete system of dairy management. You cannot pick and choose the parts that are easy. The system works as a system, nothing less.

good luck!
 
Elisheba Meyer
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So Adam,

This is what I need to hear. I did breed her when she was just on pasture/hay, and she took just great! I think it totally makes sense to go to no grain. I guess I was just feeling sorry for her feed changing so much from her last owner. So your advice is to feed alfalfa to build her up right now. She is dried up early anyway. So do you think Alfalfa would be a good alternative treat for her at milking time?

I think it makes perfect sense to breed her at the time you said and that is the plan in future. I just found the AI guy too late this year and didn't have access to a bull.

So your straight forward advice was exactly what I wanted and is well taken. I will put your book on the list of must haves.

Thank you!


 
Adam Klaus
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Elisheba Meyer wrote:So do you think Alfalfa would be a good alternative treat for her at milking time?


Yes! I would then transition her away from any treats during milking time, as she will be better behaved if she isn't anticipating a treat in the milker. I use an alfalfa bribe for heifers to keep them distracted when they are first being trained. After that, I leave kelp and salt in the milker trough so that I make sure my cows have ample opportunity to get their minerals.

Glad my advice hit the spot! Good luck!
 
Elisheba Meyer
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Ok, I get that idea of minerals being a milking time treat. We have tried that but Lily the cow is a bit of a princess and wasn't too happy with just that. Maybe we can transition her slowly.

So I thought of one more question. (I know, shocker! lol)

If in the middle of transitioning an animal like this (since I am looking to buy more). Is there a product that you would say is a lesser evil to use for Milk Fever? My motivation in asking is simply I don't want to risk a $2000 investment for the sake of being a purist.
 
Elisheba Meyer
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So I ran across this when looking for natural options for Hypocalcaemia. It even has recipes for making your own calcium drench.

http://www.organicpastoral.co.nz/site/organic/files/Microsoft%20Word%20-%20Milk%20Fever%20oct10.pdf

If anyone has more information on this I am open. I have friends with a small (60 milkers) dairy that told me this is the main thing I should prepare for.
 
Adam Klaus
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Elisheba Meyer wrote:Ok, I get that idea of minerals being a milking time treat. We have tried that but Lily the cow is a bit of a princess and wasn't too happy with just that. Maybe we can transition her slowly.

So I thought of one more question. (I know, shocker! lol)

If in the middle of transitioning an animal like this (since I am looking to buy more). Is there a product that you would say is a lesser evil to use for Milk Fever? My motivation in asking is simply I don't want to risk a $2000 investment for the sake of being a purist.


Really, I don't have any great suggestions. I am not a big supplement guy; I just have never needed them with my herd.

An important way to mitigate milk fever is with our milking routine during the first few days after calving. Never milk a cow dry right when she freshens. For the first two days, just take out enough milk to relieve the pressure in the udder, and let the newborn calf nurse 24 hours a day. Starting on day 3, increase how much milk you take out slowly, until you drain the udder completely for the first time on day 5. This allows the cow's system to get up to speed with the calcium mobilization necessary for milk production. Milk fever is about not being able to mobilize adequate calcium to keep up with the udder demands. So by managing how much milk the cow produces during those critical first days, we go a long way towards preventing milk fever.

Thanks for reminding me to mention that critical management technique, it has worked wonders for me.

good luck!
 
R Scott
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A tube of cal-mag is $8 and will give you peace of mind having it on the shelf. You don't need the application gun, a stick will push the plunger in easier and faster. Only for last resort, but you don't have time to go track it down when you need it so get it now if you are going to. It is a supplement like a multivitamin, not an antibiotic or vaccine. Good to avoid the problem in the first place, but better to give it than lose a cow or have to give something stronger because it got mastitis.

I am not blessed with volcanic soils but played out clay, so I give free choice buffet mineral now. That has seemed to help my cows manage themselves. And better than any soil test for me to manage the pasture.

 
Elisheba Meyer
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More minerals are in Lily Cow's future. Goats seemed a little less scary, I thought I had just gotten them figured out when we got into Cows, so Adam, I really appreciate you taking time to help me with my questions. Your experience means a lot. R Scott, thanks so much for the heads up on what to get and the price. This really helped. It is going on the shelf just in case!
 
patrick canidae
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Milk fever is simply hypo calcemia. Jerseys have a genetic pre-disposition for milk fever.

Hypo calemia happens when the parathyroid gland doesn't turn on fast enough to begin removing bone calcium reserves into the blood stream when the mammary gland kicks into gear prior to or at partuition. Intestinal absorbtion efficiency of calcium is also greatly reduced if cattle receive high calcium diets during the dry period, further increasing the problem. Using low calcium forages like grasses, instead of alfalfa as a primary forage during the pre-partuition period will greatly reduce your incidence of milk fever. Calcium is essential for muscle contraction, and the most obvious symptom of milk fever is a "down cow", who can not rise on her own. If untreated, the diaphragm or cardiac muscle will become involved and death is imminent. Secondary problems of recovering cattle including retained placenta and metritis are likely, due to the uterus' inability to properly contract and go through involution from a lack of calcium to help smooth muscle function.

Prevention:

Most commercial dairies balance diets for a specific dietary cation-ion balance. Essentially keeping the body ph, measurable through simple urine ph test strips, slightly acidic for the last 21 days prior to partuition. If urine ph is neutral or alkaline, milk fever troubles are looming. A slightly acid blood pH will help mobilize calcium from bone reserves, ramping up the parathyroid gland for the hard row-to-hoe ahead at freshening. Mineral blocks or mixes specifically developed for pre-fresh cows should be fed to help avoid hypo calcemia. Base forages should be low calcium grasses, etc.

Treatment:

Cal-mag gel, while a means to increase blood calcium, will not be enough to help an acute case of milk fever. You need to learn to tie a head back, block the jugular vein, and slowly run an iv of cal-dextro solution if you are going to dairy in any real volume. Otherwise get ready for dead cows.

How to hit the jugular vein in a dairy cow http://youtu.be/812CskWCqGQ

A fearful novice may also use subcutaneous administration of calcium solution as below on cows that are not severely acute

Sub- Q fluid administration http://youtu.be/AD1lK3yI9mw


 
Elisheba Meyer
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Patrick thank you so much for the information. I really appreciate your take on this.

So here is what I think I am understanding (from this and other threads).
Jersies are predisposed to this problem (and are also more difficult to keep in good condition).
Don't feed anything but grass/pasture.
Adam says Alfalfa is fine except for the last week or so of the pregnancy. Am I right that you are saying not to feed alfalfa at all when they are dry? If so does it change anything that I dried her up before she was bred. (I had trouble finding an AI guy and since she had been milking over a year we decided to give her a break.) So would you still say no Alfalfa for this whole pregnancy?
Are there specific breeds that are your recommendation as to hardiness?

Thank you also for the links. I can see that I have another skill to learn.




 
patrick canidae
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You can feed other things. That's simply a matter of choice, marketing, cost and ration balancing.

Alfalfa or other high calcium feeds should be limited for at least 21 days pre-partuition. Often referred to as the "steam-up" period. A pre-fresh dry cow mineral should be fed during this time. No good reason to waste high priced alfalfa on a long period dry cow as long as you can keep dietary protein around 11-12%.

A long period dry cow is very susceptible to ketosis when she freshens. Keep this cow thin but thrifty if you don't want to increase your already higher odds of this metabolic disorder. A body condition score of no higher than 3.5 out of 5 at freshening will reduce odds of this problem.

Long dry period cows are costly. Eating valuable forage that could be supporting productive things like producing milk from lactating cows, growing stocker calves, supporting sheep, or growing geese or rabbits. It's a loss of a buck a day for the extra 210 days of dry period not necessay at just a pasture lease rate scenario. Unbred cows get sold on commercial dairies when cost of production exceeds/current production income level before a 60 day dry period.

If you want to milk on a grain free diet, find someone who actually has linebred (purposeful inbreeding to fix traits in place) several generations of cattle to produce milk and get pregnant without grain. I can recall a couple in New York who had line bred their own cattle for several years for a no grain dairy. Can't recall if they were in Graze Magazine or Stockman Grassfarmer.

Specific breeds don't mean as much as specifically bred lines to do what you want. Breed, line breed, cull viciously, get what you want.

Good luck!
 
Justin Wood
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Elisheba Meyer wrote:
We bought a Milk Cow last year and when she came to us the previous owner warned us that she had had milk fever before and so needed to be watched carefully.


Elisheba,

I heard the exact same line when I bought our last jersey. I have since sold my 3 jerseys, but they were the lineage that Adam Klaus is talking about - dependent upon grain to stay alive. I was still feeding them grain because I bought her a month before she freshened. I added the redmond's salt to the feed everyday. I made sure not to over mineralize them. I had no problems. When I saw the guy I bought her from, he could not believe she did not have milk fever.

Listen to what Adam Klaus is saying. Permaculture milking is not impossible, but you have to forget almost everything else that is out there to make it work. Because once you take just a few steps towards industrial milking, then it is very difficult to change direction again.

 
Elisheba Meyer
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Justin, Thank you for the encouragement!
 
Justin Wood
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Elisheba Meyer wrote:Justin, Thank you for the encouragement!


Elisheba,

I do think it is possible. I do think that going the route of a jersey, holstein or guernsey is possible, but more difficult.

The last jersey I bought who frequently got milk fever was raised on a dairy. The guy I bought her off of (I have since become a good friend with him) had transitioned her from dairy life to grass fed, daily rotation, but she still needed grain. I am not sure how many generations it would take, but the transition is slow.

Good luck.
 
Elisheba Meyer
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Hi Justin!
I am not sure how it is going to go with our Lily, but she has been on just pasture/grass and herb hay since before she was bred this year and seems to be doing well. According to those that have experience with Jersey's her condition is fine. I know filled out is not normal or healthy but it is sure hard to get used to for me. So I am going to see how this goes and only give her grain if it seems that she really needs it. Perhaps not being able to breed her right away and having her dried up and just on pasture will give us a boost in the right direction.

Really, I do love the words of encouragement. I'm feeling better and better about the process.
 
No prison can hold Chairface Chippendale. And on a totally different topic ... my stuff:
The stocking stuffer game for all your Permaculture companions
http://www.FoodForestCardGame.com
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