Blood Calcium in Dairy Cows

Photo by USDA NRCS

The health of dairy cows after giving birth is a major factor in the quantity and quality of the milk the cows produce. Researchers at the University of Missouri have found that subclinical hypocalcemia, which is the condition of having low levels of calcium in the blood and occurs in many cows after giving birth, is related to higher levels of fat in the liver. John Middleton, a professor in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine, says these higher levels of fat are often precursors to future health problems in cows. “We found that about 50 percent of dairy cows suffered subclinical hypocalcemia and subsequent higher levels of fat in the liver after giving birth to their calves,” Middleton said. “These higher levels of fat in the liver are often tied to health problems in dairy cows, including increased risk for uterus and mammary infections as well as ketosis, which is a condition that results in the cows expending more energy than they are taking in through their diet. All of these conditions can decrease the amount of milk these dairy cows will produce.”

This article appears in the January 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Symptoms of Nutritional Deficiencies in Cattle Herds

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

Nutritional deficiencies in cattle herds probably revolve more around micronutri­ent minerals than protein or energy, although poor energy intake will definitely hinder conception. Poor energy intake is usually obvious by seeing skinny cows for months on end. This may be seen on grazing farms when not enough effective fiber is being fed, or the fresh grass is exiting the digestive tract too quickly and cows have too loose manure (diarrhea) for too long. Keep in mind that if you spot skinny cows, there will likely be micronutrient deficiencies as well. The animals are depleting their mineral stores from their bones (the skeleton is the major bank of minerals in the body). An obvious symptom of mineral imbalance is when animals licking the soil, stones, concrete, or walls in attempts to regain minerals not available in their feed.

Some of the important microminerals include selenium, zinc, cop­per, manganese, and cobalt. Selenium deficiency is classically seen in newborn calves with white muscle disease; however, it is more often seen as retained placentas without a problem calving (i.e., no twins, not early, not a hard calving). Selenium also helps the immune system and can help if high somatic cell counts are a problem.

Zinc deficiency may show in reduced conception rates, increased retained placentas, hoof problems (strawberry heel, laminitis, heel cracks), low-quality milk due to high somatic cell count, and slow wound healing.

Zinc deficiency may show in reduced conception rates, increased retained placentas, hoof problems (strawberry heel, laminitis, heel cracks), low-quality milk due to high somatic cell count, and slow wound healing.

Copper deficiency may show reduced conception although heats are being seen, early embryonic death (although BVD can certainly cause early embryonic death as well), possible increase in retained pla­centa, and diarrhea.

Manganese deficiency may be seen as no heats or silent heats, re­duced conception rate, slow or delayed ovulation, and increased abor­tion (although BVD, lepto, and neospora may also cause abortions).

Cobalt deficiency, which is required for production of vita­min B12, may result in reduced fertility but is more associated with increased early calf mortality.

Deficiencies of any of these micronutrients can cause an animal, especially a younger one, to have a poor hair coat and poor growth of the skeleton, legs, and joints (although parasitism can also cause symp­toms of animals looking rough and not thriving). Chronically loose manure (diarrhea) will certainly deplete the animal’s system of miner­als as well as protein, and in adults we usually think of Johne’s disease or inadequate dry hay being fed. Either way, minerals are being wasted.

Obviously, your nutritionist will be able to advise you on the proper levels of the micronutrients to feed based on what is being provided by your forages. Please keep in mind that most minerals are absorbed bet­ter through the digestive tract than by syringe and needle. Generally speaking, if the animals in your herd look sleek, have shiny hair coats, and are in proper body condition for their stage of lactation, they will most likely be able to get bred back in the time period that you would like. In short, doing your part in watching for heats, breeding them in time, feeding them well, and doing regularly scheduled reproduc­tive examinations will enable your cows to freshen according to your schedule.

Source: Four-Seasons Organic Cow Care

Vaccinations and Organic Cow Care

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

As the summer season draws to a close, consider how your animals have done out on pasture. As I’ve written, adult cows generally can withstand various environmental pressures that younger animals simply cannot. Younger animals don’t have the ability to adjust as well to brand new situations since their immune systems have not had pre­vious exposure to various challenges yet. This is where vaccinating for a disease that has repeatedly occurred on a farm may be beneficial. While vaccines will prepare an animal for future challenges, some farmers can rely on them too much and can conceal some root cause of disease in the animals’ environment. Additionally, vaccines won’t work well if the animals’ nutritional plane is deficient.

One thing to think about is animal concentration—what is the op­timal number of animals to have for a certain size of land or barn? That’s a real question. The beautiful stone barns of the southeastern Pennsylvania countryside were originally meant to house no more than probably fifteen cows, their young stock, a few horses, and a handful of pigs and chickens. Now they routinely house forty or more cows, some young stock, and a full team of horses. I think it only makes sense that when there is a high density of animals in one area, bugs and germs have an easier time setting up shop in the animals there. That’s why routine massive vaccination programs have become so common place in modern agriculture—because of the high concentration of animals in one location, whether it is a forty- to fifty-cow tie stall in a stone barn or a four hundred– to four thousand–cow free-stall system.

Remember that the animals’ environment and feed play a much bigger part in staying healthy than vaccines.

I am not strongly in favor of vaccination, nor am I opposed to vaccination— it all depends on factors within an individual farm. While vaccinating prevents disease, I think that it’s also a crutch that allows for an unnaturally high density of animals to be kept together. Vaccines certainly can prevent terrible diseases—thank God for the rabies vaccine. There have been no alternative forms of prevention for rabies.

Unvaccinated people or animals bitten by a rabid animal will die unless they get the antibody treatment in time.

On the other hand, some vaccines seem to be weak, evidenced by the need for one to two shots a year. One would think that a truly good vaccine would provide long-standing immunity, hopefully for many years. For example, the rabies vaccine in people is good for five to ten years, and in most small animals it’s good for three years. I’m definitely not in favor of excessive vaccination programs as it may confuse the immune system or possibly create a tolerance effect, which is when the body becomes accustomed to the injected material and no longer mounts a response.

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It all comes down to priorities, ideals, and reality—not always an easy set of factors to balance in farming situations with multi-factorial causes to problems. But keep trying, it’ll be worth it in the long run.

To Vaccinate or Not?

Do we need to vaccinate if we are abiding by the “high-forage diet, fresh air, and dry bedding” rule? That depends on some factors.

The first thing to consider is what you want to vaccinate against. Is it the respiratory bugs mainly? It’s a common practice to do so. In some ways doing so admits that indoor living isn’t as good as the outdoors on pasture, right? I have come to realize that, truly, the best vaccination program is one that is based on fresh air, high-forage di­ets, and dry bedding—at least for respiratory health. Another impor­tant way to prevent respiratory problems in stabled animals is to put them outside every day for as long as possible. This allows them to breathe in fresh air every day. Remember that most dairy cattle breeds are from northern European climates and like temperatures between 20°F–50°F (-5°C–10°C). There is no need to keep them inside when it is 22ºF if the sun is shining, there is little wind, and the footing is not slippery. The absolute worst possible weather for cattle to be outside is when it’s raining and barely above freezing. They will lose body con­dition fast. If young stock are carrying an internal parasite burden, or if they have poor body condition due to insufficient feed and energy intake, they will likely break with pneumonia in such weather condi­tions. Young stock with such issues may also break with pneumonia when put inside, especially if the bedding becomes damp, there is a draft at ground level, and they are in a cinder block or wooden build­ing with no fresh air.

If this housing situation is unavoidable, then vaccinating with one of the intranasal vaccines (InForce 3) that protects against the typical respiratory viruses like BRSV, PI3, and IBR is best as it gives quick protection within a few days and will last a few months. I have always liked the idea of the intranasal vaccines if only because they mimic the real way respiratory germs typically gain entrance to the body— through the nose. Otherwise, buildings with excellent air movement just above the height of the animals but allowing no drafts at bedding level (such as curtain barns, hoop houses, or large super hutches) are great for keeping weaned animals and bred heifers in.

Alternatives to Vaccinating

Are there alternatives to vaccinating? Again, the best “alternative” to vaccinating is likely a solid framework promoting basic healthful living. Autogenous vaccines can also serve as a true alternative to com­mercial vaccines. Autogenous vaccines are vaccines made right from your own herd and are highly specific to whatever is challenging your herd in particular. I have seen it work very well in a herd continually challenged by Staphylococcus aureus mastitis. By vaccinating animals at six months of age and at a year old, first-calf heifers coming fresh with Staph. aureus have been reduced from an average of five to six out of ten down to zero to one out of ten freshen­ing. They are then vaccinated yearly about a month prior to the next calving. It took about three years for this beneficial effect to be seen. And that was with no other measures taken.

Homeopathic nosodes are sometimes used as alternatives. To what extent they are truly effective against hot challenges is open to speculation since only one real study, on kennel cough, has ever been done. Remember that anything will appear to work if there is no actual challenge. Maybe your feeding and housing practices are so good that they are the main factor preventing disease, not the homeopathic nosode. But maybe it’s both things working to­gether! The real proof is when a hot challenge occurs—a good example is animals being shipped, mingled with yours, and kept together in­doors during the winter. One thing for sure is that using homeopathic nosodes will not overload the immune system or create tolerance, as they don’t work in the same way vaccines do (animals exposed to nos­odes do not produce antibody titers). Nosodes are very safe to give, but truly effective protection is an open question. Real homeopaths will tell you that nosodes are to be used only during a disease outbreak, as they are derived from actual disease material. Homeopathy does not generally put forth preventives, other than the pillars of health that I often mention: sound nutrition, clean and dry bedding, fresh air, etc.

I do think vaccines can be abused and harm the immune system if given excessively. I don’t quite understand how we humans can get a tetanus shot that lasts for ten years or a rabies vaccine that lasts five to ten years, but almost all the animal vaccines have instructions for revaccinating annually. Can’t they improve the vaccines? To be sure, there are many alternative veterinary medicine friends of mine (small animal and equine vets) that take a blood sample to check the protec­tion level (titer) to see whether revaccination is necessary. Maybe that’s something farmers should consider before revaccinating as well?

What about not vaccinating at all? If everything has been fine and you have all the foundational pillars of health in place and you aren’t buying in animals and whoever visits your farm has sanitized boots, then it should be okay. Always remember this: keeping your animals in robust health by proper feeding, frequent exercise, allowing them to choose to go outdoors or stay inside, and clean and dry bed­ding is the first step in any immunization program.

Remember that the animals’ environment and feed play a much bigger part in staying healthy than vaccines. I’m not against vaccines, but the best “vaccine” for farm animals will always be fresh air, dry bed­ding, high-forage diets, and sunshine.

Source: Four-Seasons Organic Cow Care

Preventing & Treating Heat Stroke in Cattle Herds

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

Signs of heat stroke are very consistent among animals, but it’s just that some are more at risk than others: those that are clinically ill, those tee­tering on becoming ill, and especially those right around calving time.

What is heat stroke? The condition involves the increase of body temperature to an extreme point. Unreasonably high temperatures in an animal that seemed completely healthy a few hours ago would be above 106ºF–107°F. Therefore, on a very hot and humid summer day, it would be wise—indeed, necessary—to check an animal that is down or otherwise depressed to see what her temperature is. Most times, a typical heat stroke will be 106°F–108°F. If the temperature is above 108°F, like 109°F–110°F, the cow (or horse) will either not recover fully or recover at all since that level of temperature causes brain damage. Check the temperature of the worst-affected animal to know where she is on the temperature spectrum. On the worst days, normal cows will have elevated temperatures in the range of 103°F or so when they are coming in from pasture or when in the barnyard congregated together. Simple heat stress can deteriorate into heat stroke in animals that have had pneumonia at some point in the past (look in the health record) or in just-fresh older cows with low blood calcium levels.

heat vs yield

Difference Between Heat Stress and Heat Stroke

heat-stressed cow (or horse) will show signs of open-mouth panting with quick, shallow breathing but can still stand, while a heat-stroke cow will usually be down and not rise. A heat-stroke cow will have shallow, rapid respirations and usually appears depressed or even co­matose—much like a milk fever cow. The pupils of the eyes will be dilated. The animal will feel hot to the touch. She may or may not be sweating. If you do a rectal on her, she will feel like she is burning up internally (which she basically is). Heat-stroke animals tend to not drink water, while a heat-stressed animal will. Basically the difference between a heat-stressed cow and a heat-stroke cow is that the heat-stroke cow will have lost control of normal functions (cannot stand, won’t drink, nonresponsive, or comatose). Unfortunately, milk-fever cows and coliform-mastitis cows show these signs as well, so you must check the quarters for watery secretions and take into account if she is just fresh and an older cow (suspicious for milk fever/low calcium). The older fresh cows sometimes get “caught” in the sun and can’t get out of the area since they are too weak to get up from the milk fever. Treat the milk fever first. It is entirely possible that a cow that started with milk fever or coliform mastitis also develops heat stroke.

Treatment of Heat Stroke

While milk fever and coliform mastitis are treated in the vein with electrolytes and medicines, heat-stroke and heat-stress animals are primarily treated by hosing down the animal with cold water con­tinuously for twenty to thirty minutes, head to tail, with special atten­tion paid to hosing the back of the head since this is where the cow’s temperature regulation center is. (If treating heat stress in pigs, do not hose the back of the head.) Heat-stressed cows will often stand still to be hosed down with no need of tying them to anything. Intravenous fluids (five or more liters of lactated ringers solution, 500cc dextrose, and 200cc 8.4 percent sodium bicarbonate) are definitely indicated for heat stroke but are secondary to using a hose. If a hose is not avail­able, quickly move the cow on a four-by-eight-foot plywood board or a tractor bucket to an area where a hose is. Although your intentions may be good, a sponge bath or lugging out a few buckets of cold water and dumping them over the cow will be ineffective. If a cow is deemed to have both milk fever and heat stroke, treat IV for the milk fever (do not put oral liquids into the mouth of an animal that is weak and down). When an overly hot animal is hosed down for a good twenty to thirty minutes, the temperature will often drop to about 103°F (just above nor­mal), which is an excellent sign that your hydrotherapy treat­ment worked.

HEAT-STRESSED COW (or horse) will show signs of open-mouth panting with quick, shallow breathing but can still stand, while a heat-stroke cow will usually be down and not rise. A HEAT-STROKE COW will have shallow, rapid respirations and usually appears depressed or even comatose—much like a milk fever cow.

Four-Seasons Cow Care

Prevention of Heat Stroke

While there’s not much you can do about the weather, there are things you can do to prevent an­imals from getting heat stroke. More and more people are misting their cows to cool them, either in the cow yard or at the feed rack. And while I don’t think allowing cows in streams is generally a good idea, on the most oppressive hottest days it seems reasonable to let them enjoy some wading time in the water. Allowing cows into the woods is another option. But making them wait at the gate until milking time to come in from a baking pasture is simply being foolish.

We all know how cows can look on a very hot and humid afternoon when they come in to be milked. They can appear rather withered in a sense. Of course they tank up on water. If you see this, you might ask yourself why they are drinking so much all at once. Possibly not enough water is being delivered to them while outside at other times of the day, and/or the water quality available to them is not desirable. It is under these circumstances that animals may be drinking highly objectionable water from little puddles outside in the pastures or from small creeks that slowly wind their way through the landscape and may carry potentially harmful bacteria and parasites. Make sure your cows always have access to fresh, protected water sources.

cattle in pond
Cattle will find cooler areas if you provide them on your property during hot days.

Some other things to keep in mind are shade and ventilation. For some reason, cows like to bunch together when hot. But if there is enough shade, they will at least disperse into small groups. There is nothing worse for a group of cows than one lone tree they all try to stand under. A mucky area under one or a couple trees will create more health problems than no shade at all. On the worst days, in barns with good tunnel ventilation (whether free stall, bedded pack or tie-stall), it is more beneficial to keep the cows in during the day and let them out to graze or exercise at night. It’s no sin to keep cows indoors during oppressively hot days. Cows will graze much better in the early morn­ing and cooler evenings than during bright daylight hours when it’s steaming. Reduce feeding of high carbohydrate/starchy rations (i.e., grains) during hot spells since they tend to “heat up” the rumen gener­ally and replace grains with haylage/grass silage, hay, and evening graz­ing. Oats are a cooler grain to feed if interested in trying that.

Without doubt, tunnel ventilation provides a much more comfort­able environment for both the cows and the workers. Keeping cows in all day without either tunnel ventilation or something nearly like it can make for very uncomfortable cows. Also, having really big cows (heavy body weight and over-conditioned) can make for problems in the summer because of the heat generated internally from metabolism produced from very rich rations. These cows really need tunnel ventila­tion and/or big fans.

Most intensively grazed cows are not burdened by excess body con­dition (usually they are too lean if anything), but if they are to get most of their nutrition from pastures, then attention must be paid to their comfort out in the pastures. Cross-bred cows and leaner cows tend to be resilient in the heat compared to big fat ones. It does not matter what the breed is, if an animal is fat, she will suffer in the heat. Many graziers will easily point a finger at Holsteins as being inferior grazing animals, but I take exception to that. One herd I know has about ten out of forty animals of ages twelve and up—the oldest being eighteen and still in the milking herd. The herd is all Holstein. The trick to getting longevity in cows is in their conformation and especially their legs. If you want cows that will last a long time, breed for legs rather than production. And keep them exercised.

Tunnel ventilation, if you have it, also keeps flies from being a problem as they cannot fight the air current. Even if you don’t have tunnel ventilation, it may be better for your animals to be taken off pasture during those blazing midday hours, keeping them around the barnyard out of direct sunlight if possible. Most people have a large box fan or overhead fans to help animals keep cool. Since I’ve driven between farms a lot, I tend to keep my windows down and not use air conditioning, so I get acclimated to the heat in general. Almost universally, getting out of the truck and going into a barn with fans running (whatever sort) always beats no fans or no shade or no breeze. Curtain barns are excellent at catching whatever breeze may be avail­able. Keeping the animals in for the least amount of time is the goal of most graziers. However, keeping animals cooler by keeping them in during the day with whatever fans and practicing nighttime grazing is smartest during the hottest stretches. Portable shades in pasture are helpful as long as there are enough square feet of shade provided for the amount of animals.

A handy hint for calves in hutches is to raise the back of the hutch off the ground during hot days by placing a cinder block there to prop up the back. This will give nice ground flow of air circulation, which will greatly help keeping the animal cool. Simply prop up the back for the rest of the season until it starts cooling down.

Farms that like to graze animals on pasture also need to keep in mind what folks driving by may see in relation to a down cow. The large animal protection officer in my area has gotten in touch with me to treat ailing animals that have been seen by people driving by. As long as the animal receives prompt veterinary attention, the officer will not levy a fine. Preventing any down cows in a field on very hot days is reason enough to bring in the cows in late morning when they are finished grazing so they can be cooled by fans or lots of shade.

Environmental management is a very important skill for farmers to hone. Although we cannot control the weather, we certainly can control the areas our cows inhabit to help prevent potential disasters in the heat of summer.

Source: Four-Seasons Cattle Care

Ideas for Treating Parasites on Organic Cattle Farms

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

How do we treat internal parasite infestations on certified organic farms?

Ivermectin, moxidectin and fenbendazole are allowed to be used but only for an emergency after methods acceptable to organic have not succeeded in restoring an animal to health. A 90-day milk withhold is required if lactating cows are treated. There is some discus­sion to reduce the 90 days to seven or 10 days. Typically in the past I have recommended a synthetic wormer as a one-time treatment— essentially to reset the individual animals infested—and then get the management in place to keep things in prevention mode rather than reaction (treatment) mode.

Fortunately, there are also many plant-based medicines being used around the world against internal parasites. In the chapter I wrote called “Phytotherapy for Dairy Cows” in the book Veterinary Herbal Medicine, (Susan G. Wynne and Barbara Fougère, Veterinary Herbal Medicine (St. Louis, MO: Mosby, 2007) I reported on a study that showed birdsfoot trefoil or chicory interplanted into pasture decreased the stomach worm larva burden significantly compared to a straight white clover and rye pas­ture. This is because of tannins contained in the birdsfoot trefoil and chicory.

What should we treat with later in the grazing season if our young stock looks crummy? Treatments can range from materials that are high in tannins, like black walnut hulls; dewormer mixes that are added to the feed; to Ferro, which has extremely high levels of hu­mates, iron and minerals. One treatment is to give 10cc of Ferro once daily for five days in a row. This course of treatment is highly effective but requires dosing individual animals, which most farmers understandably do not like to do when it comes to a group of heifers outside. Any herbal formulas with ginger, garlic and neem would be helpful to battle internal parasites in the digestive tract. Another op­tion to try would be Neema-Tox or Vermi-Tox from Agri-Dynamics. Vermi-Tox was shown to have positive benefits in clinical trials at Chico State University. In that study, Vermi-Tox and ivermectin gave equally good reduction of fecal egg counts whereas the no-treatment group became much worse. Weaned cattle are dosed at one ounce per three hundred to four hundred pounds for three days in a row. Re­member, you can use a synthetic wormer if your animals are in really bad shape, and you probably should at that point. Bear in mind, how­ever, that ivermectin is totally poisonous to the dung beetle popula­tion, those friendly beetles that decompose manure paddies quickly in healthy biological systems.

Organic Guernsey cattle
Organic Guernsey cattle graze in a paddock.

If a farm is found using a synthetic wormer on a certain age class of animals every year, most certifiers would rightly ask to see what the farm is doing to prevent parasite pressures from developing. (By using rotational pasture management so animals get new paddocks every twelve hours and by giving the grazed paddocks a rest in order to re­grow.) Just as important, dragging pastures to spread out manure will allow quicker drying out of manure to kill the fragile microscopic larva crawling about. The ideal time to drag out manure pies is three days from when the cows are on the paddock, which will not hinder pasture regrowth and more importantly will allow the dung beetles to do their incredibly important work, drilling manure into channels they create in the soil. This timing also allows time for horn flies and face flies to lay their eggs, so eggs will be hatched and the fragile young larva can also be killed by spreading out the manure pies and quickly drying out the living areas of internal parasites and developing flies.

Conventional farms can put an ear tag into an animal that gives a slow release insecticide to the animal’s system to kill flies when they bite the animal. The manure from such an animal will also kill flies or fly larvae that feed on the manure (both good and bad bugs are killed). Insecticide ear tags as well as regular fly sprays and the blue “sprinkles” are prohibited for use on organic farms. In most years, a combination, multi-prong approach to fly control on organic farms can be fairly effective. The following are usual methods of controlling flies—and remember that it is a combination of these approaches that works best. You are fooling yourself if you think that using only one or two approaches will work. The list includes: sticky paper in the barns, pheromone fly traps, wasp predators routinely placed in strategic areas, botanical fly sprays applied daily, hanging barrel feeders with salt in the pasture with solar-powered sprayers, electric zappers that animals walk through and of course clean, dry cows (since flies are attracted to moisture) and tunnel ventilation.

When farmers apply concepts of biology, chronic problems like flies can be managed better. Take for instance that flies like warm, humid conditions and flies don’t like wind. How many times are you bothered by flies on a windy day? Applying this basic concept to farms would indicate that air flow in the barn would mean dramatically less fly problems. Lo and behold, go into a barn that has tunnel ventilation and you will experience few if any flies. It certainly need not be tun­nel ventilation, but something about tunnel ventilation simply works extremely well against flies.

You have probably heard by now of the Spalding Cow-Vac, a ma­chine that generates high-velocity wind in a walk-through chamber. It also has a vacuum aspect that sucks the flies that have been blown off the cows into a large jar. Without a doubt this is the best way to reduce the amount of flies tormenting your cows as well as eliminating them from the breeding population, thereby lowering fly numbers through­out the fly season. The Spalding Cow-Vac is now commercially avail­able (see your trade magazines). It was developed at North Carolina State University.

While I will always promote a multipronged approach to solving problems, if there was ever a “one-stop shopping” method of dealing with flies, the wind/vacuum chamber is it. While other methods like sticky tape catch random flies and parasitic wasps will help reduce the number of flies that become adults, the fly-vac basically wipes out large numbers quickly—right off the cows—which will make your cows more comfortable, allowing them to graze better. The fly-vac may well be the single best invention yet for non-chemical fly control.

As the seasons change, young animals carrying parasite burdens are especially susceptible to damp, chilly air, especially if brought indoors once the pasture season is over. Never, ever bring young stock back inside to a building that shares air with older animals. A rule of thumb is that once an animal leaves the main barn where it was housed as a youngster, always raise it outdoors (with proper shelter) and bring it back into the main adult barn only when it is ready to join the milking string. Too many times I have been called to see sick and coughing parasitized animals that were brought back into the barn in October or November when the weather got bad. Major mistake. By feeding animals well and keeping them outdoors in managed pastures and shelters, your young stock will grow up to become healthy, productive members of your dairy herd.

In summary, make sure you clip your pastures to splatter out ma­nure patties to expose the worm larvae to the drying effects of sun and wind. This will also give uniform regrowth. Also keep animals off a paddock three weeks before putting them back on, as worm larvae need to be ingested by then to complete their life cycle inside the animal. And never have young stock follow adults through paddocks, as adults can live in balance with the worms they shed but will infect young stock. Immunity to worms usually starts becoming effective at about 12 months of age.

Source: Four-Seasons Cattle Care

Controlling Fly Populations Around Cattle

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

For external parasites like flies, we again need to consider areas where moisture builds up, especially areas with big accumulations of moisture-laden manure. Fly populations explode with humid air, heat, thundershower activity, moisture/sweat, and manure on the animals to attract them. Of course we cannot control the weather, but we can determine what kind of environment our animals live in. Do they slop around in “soup” near their feeding area (including round bale feed area

Do they lie in areas that are moist and damp? Do they lie under the only tree in the pasture, making a mud hole? Is there such a buildup of bedding in their outdoor superhutch that a slow, steady trickle of fluid is draining away from it? Are the animals forced to plunge their faces down through tall, rank pasture growth to get at the more lush vegetation nearer to the ground, leading the cows to prick their eyes on the taller, less-appetizing plants and causing tearing (moisture)? Tears running from the animals’ eyes makes for pinkeye in short order. All these conditions attract flies, in addition to stacked manure that is aging (stacked either on purpose or due to “natural” buildup from not being mucked out regularly).

Keeping areas “clean and dry” are key to reducing fly populations.

“Clean and dry” are cardinal terms for the keeping of livestock. While the best efforts to keep animals clean and dry can still be op­posed by weather conditions that encourage flies, it is the foundation for pest prevention, to be put in place before trying “Band-Aids” to help during problem times.

Methods of reducing the effects of flies include sticky tape, phero­mones to attract flies into traps, tunnel ventilation (moves air so flies cannot land and keeps the animals drier), tails on cows to swat flies away, pouring liberal amounts of field lime on the animals to keep the moisture/sweat away, and proper nutrition (as flies seem to be attract­ed to animals that are sick, have liver problems, etc.). Then, after all these are incorporated, a fly-spray like Ecto-Phyte (Agri-Dynamics) will help quite a bit. But do not simply rely on a natural fly spray in­stead of an organophosphate fly spray. The difference between simple-minded input substitution and a wise, holistic, multipronged approach will become readily apparent.

FOR EXTERNAL PARASITES, like flies, we again need to consider areas where moisture builds up, especially areas with big accumulations of moisture-laden manure.

Four-Seasons Organic Cow Care

Types of Flies

Horn flies are smaller than other kinds of flies and are usually found on the bellies and backs of cows. Horn flies deposit eggs in fresh manure, and they take nine to twelve days to develop into adults. They take ten to twelve blood meals per day and can transmit Staphylococcus aureus between animals. Face flies also lay eggs in fresh manure and become adults in fourteen days. Face flies have been found to carry more than thirty bacterial diseases and are the main carriers of the pinkeye bug. Stable flies are found on the lower body and legs of cattle and take about two to three blood meals a day. They prefer aging manure and bedding or round bale feeder areas to deposit their eggs. Cattle bunch up trying to avoid their painful bites. House flies will use a variety of organic materials to lay their eggs, and it takes about seven days for them to become adults.*

Source: Four-Seasons Cattle Care; Wes Watson and Steve Demming, “Managing Parasite Flies in Pasture-based Dairy Systems,” presented at the Mid-Atlantic Grazing Conference, July 2012.

Preventing Causes of Infection in Cattle

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

If you’re pasturing animals in the same areas year after year, you’ve got to realize that there will be parasites waiting for each group as they arrive since many parasite eggs can survive over winter in the soil waiting for warm and moist conditions to return. Pastures look really nice early on, but those stomach worm larvae are invisible to our eyes and are rapidly multiplying and loading the animals that are out there eating the forages. Right now, unless your paddocks are scorched dry, parasites are thriving and sending millions of eggs out onto pasture as your herd animals drop their manure on the ground. The eggs hatch in a few hours, the larvae of the stomach worms then crawl up the blades of nearby grass, hoping to be eaten by animals as they graze, then start their life again in the host, sucking blood from the stomach walls. This is basic biology of the strongyle class of internal worms—which affects not only cattle, but sheep, goats, pigs, horses, and many other mam­mals—and there’s no getting around it completely.

Parasites always take advantage of the fact that animals on farms are enclosed in the same spot due to perimeter fencing or indoor stalls and cannot get away from them. Free-roaming cattle on the original prairie probably had a low level of parasitism with which they could live in balance. Parasites generally thrive under these conditions: high animal density, animals kept in the same areas continuously, nutrition­ally deprived animals, poor pasture management, and poor premises management. Coccidia are usually found in animals indoors in pens that are being continually used. Coccidia problems are not usually seen when animals are on pasture. On the other hand, stomach worms are usually found in animals on pasture (and not when continuously in­side), especially at peak and late season when the parasite population has multiplied many times.

This buildup is due to cattle reinfecting the pastures in the warm, humid months with fresh manure carrying worm eggs ready to hatch and be eaten again with pasture grass. It is critical to never have young stock follow older stock—young stock im­mune systems are not capable of withstanding parasitism like mature adult cattle can. And, importantly, Johne’s disease can also be passed to younger animals following older animals on pasture. It is very rare that adult cows need any kind of wormer at all, unless you want to increase milk production a few pounds per day. Adult cows can and do carry stomach worms but they do not become infested; check some manure samples and you’ll see. However, young stock can get hammered by parasites. Interestingly, a very low level of parasites will probably cre­ate a stronger animal than one that is routinely dewormed. Only by checking manure samples can the level of infection be known.

A cattle tapeworm, Taenia saginata, under the microscope. 3D Rendering.

Also contributing to parasitism is the harmful practice of not feeding hay to pre-weaned calves. Why is this harmful? In the search to satisfy their instinctual need for fiber, calves will eat bedding, which will likely have parasites on it. Just watch some calves for a while that do not get any hay fed to them—they will nibble the ground for fibrous material, guaranteed. Additionally, the developing rumen (which causes the instinct to want fiber) is not just a “sponge” that absorbs and passes on volatile fatty acids (supplied most quickly by grain); it is also a muscular organ that turns over every minute or two. The muscles develop more strongly with hay in the diet. Ever see bloating pre-weaned calves? Their diet is usually milk replacer and grain—no hay until after weaning.

In organic agriculture, due in part to the requirement that animals six months and older must get a minimum of 30 percent dry matter from pasture over the grazing season, it is only a matter of time before the young stock, which are not immunologically mature against stom­ach worms, will become infested if pasture management is not top-notch. A big part of pasture management is proper feeding to ensure excellent energy intake while on pasture, such as from high-energy forages or some grain. The immune system depends heavily on proper daily energy intake.

A liver fluke (parasitic flatworm) found in cattle and other grazing animals.

I think a good goal is to raise calves that do have some challenge from stomach worm larva in the pasture yet are managed and fed well enough that rather than becoming infested, they instead build immunity due to a low-level exposure. This is a kind of a natural vaccine effect. Unfortunately, not many farms seem to be able to achieve this low level of exposure. The result is somewhat stunted calves that likely will freshen a month or two later since they won’t reach breeding size as quickly. However, calves that do make it through this tough period of life—usu­ally between four and eleven months of age—start looking really nice again by a year old and go on to do fine. Even if they did look crummy due to a significant stomach worm infestation, they will now be strong against pasture stomach worm challenges the rest of their lives.

Signs and Symptoms

Unfortunately, the smaller the land base and higher the animal density, the more likely it is that parasites will infest young stock as similar groups are placed in the same small lots year after year. Animals carry­ing a burden of internal worms will suffer from lowered immune sys­tems, which can be troublesome if there are sudden changes in weather (cool damp weather will quickly trigger the calves to start coughing). Only on rare occasions have I seen an animal so severely parasitized that they are near dead due to anemia (loss of blood due to parasite action). This will present as an animal that has a swollen-looking jaw (fluid filled), very white mucous membranes (mouth, eye sockets, vul­va), and is extremely weak—most likely lying down. Sometimes these young animals will also have ulcers in their mouth.

What do your calves on pasture look like right now? Are they sleek and in good body condition, just like when you weaned them or set them out to pasture? Or do they look a bit more ragged now, perhaps a bit potbellied, their hair dry and reddish-black, not shiny black as it should be? Do they have thin back-leg muscles and dried diarrhea high on their legs and tail? If so, these are classic signs of internal stomach worm infestation.

It would be wise to catch up a few calves and look in their eye sock­ets to see how pink or pale white the sockets are. In sheep and goats, it is common to use the FAMACHA (Faffa Malan Chart) test, which involves looking at their eye sockets. How white the sockets are, in­dicating anemia, will indicate when to treat them with a conventional wormer. While the FAMACHA test is technically not valid for calves, looking at their eye sockets will nonetheless reveal the degree of blood loss. Calves just hide it until later in the disease.

Remember, really check your young stock on pasture for signs of in­ternal worm infestation. If they are infested and nothing is done about it, the first batch of damp cold weather will likely bring on pneumo­nia—and that is not at all desirable. So be mindful: stop and observe your animals and take action as needed now, not later.

Prevention and Treatment

As the summer progresses, remember to address parasite prevention and treatment in young stock from a multipronged approach, which is a logical response because:

  1. A variety of approaches for any problem will give a better chance of success;
  2. If one pillar of the multipronged approach isn’t working, the other factors are still in place;
  3. Natural treatments can work well; and
  4. There will be less chance of resistance developing.

If you are used to giving calves a systemic wormer (like ivermec­tin or moxidectin) and you replace it with some natural wormer, this would be what is called “input substitution,” the opposite of a multi­pronged approach. What we really need to do is understand the biol­ogy of the parasites that like to live in or on cattle and then figure out where to break their life cycle. Only after that can we go on to use a botanical mixture to substitute for the typically used synthetic wormer.

Source: Four-Seasons Organic Cow Care

Treating Rumen Acidosis in Cattle

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

Every spring I usually get at least a few calls from alarmed farmers that cows on lush pasture are suffering from, believe it or not, rumen acidosis. Oftentimes graziers will reflexively say that rumen acidosis only occurs on conventional confinement farms, due to the practice of feeding large amounts of grain and insufficient fiber to push for really high milk production. While rumen acidosis is more commonly seen any time of year on farms that feed a combination of high amounts of corn silage, high-moisture corn, and grain supplements fed out as a TMR, believe it or not it can also hit grazing cows that milk more moderate levels of grain feeding.


First, let’s look at what rumen acidosis is. Normal healthy rumen pH should be about 6.8. The pH tells you how much acid is in a sys­tem, whether you’re measuring the soil that your crops grow in, your well water, or a cow’s rumen. As the system becomes more acidic, the pH number goes towards zero. The pH is also a “log” number, which means that a one point drop from 6.0 to 5.0 indicates that there is now ten times more acid in the system. The population of microbes in the rumen is highly varied, and each type of bug is sensitive to a certain range of pH. Some of the digestion products the rumen creates are dependent on the general rumen ecology, which is affected by the pH. When all the bugs are “happy,” there will be a lot of production of ace­tic and propionic acid, with some butyric acid. These are volatile fatty acids that can migrate through the rumen wall and enter the cow’s general system to help build certain milk components (acetic acid, for example, which generally helps build butterfat). When the rumen pH drops much below 6.0, the normal rumen bugs are unhappy and die off, especially if the pH remains too low for too long and then lactic acid–loving bacteria will predominate. Rumen acidosis is then hap­pening, burning the walls of the rumen.

Rumen graphic
When the rumen pH drops much below 6.0, Rumen acidosis begins to occur, burning the walls of the rumen.

The pH, being a reflection of the amount of acid present, can be changed very easily by the cow’s intake of different feed ingredients. To keep the rumen bugs happy, cows chew cud. Chewing cud creates saliva, which has bicarbonate in it and opposes acid. Therefore, the more the cows chew cud, the more saliva they produce, and this saliva when swallowed with the cud maintains a rumen pH between 6.0 and 7.0, keeping the important microbes happy. What makes cows chew cud? Fiber. The best fiber for cud chewing is dry hay. You can never have enough dry hay on a dairy farm. Dry hay is nearly medicinal feed for cows. Fresh grasses and legumes from pasture also provide a lot of material for cud chewing, but sometimes the effective fiber is not as great. We easily see this when cows shoot “pasture manure” across the walkways at this time of the season.

What is almost the opposite of healthy fiber? Grain. The purpose of grain is primarily to provide energy for cows to make lots of milk. Grain feeding tends to favor propionic acid–producing bugs. Propi­onic acid is the volatile acid that contributes to higher levels of milk production. In the wild, ruminants do eat grain by way of seed heads on grasses and the like. So while grain is not entirely foreign to a cow’s system, giving too much hammers the system in a terrible way. As grain ferments in the rumen, it produces lactic acid, which will drop the rumen pH lower and lower unless offset by sufficient fiber intake. The whole science of ruminant nutrition essentially boils down to bal­ancing the amount of fiber and grain going into the rumen to keep the bugs happy and to produce milk. How this is accomplished definitely affects cow health.

The health of a cow (or any ruminant) depends on a healthy rumen. A ruminant by definition chews cud. The amount of cud chewing, es­pecially chews per cud, is a quick way to evaluate the health of a cow’s rumen. A cow should chew anywhere from fifty to seventy chews per cud that is brought up. This is easy to watch and fun to do. If there are less than fifty chews per cud on a significant number of animals, their diet is lacking in fiber. If grain is coming through in the manure or the manure is not consistent between herd animals, this will confirm rumen acidosis.

With all this in mind, perhaps you can see how rumen acidosis can occur with grazing herds. In grazing herds that feed grain (which most do to some extent), there must be adequate effective fiber going into the rumen so the cow chews cud as much as possible to maxi­mize saliva production with its bicarbonate. I have seen grazing herds on lush spring grass that get rumen acidosis by “slug feeding” grain twice a day (even as little as six pounds per feeding) at milking times and not consuming dry hay but only baleage, or worse, haylage (short chop). Always feed hay before grain. Never feed grain to cows straight after pasture—it’s way too much highly fermentable starch for the rumen to handle after other rapidly fermentable sugars from pasture are already in the rumen. Always put some kind of forage out first; then feed the grain.

Typical signs of rumen acidosis include decreased or no cud chew­ing, loose or diarrhea manure, becoming skinny, decreased milk, and possibly teeth grinding. The treatment is rather simple: long-stem dry hay, free-choice or force-fed baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), and rumen probiotics to repopulate the rumen with “good bugs.” This treatment will be needed for a few days until manure stabilizes and appetite improves. If a cow is truly acidotic, she will eagerly eat dry hay to the exclusion of other feeds. Always try to feed the most nutrient-dense forages to cows to keep the rumen healthy and maintain good body condition. At least 60 percent of resting cows should be chewing cud at any time and each cud ideally chewed sixty times.

Watching for Rumen Health

We all know that grazing is more of an art than a science, but just because cows are on green grass it doesn’t necessarily mean that their rumens are happy and healthy. Perhaps one of the best and easiest ways to watch rumen health is to let your cows tell you how they are doing. Do they chew at least sixty chews per cud that they bring up?

It’s easy to do—simply count the chews they chew of a cud right after they bring it up. Do it with a bunch of cows. If chewing less than fifty chews per cud, they are lacking fiber for the rumen mat. That is actu­ally vital biological information to know. Also, are at least 60 percent of the cows chewing cud an hour after eating? What does the manure look like? With good digestive health, ma­nure should not shoot out of cows like water from a hose but instead should “set up.” It also shouldn’t have any whole grain in it.

That’s money going right through your cows without any benefit to you. Truly, feeding stored forage can beautifully bal­ance out lush, green grass quite nicely. By taking some simple steps, you can make sure that your cows are healthy and happy when out on pasture this season.

Source: Four-Seasons Organic Cow Care

Treating Grass Tetany in Cattle

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

What about grass tetany?

Grass tetany is low blood levels of magne­sium. Grass tetany occurs when there is lush growth of pasture; how­ever, it can be any kind of pasture (not just bloat-causing legumes); grass tetany is actually more likely on grass stands. It will more quickly affect a fresh cow that has more metabolic needs than a later lactation cow. Its symptoms are somewhat like milk fever, and in actuality they easily could occur together.

Grass tetany occurs when there is lush growth of pasture.

The main symptoms include stiffness in a leg or body side (unlike milk fever where muscles are weak and lax). The cow will almost fall over but usually immediately right herself, but after this goes on a while she will lie down. However, cows are very uncomfortable when lying down because the muscles in certain areas will become stiff. They can also then all of a sudden get up with normal strength (unlike a milk fever), and this back-and-forth can go on for a while. They will act a bit more agitated than usual (similar to early milk fever) and stay that way (whereas with milk fever they will become depressed and dull). A recent history of eating early pasture growth will aid in the diagnosis and its subsequent proper treatment.

Listen to the Author

Dr. Hubert Karreman, Prevention & Treatment Strategies for Cattle, at the Acres U.S.A. annual conference in 2010. 1 hour, 30 minutes, 44 seconds.

Treatment consists of correcting the metabolic disturbance by giving magnesium, either orally in the form of large capsules of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) or six to ten large “pink pills” (magnesium oxide), or by giving intravenous CMPK (calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium).

However, it can be darn difficult to hit a vein properly in a cow that wants to keep shifting around when it is standing while it also partially attempts to lay down. Just wait until it is down, then put a halter on her and tie the halter to a non-mobile post. Don’t tie it back to her leg like in milk fever because of the strength she can use to try to get free (and mess up your IV needle position). Give the bottle at no higher than her backbone (since it has calcium in it). If it is an older cow, continue into a second bottle, and if you have a stethoscope handy listen to the heart to make sure it is beating regularly (it may be at a quicker rate, but it should be beating totally regularly) while you give the entire second bottle. By the end, the cow should be noticeably calmer than prior to treatment. Regular 23 percent calcium IV will not work; the treatment must have magnesium in it. Follow-up treatment includes administering the “pink pills” or Epsom salt.

Cows left untreated and found down and unable to rise will often show more severe neurologic symptoms, such as paddling the ground area near them, and will have a staring expression. They then may con­tinue into convulsions, coma, or death (which can happen in a few hours). In a severe situation, give the IV treatment fairly slowly since the solution contains calcium and potassium as well, and the animal’s system at this point will be acutely sensitive to the effects of added potassium and calcium.

Grass tetany is caused by pastures with low magnesium and/or high potassium. Magnesium absorption is reduced when the concentration of ammonia in the rumen is high (as with lush pasture of any sort). The combination of low-magnesium pastures and rapid growth leads to this condition. Although rare, it may be seen during spring.

Source: Four-Seasons Cattle Care

A Look Inside a Farm Veterinarian’s Medicine Bag

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

I don’t usually mention the products that I carry for organic farms, but the other day I was surprised by a farmer when he had no idea about certain treatments I commonly use. These medicines are used within a valid veterinary client-patient relationship (VCPR), which means that a veterinarian has knowledge of the animals in the herd, has been on the farm recently and is available for follow-up, or there is a clinic that is available for follow-up.

Here’s the list:

Phyto-Mast is a botanical multipurpose antiseptic avail­able in aseptic, easy-to-use tubes with alcohol pads. It is in­tended to be used as an antiseptic irrigation. Its uses include milk quality, udder rot, pinkeye and digestive upsets. Phyto-Mast may also be considered for cows that have milk quality concerns at dry off. This product is not intended for Staphylo­coccus aureus or coliform infections. The ingredients of Phyto-Mast are essential oil of thyme, licorice, wintergreen, angelica, and vitamin A, D, and E in olive oil.

Veterinarian treats a calf
Having the right materials on hand can help you treat your herd. Always call a vet if you are not sure.

Get Well is a liquid tincture of plants that have well-known antibacterial properties to enhance health. Get Well is normally used an oral treatment, but I do give it IV as a loading dose when called out for a case (I add it to a carrier such as dextrose or physiologic saline). An oral dose of Get Well is 5cc per calf and 20cc per cow given three times daily. When administered with other IV fluids, a 90cc dose is given. A repeat IV using 60cc in a bottle of dextrose can be given daily as needed.

Heat Seek is a combination of botanicals for reproductive health. It is a botanical blend of herbs that seems to enhance the visually observable signs of heat (estrus). This is for use in animals that are in normal body condition (not skinny/nega­tive energy balance), have a corpus luteum on the ovary, and have not shown visible heats for a long time.

Listen to the Author

Dr. Hubert Karreman, on Prevention & Treatment Strategies for Cattle, from the Acres U.S.A. Conference in 2010. 1 hour, 30 minutes

Eat Well is a liquid tincture of plants known to stimulate appetite and the gut. It is purely for indigestion and lack of appetite with normal temperature (no fever). Indications would be mild bloat, constipation, impacted rumen, or potential dis­placed abomasum. It is an old horse colic remedy as well and works great for that purpose. Eat Well can be given at the rate of 15cc–20cc per adult cow (or horse) or occasionally at 5cc intravenously with a diluent such as dextrose or physiologic saline. Given after IV calcium, this has been shown to help very well.

Ferro is a liquid from water percolated through earth, which is high in fulvic acid, iron, sulfur, and almost all the elements on the periodic table. It is especially good at help­ing animals with diarrhea caused by internal parasites as it constipates them quickly and stops the dehydration. With its high level of iron, Ferro also helps build up the bloodstream in depleted animals. It is given orally. Calves should get 5cc–10cc daily in their milk or mixed with molasses as it is very bitter. Yearlings should get 20cc daily. The duration of treatment is usually seven to ten days. On one farm I took manure samples from the calves infested with giardia. After the treatment, only two of the fifteen or so calves tested had slight amounts of giardia, and they all looked really great compared to pretreat­ment. Giardia is related to coccidia and cryptosporidia. I nor­mally recommend Ferro for typical stomach worm problems due to strongyle-type worms.

With the above ready in the medicine cabinet, you will be prepared for many situations that can befall organic dairy cows and calves.

Source: Four-Seasons Organic Cow Care