cows in field

Properly Preparing the Fresh Cow

By Dr. Paul Detloff

Added June 5, 2010. What determines the health of the calf, the birthing process, colostrum quality and the immune reserve of the cow at the time of parturition? The last trimester and dry period. Calving isn’t just having a clean well bedded pen to run some old neglected skag into to see if you get a heifer or a bull, and to see how much milk she has in the udder for you to sell. You are what you eat!

Let’s start at dry-off. The cow should be in good body condition at that time. Body condition must be attended to in the last trimester. When you dry a cow off, you must shut down the endocrine system, telling it to stop producing milk. What triggers that? A tight udder. That means you quit milking her cold turkey. You bring her back in and do a strip check at 7 days. If you have a problem with mastitis, you then attack it with your favorite protocol. You have 10-14 days to clean her up. That high somatic cow or one with a history of flair ups, you then pre-milk. Two weeks before calving, start milking her. If you pre-milk at least two weeks before calving, you will have the cleanest colostrum in the country. Don’t let anyone tell you that you will ruin the colostrum. That is so wrong. The colostrum is made by the endocrine system at parturition.

All dry cows, no matter what season of the year, need to be on free choice kelp and humates – fed individually. One of kelps many traits is to increase the fluid (mucous) produced to help the calving process. Kelp cows and heifers have few calving problems because of the lubrication at birthing. Kelp will usually be consumed quite heavily at the first 12-14 days. Then they slack off. Humates will be consumed at about 1/5 the amount of kelp. Humates feed the microbes in the rumen. This helps the rumen flora adjust during the feed changes experienced during dry off and the milking ration. Kelp and humates help build a very potent colostrum as they both contain a plethora of trace elements which is vital for the immune system, reproduction and general vitality of both the cow and calf.

Minerals should also be available to the dry cow. You can either use the free choice system which has successfully been developed by various companies or have a mineral fed which balances your calcium/phosphorous ratio according to the forage fed. Legumes are usually higher in calcium and calcium is low in grass. Have a leaf analysis on your dry cow forages to see where the Cal:Phos ratios and the Ca:K ratios are. Ca:Phos should be at 1.8 : 1 and Ca:K should be as close to 1:1 as you can get.

From a veterinarian’s point of view, the worst messes that occur are very costly, and are related to these errors:

  • The first mistake is to feed a forage that is high in potassium (K); the ratio should be 1:1 for Ca:K. When you get into run-down, dead, low calcium soils, you can see Ca:K at 1:4 up to 1:7. This is a veterinarians dream and a farmer’s nightmare. You get huge udder edema (more hidden mastitis), alert downer milk fevers, poor quality colostrum and a higher incidence of left-side displaced abomasums.
  • The second problem is when a farmer runs out of forage because of a hayfield freezing out, drought, or a general lack of enough acres of grass and hay. They then decide to stretch it out with corn silage. Thirty heifers put on mostly corn silage, say 30 pounds or more, will give you 30 headaches. They will at first be over-conditioned and you will be pulling calves from fat heifers. Seeds and corn stalks are lowly mineralized so you will have poor quality colostrum for the calf. Also, they go into sub-clinical ketosis rapidly, then ketosis. Then watch the Displaced Abomasums (DA’s) come on. They transition poorly and just crash. Mastitis is also a big problem in corn silage fed dry cows and heifers.

Selenium is another mineral that is very necessary, and should be fed at the maximum level. Selenium is so vital for so many functions in the cow and calf that it should always be addressed in the dry cow stage. The free choice system works very well. The theory of overeating it to the point of toxicity doesn’t happen. If not included in the free choice system, then make sure it is included in the minerals fed and at the maximum level.

At delivery, make sure the environment is clean, well bedded, dry and ventilated. If in the summer, nothing is better than good clean grass or pasture. If you anticipate a problem, like a heifer standing around with her tail out, don’t be afraid to do a vaginal examination to see what is going on. Use a sleeve, which can irritate them sometimes, or just wash your arm up and lubricate it well. Wash her vulva lips, and gently slide your arm in. You will be going in a warm tunnel with a rose at the end. If the rose is open one or two fingers, she is starting the process. The hormones are opening up her cervix (dilating). If you feel a twist and a shelf at 9 o’clock, with the calf laying upside down over the shelf, you have a 180 degree counter clockwise uterine torsion and need help. Uterine torsions caught early will usually have a live calf. If it is coming breech (the calf’s tail sticking out – quite often twins) get professional help. I’ve seen too many farmers deliver breech calves where the top of the uterus is torn off the cervix from too much pressure being applied when correcting the position of the calf. Part of being a good manager is knowing when you need help.

After delivery, if you have access to warm water, get the cow or heifer to drink as much water as she wants. In the last ten years that I practiced, I would put Pulsatilla (Homeopathic) pills into the water. I was always amazed at how often they would pass their placenta. Even after a tough calving. I would often bet the farmers a Diet Coke that I could get her to clean with warm water and Pulsatilla. That was in my other life, before I learned that Aspartame kills brain cells, brain cells, brain cells! In my early years as a veterinarian, I pulled the calf and left the farm. It took time out of my day to take care of the the cow after the calf was on the ground. My last 10 years in practice, I made sure mama cow got warm water and the calf got iodine on the navel.

If you have a Johnes negative herd, I would always want to see the cow licking the calf off. This stimulates the cow and calf more than we know. Then, as soon as possible, all the clean, high brix colostrum you can get into the calf.

When I get calls now on scours in a calf less than 3-4 days old, milk fevers or uterine prolapses, I look at what’s happening in the dry cow arena and that’s where I find the answer to their problems. The dry cow is SO, SO important. Get that lactation and new born calf off to a good start and you will have things going in the right direction.

Dr. Paul Dettloff has worked with CROPP Cooperative as a Staff Veterinarian to ensure healthy livestock since 2002. He has dedicated himself to sustainable and organic/biological treatment for dairy and beef cattle, sheep and goats and has researched and developed treatment protocols for many natural remedies, botanicals and homeopathic medicines. Author of ‘Alternative Treatments for Ruminant Animals’ he has also written several CROPP Cooperative Organic Farming Technical Bulletins, covering topics from stray currents to natural mastitis treatments.