Organic Broadcaster

Winter is coming: Steps to prepare dairy herd for barn life

By Hubert Karreman, VMD

Like it or not, winter is coming and the cows won’t be grazing much longer. With good management of pasture land, cows might be able to graze into late November and December, at least to some extent. But once the snow piles up, any green underneath will be tasty tidbits but not much of a basis for the entire diet. Simply put, we need to plan for the upcoming winter when the animals are kept inside for long stretches in the northern climates of the U.S.

In winter, cows do best on bedded packs in barns with good ventilation. Photo by Dr. Hue Karreman

From years of working with organic dairy cows, starting with being a herdsman on an organic farm in the late 1980s and then becoming a veterinarian for over a hundred organic farms in Lancaster, Pa., I’ve come to realize that there are five basic factors for keeping healthy livestock. Though I’m a dairy practitioner, the following factors probably apply for most kinds of livestock.

  1. lots of dry bedding
  2. excellent ventilation with housing/shelter
  3. fresh air and sunshine
  4. high forage rations
  5. well-managed pastures for grazing season

Making sure these are provided will keep problems to a minimum. I think most organic farmers see very few, if any, problems once they’ve been organic a few years. This is because by providing the five factors listed, we are giving the animals what they would need if left to themselves in nature.

Put another way, we are trying to mimic Mother Nature as closely as possible. For instance, by delivering a diet loaded with lots of forage we mimic cows eating fresh pasture – the grass’s leafy blades along with some small seed heads (grain). This is a perfectly balanced combination in pasture that we need to provide when they are in the barn. Another example would be that on windy days flies don’t bother cows. Thus having really good ventilation in barns also keeps flies away while cows are inside. Also, and perhaps radical to some but common sense to others, is letting calves directly suck on cows. Calves will suck 10-12 times a day if given a choice and grow quickly because they are biologically satisfied. This practice can be done on pasture during grazing season or during the winter in the barn in box stalls (but at no time use any confirmed or suspected Johnes cow).

What’s important is that we optimize the animal-environment interaction. If possible, let cows outside on nice days in the winter to get the fresh air, sunshine and exercise—things which can only be approximated in the barn.

With any of these suggestions, it helps to be a good observer. Spend extra time with your cows and notice what they are doing when they don’t know they are being observed. Then, adapt and change management if the animals are telling you that changes are needed.

Cows are always telling us how they are doing. Whether we understand what they are telling us is an entirely different matter. The CowSignals® system of evaluating cows is an excellent tool to help understand what the cows are telling you in terms of good or poor housing and feed management. CowSignals should resonate with graziers because the concept is based entirely upon knowing what is normal for cows in pasture and providing nearly the same experience for the herd while it’s in the barn. In this system, six key areas are evaluated in a checklist manner after farmers attend a slide show and are shown examples of what makes for healthy cows and what does not.

The goal of CowSignals is to increase milk production by providing what the cows need while in the barn. The six factors that are evaluated are: 1) feed; 2) water; 3) light; 4) air; 5) rest; and, 6) space.

Do individual cows get enough space? Are they lying down long enough during the day? Are they displaying air-seeking behavior? Is there enough light while not giving too much? Is the water easy to reach and is it clean? Is feed available 24 hours a day? These and many more questions that are asked in a checklist format will tell you if your wintertime barn conditions are enabling (or hindering) good milk production.

Lactating cows always need clean and dry udders. There are various grading systems to score cleanliness of udders, whether the cows are in the barn or grazing. Put simply, if you feel that you don’t need to clean your cows’ teats prior to milking (because they are very clean), then you know that your cows have enough clean bedding and that manure is being cleaned away frequently enough.

This is not to say that cows need not have teats cleaned prior to milking – they do (if only to help stimulate milk letdown). If every cow truly needs to have manure splatter washed off prior to every milking, then there needs to be more bedding and/or more frequent raking back of manure from stalls. If cows’ hooves are clean when coming into the parlor or while standing in stalls, then removal of manure from walking areas is being done promptly enough. If hooves are always covered with manure, then more time is needed to get manure away and not built up. Damp hooves always covered in manure will lead to higher rates of strawberry heel/hairy heel wart. Are there any bumps, bruises lesions or swellings along the torso, legs or back of the cows? If so, stall dimensions are incorrect and/or there is not enough bedding being provided.

Getting cows ready to come inside for the winter will also mean a feed change. Always try to complete a feed change over one to two weeks. This allows the rumen bugs to change and adapt to the new feeds. In reality, feed changes happen very quickly, sometimes between two milkings. While cows grazing pasture will encounter many different plants from which to choose and to which their rumen bugs constantly adapt, major feed changes with stored feeds can dramatically shift the pH and rumen bugs, sometimes with big die-offs of the resident bugs. This can sometimes put cows off feed, creating a digestive upset and diarrhea, and even a displaced abomasum (twisted stomach). Milk output will be reduced. To avoid such scenarios, always include some extra dry hay in the diet during a feed change. This will help create a healthy fiber mat in the rumen with cows chewing cud more (always good). Feeding added probiotics during a feed change also makes sense.

Considering that the air won’t be as fresh in the barns as outside, and that you will be having a higher density of animals confined under a single roof and enclosed by four walls, giving a vaccine prior to bringing the cows inside may be beneficial especially if respiratory problems have happened on the farm historically. If wanting to only address respiratory problems, using one of the intranasal vaccines (Inforce 3, TSV-2, and Nasalgen) about 1 week prior to bringing the animals inside will help prevent respiratory problems for about 3 months. If wanting to vaccinate also against BVD and Lepto, an injectible modified-live vaccine (like Cattle Master and Bovi-shield) will be needed and depends on the animals being open (not pregnant). If using killed vaccines against the same series of germs, they need initially to be given twice, three weeks apart, and then yearly to be effective. Many farmers vaccinate with the killed products twice yearly, which calls into question the vaccine’s effectiveness. If there haven’t been problems with respiratory disease or abortions when animals are housed inside, then vaccination is optional.

By mimicking Mother Nature as closely as possible and by providing a living environment in the barn that closely approximates life on pasture, animal health in the barn should remain as good as it was during the pasture season.

Dr. Hubert Karreman is the veterinarian at the Rodale Institute and has worked with organic dairy cows since 1988, both as herdsman and a veterinarian.

From the November | December Issue


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