Raising healthy cows naturally

Presenters offer advice at Minnesota Organic Conference

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ST. CLOUD, Minn. — At the Minnesota Organic Conference Jan. 11-12, producers and educators gathered to learn more about organic farming at the River’s Edge Convention Center in St. Cloud.

Joe Armstrong, DVM, University of Minnesota Extension, explained how to prevent diseases and stressed the need to establish written protocols. Armstrong said of the producers he works with, 10%-20% have written protocols.

“That’s really important because then I can tell what is working,” Armstrong said. “(For scours), supportive care is the most important.”

Armstrong also shared how to prevent disease through biosecurity measures to minimize risk for the herd. He first discussed internal biosecurity.

“Milk tours should always start with the calves because disease transfers from older animals to younger,” Armstrong said. “Also, when you have sick animals in a group, take the healthy ones out and move them to a clean spot.”

The all-in all-out system is another way to minimize risk. This is done by grouping animals together and leaving them as a group, with no additional animals. Then clean and sanitize the pen after they are moved, before the pen is used again for another group of animals. 

Armstrong also discussed the concept of an open herd. An open herd is one in which any animal could encounter diseases off the farm. For example, the farm purchases animals, takes animals to shows or leases a bull.

One of the most important ways a farm can address external biosecurity is to disinfect and clean everything, from people coming from other farms to the vehicles they drive, Armstrong said. This can be done by establishing a line of separation for groups of people. This will ensure unnecessary risk is not taken.

Armstrong provided a list of disinfectants along with minimum times for them to be in place to be effective. None were under five minutes.

“The sun is a huge natural disinfectant,” Armstrong said. “Wash it off, let it dry and lay in the sun.”

Another topic Armstrong discussed was the calving process.

Armstrong said the Sandhills system is one way to manage calving. At the beginning of the calving window, all animals that will be calving should be placed in one pen. After a week, the animals that have not calved should be moved to another pen. This process should be continued until all calves are born.

Once the youngest calf in a group reaches 4 weeks of age, the group can then be combined with the older groups. The concept of waiting four weeks prevents the spreading of diseases that affect calves within the first weeks. 

Armstrong also suggested having a dedicated calving area.

“When we make a spot like that, we have to consider bunk space, water space, pack space and windbreaks,” Armstrong said. “Then if you can keep it clean, scrape it and let the sun get at it, you’ll start fresh every year.”

To end his presentation, Armstrong commented on stress levels of animals. Low-risk cattle in low-risk environments are ideal for well-being. However, high-risk cattle that are provided with a low-risk environment will slowly become low risk and be able to withstand additional stress, whether caused by weather, moving to another pen or being in a new group.

Armstrong said the first thing to consider is a farm’s specific system. Determine what can be done better to reduce stress, and do not assume the fault is the animal’s.

“Look for horses; don’t jump to zebras,” Armstrong said.

Brad Heins, a professor at the University of Minnesota, spoke about improving the health of organic dairy cattle. 

Heins said the main considerations for dry cow nutrition in order to grow a healthy calf are minerals and vaccines.

Producers should also ensure calves receive adequate colostrum within 24 hours of birth.

Heins and his students conducted a research project on calf-raising methods. They studied calves raised in one of four ways: individually housed, paired, in a group and in a pasture with their dam.

Each of the calves that were housed received about 2.5 gallons of milk a day. After weaning at 63 days of age, the calves left with their dam weighed 20-25 pounds more than the other calves.

However, as first-calf heifers, they were the same size. The cows that stayed with their dams had slightly worse temperament for the first few milkings but improved fairly quickly.

There was a noticeable difference between the groups of calves in terms of health. Heins said about 32% of the calves in group housing received treatments, which contributed to higher rearing costs.

“The calves that were raised on the cow had higher serum protein levels than the ones raised in huts,” Heins said. “One of the downfalls of group housing is the transfer of diseases.” 

Heins also pointed out the importance of serum protein levels.

“The better job you do at raising those calves and getting good colostrum into them, getting higher serum protein levels (leads) you to have higher milk production and longer cow livability,” Heins said.

Heins also discussed agrivoltaic grazing, which combines the use of land for grazing animals and solar panels. Because heat stress in cattle starts at 68 degrees, the solar panels are a viable option for shade. Cows should be rotated between solar farms or other pastures and returned no sooner than 28 days so vegetation will recover and the practice remains sustainable.

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