cows in field

Recent Odairy Discussion, August 2008

By Liz Bawden, NODPA Rep and Newsletter Co-Editor

Added August 3, 2008. This was a busy month on ODairy; perhaps the weather that kept many of us out of the fields allowed for more discussion than usual for this busy time of year.

The benefits of no-grain feeding: One constant thread of discussion, lasting the entire month, has been the benefits and consequences of "no-grain" feeding. Most of us are looking for ways to improve our bottom line, since we all have seen the profitability of our farms diminish as costs of production have escalated. So several farmers asked the question: Can we raise cows to be healthy, milk well, and keep in reasonable condition on a diet with no grain? Several farmers chimed in with their answer of "Yes!", but there came some good observations why it may not work so easily for all farms and situations. As with most things, cows do not do well with big changes. So start by getting your young stock used to a forage only diet; there were a couple farmers that believed that having no grain as heifers made for a rumen more adapted to handling forage as cows. Some farmers felt that colored breeds and crossbreds were more adaptable to "no grain" management, but one farmer who has not fed grain in over 8 years, and has a herd of heavy-bodied Holsteins blew holes in that theory.

Because grain supplementation is used to bridge the gaps in the nutrition, we have to fill those gaps somehow to maintain healthy cows. Farmers noted that the short, lush pasture that we all look for in the rotation in summer is too high in protein, and too low in energy. So grazing at taller, more mature pastures may be more balanced for the cow. One no-grain farmer says she wants a minimum height of 12 inches, with some pastures at waist height. Some farmers are growing alternative crops for grazing to add energy at difficult times in the grazing year. Stands of Japanese millet or sorghum/sudan grass grow tall and lush during dry summer spells, and roots crops extend grazing into the fall when pasture grasses slow their growth rates. Other farmers are supplementing energy with molasses at the rate of 2 to 4 pounds per head; some are using 2-3 lbs molasses with 1 lb of corn meal. Molasses is said by some farmers to be equal in energy to 3 lbs of corn meal; others said it was closer to 4 pounds. One farmer in Ohio reported that his molasses cost $.42/lb delivered, while his corn meal was $.21/lb. He felt that if the molasses replaces 4 pounds of corn meal, then it cuts the costs of the energy in half. A researcher chimed in on the discussion with some information that molasses has 14 types of sugars in it, and they react slowly in the rumen. She also raised more questions: why it works better on some farms than others: is it forage quality, types of cows, method of feeding, etc?

One farmer stressed that the cows always have enough to eat, and she grazes taller paddocks for the milking cows. And when feeding in the barn, there should be enough feed to always have some refusal.

All the farmers who have seriously reduced or eliminated the grain suggested that nothing be done quickly. Reduce grain slowly over time to give time for the cows and their rumen bugs to adapt. Don't expect that all cows will respond the same; some will need more supplementaion than others to keep them in condition. Calves that do not receive grain will need more milk when young, and high quality forage especially at weaning time. Pastures can be supplemented with dry hay to help balance the protein/energy equation.

Buckwheat forage: A farmer raised a question about growing buckwheat as a forage crop. If harvested 3 to 4 weeks before they would be combined for grain, the resulting forage was reported to be about the same protein as corn silage, and very digestable.

Increasing your percentage of heifers over bull calves: One farmer was on a long run of bull calves, and asked if there was anything to increase the percentage of heifers. Farmer suggestions were: to keep a bull calf for breeding from a cow that has a history of throwing heifers, or you could try sexed semen (at $65/ dose with poor conception), breed earlier in the heat cycle-- when a cow is "standing", and check your water for excess iron.

Dealing with a retained placenta: A farmer asked for help with a retained placenta, one of our favorite vets replied with his helpful advice: Use something to help with the drainage by irrigating the uterus daily until you cannot pass anything through the cervix -- iodine or aloe, diluted infusions or tinctures like calendula if you like; use homeopathic pyrogen 200C or aspirin 2-3 times a day; keep her walking around to help facilitate drainage, and have fresh grass for her. A farmer shared her formula for infusing: she mixes 3/4 cup honey with enough warm (not hot) water to make it runny. Then she adds garlic tincture and aloe, and anything else helpful that may be on hand (sometimes cayenne, echinacea or other herbals). For infusing cows, a farmer suggested using a plastic water bottle and an IV kit with the needle end cut off. She attaches an AI straw to the cut end of the hose, and can easily infuse cows with it.

'Tis the season for pink eye --- one farmer suggested it was a symptom of Vitamin A deficiency, she suggested 3ml cod liver oil in the eye, and 14 ml down the throat for a few days. A favorite vet reminded us that 90 to 95% of pinkeye cases recover with just a slight mark on the eye. He recommends keeping the animal out of direct sunlight, and spray eye with diluted calendula tincture (add euphrasia and hypericum if you like, or put homeopathic pellets in the water).There is a plasma product available, but it has to be through your vet. A shot of the pink eye vaccine is reported to work well if given at the earliest stages -- watery, weepy eye. Keep pastures clipped of sharp rank overgrowth, and keep calves from becoming overrun with parasites -- their depleted immune systems makes them easy targets for pink eye.

Cows' refusal of pasture: A farmer asked what he might do to affect the cows' refusal of areas of pasture that have been manured in previous grazings. Several farmers suggested testing to see if soil amendments like lime or gypsum would help hasten the breakdown, another farmer suggested mowing the pasture ahead of the cows to wilt the grass first, another runs poultry over the pasture to scatter the manure, and others suggested increasing the stocking density so that the foot traffic breaks up and scatters the manure more quickly.