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Managing a Dairy Cow for 100% Grass-Fed Milk Production

In the dairy community, it is generally considered impossible to maintain a modern dairy cow in acceptable body condition without feeding grain. For about 50 years now, the cows have been bred to do well eating lots of grain and producing lots of milk. Cows with modern dairy genetics will produce lots of milk to the point of becoming emaciated; they don't regulate their milk production to a reasonable amount given their calorie intake. Rumor has it that for every one cow that can survive and be healthy on a 100% grass-fed dairy there are two cows that cannot, no matter how good the management and the feed. It is disturbing that we have so altered the genetic makeup of our national dairy herd that many cows do not thrive on their natural diet of grass. 

RuthAnn's calf was born 9 days ago, and the heifer calf, Buttercup, is growing beautifully. RuthAnn, on the other hand, is having a tough time. Within hours of calving I noticed that she was only nibbling her food, not eating gustily. Her eyes, her rumen, and her general demeanor all seemed a little bit off. I was worried about ketosis, a very common metabolic disorder in dairy cows that is particularly common in the postpartum period.

Ketosis occurs when a cow has a negative energy balance, meaning that she is taking in fewer calories than she is using. To meet her energy needs, she burns her own muscles, a process that produces ketones. The ketones present in her body make her feel bad. Because she feels bad she doesn't want to eat so she eats less, which makes the ketosis worse and causes her to eat even less. It can turn into a bad downward spiral, with complications such as a displaced abomasum and even death. 

For a few days, I offered her all kinds of tasty snacks often throughout the day, with a menu of alfalfa pellets, freshly growing clover and grass in one of my nicest grazing paddocks, alfalfa hay, and grass hay. She nibbled some food but her appetite seemed to be getting worse. To try to get some much-needed calories into her, I made the decision to put her on grain temporarily and started giving her a certified organic, soy-free dairy grain mix. Even with the grain she continued to worsen and her appetite decreased. 

I called our vet who came and treated her for ketosis. He gave her some B vitamins, an IV energy mix, and some other medicine to help her feel better and get her appetite back. It worked! Within minutes of the vet leaving, RuthAnn was out in the pasture hungrily gobbling all grass in sight. It has been several days since then and her appetite has continued to be strong. 

I am now working on getting her off the grain while making sure that the ketosis does not relapse. There are three things that I must do. First, get as many calories into her as possible. My approach is to offer her the best pasture on the farm, give her some hay too (cows like diversity so you can get them to eat more total if you offer both pasture and hay), feed her alfalfa pellets (they have excellent nutrition and are grain-free), and feed her a small amount of grain until I'm sure she's getting enough calories without it. Second, I have to try to reduce her milk production. Yes, I just said REDUCE her milk production. I have never heard of a dairy farmer trying to reduce production; instead, 99% of farms work aggressively to increase production. However, if I can reduce her production then she will need fewer calories and will not be in a negative energy balance. To try to reduce her production, I am only milking her once a day instead of twice a day. Third, I am working on her mineral status. Cows generally synthesize most of their vitamins themselves and so a vitamin deficiency usually results from a mineral deficiency. Plenty of vitamin B will help her to function better and ruminants make vitamin B from cobalt, so I am trying to find a cobalt block for the cows and the sheep. I'll also make sure that she has plenty of kelp, sea salt, and cow minerals available to her. 

As I try to slowly wean her off the grain, I will be checking her urine daily for ketones, using a urine dip-stick made just for cows. 

I have a lot of hope that RuthAnn will be able to thrive on 100% grass and am continuing to do everything possible to get her there. I'll be posting updates here and on the facebook page when I have time between my many trips out to the pasture with cow snacks. 

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Reader Comments (1)

I'm sure you have resolved the issues with RuthAnn satisfactorily by now, but I have run into similar challenges with my dairy goats and finally found cobalt blocks at Tractor Supply. I supply cobalt, sulfur, and various other blocks to all my animals at all times, and try to keep kelp available as well as some other things. It has helped immensely--especially as I am in the high desert of New Mexico and currently have to purchase most of the hay...which seems to be sadly lacking in minerals and nutrition in general. I'm looking forward to moving back to Missouri (my home state) in order to have much greater influence on the pastures/forages and the soil in which all of our food is produced.

September 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

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