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From Field to Feeder

Dairy Cows

Organic dairy production ranges from having one family cow to exporting organic dairy products across the continent. Consumers are willing to pay premium prices for organic dairy products because they want delicious and nutritious milk, cheese, yogurt and butter produced without the use of antibiotics, growth hormones or other chemicals.

Feeding dairy cows, particularly high-yielding cows, poses a challenge to farmers. There are many nutrition-related health problems in dairy cows, and these are often related to feeding excessive amounts of grain with high levels of protein. Successful organic dairy farmers provide their cows with high quality forage and moderate amounts of organic grain. Organic dairy feed differs from conventional feed in several ways. Rather than adding straight fat or oil to the feed, the fat in organic feed comes from roasted soybeans and oilseeds such as flax meal or sunflower seeds. The oilseeds provide a slow release of fat at a rate which the rumen can easily cope with. In organic feed, protein is provided by grain, roasted soybeans and flaxmeal, rather than by urea and ammonium salts.

High quality forage is essential to a good dairy operation. Good hay can account for 2/3 of the daily feed intake for milking cows, with the amount of hay being up to 3% of the body weight. Rotational grazing is recommended from spring to fall, with hay, possibly mixed with silage, for the winter. At all times, animals need access to trace mineral salt, minerals and kelp. These can be provided in the feed or as separate supplements.

Feeding dairy calves

The health of the calves depends largely on how well the cows were fed during the last two months of gestation. During the first 4-6 hours of life, calves need colostrum, and should be kept on colostrum for at least the first 24 hours, preferably for the first few days of life. Let the newborn calf drink as much as it wants during several feedings. Organic calves require organic milk, although non-organic milk and milk replacer can be used as a last resort. Check with your certifying body to see what is permitted. After the first day or two, the calf is able to gorge itself on milk so the amount of milk per feeding must be limited to 500 ml (1 pint) per 4.5 kg (10 lb.) body weight per day. An average size calf weighing 27 kg (60 lb.) would drink 3 L (3 quarts) of milk per day, divided among 5 feedings. After a few days, the number of feedings can be reduced to four feedings per day, but the total volume should remain constant.

After a week, start offering calf starter or creep feed (16% protein) in a creep feeder. Provide feed several times a day and let the calves eat as much as they want. Clean out the feeders after the calves have had a reasonable amount of time to eat. In the creep feeder, provide free access to leafy high quality legume hay. Calves can be weaned once they are eating 500-750 g (1-1.5 lb.) per day of calf starter or creep feed plus hay and milk. After three months of age, the calves can be fed dairy ration (16% protein).

Feeding replacement heifers

Cows should gain weight before breeding so that they have enough energy reserves to last through gestation and lactation. Heifers should have a condition score of 3.5 and cows should have scores of 3.75-4.0 (using a scale of 0-5). If the farmer wants to breed the heifers at 15 months of age, they should weigh about 60% of their mature weight. For example, a Jersey should weigh 286-295 kg (630-650 lb.), a Guernsey should weigh 327-341 kg (720-760 lb.) and a Holstein should weigh 363-397 kg (800-875 lb.).

High quality forage can provide all of the nutrients needed for heifers during early gestation. However, during the last 3-4 months of gestation, bred heifers will need some grain as well as forage. Dairy ration is recommended if the hay or pasture is poor, or if the heifer is underweight. During steaming up (last few weeks before calving), provide dairy ration at a rate of 1% of body weight. The dry matter of the total feed (hay and forage) should not exceed 2.5-3% of the body weight. Note that both hay and grain are about 90% dry matter by weight. For example, a heifer weighing 182 kg (400 lb.) would do well on 4 kg (8.5 lb.) of alfalfa hay and 1.4 kg (3 lb.) of dairy ration per day.

Drying off cows

Cows are dry for about 60 days before calving. To dry off heavy milkers, stop providing grain for an entire week before stopping milking. Cows should be kept on hay, eating a minimum of 1% of their body weight as hay each day. If grain is needed, use a feed with 11-13% protein, such as ewe ration, flockmaster or mixed grains. Provide access to salt, minerals and kelp. Note that feeding a high calcium diet during the dry period may lead to milk fever.

Feeding cows during early lactation

During the first ten weeks of lactation, the cow faces great nutritional demands. Milk production peaks 6-8 weeks after calving and the cow needs 3-10 times more protein than she did during late gestation. But the cow’s appetite has not yet peaked and she cannot get enough energy in the feed to produce the milk. Although still recuperating from calving, some of the energy for the milk is derived from stored reserves in the cow’s body. Consequently, body condition declines during this period. Dairy cows in good condition lose 90-135 kg (200-300 lb.) during the entire period of lactation.

Feed cows lightly for the first couple of days after calving. Once the stress of calving has passed, increase the grain by 500-700 g (1-1.5 lb.) per day. Feed large cows such as Holsteins 500 g (1 lb.) of dairy ration for every 1.8 kg (4 lb.) of milk. Feed small cows such as Jerseys 500 g (1 lb.) of dairy ration for every 1.4 kg (3 lb.) of milk. Another way to work this out is to feed 2.5-4% of their body weight at peak lactation (10 weeks after calving). Ideally cows should not be fed more than 2.25 kg (5 lb.) of grain at one time. Greater amounts may trigger acidosis.

A dairy ration with a higher protein level (18%) can be used during this period, or the cows can be fed a 16% protein dairy ration along with legume hay. If they are not on pasture, cows should receive at least 2.25 kg (5 lb.) of dry hay per day; more is recommended. For each pound of milk, cows drink about 2 L (0.5 gallon) of water. Note that 1 L of milk weighs 0.92 kg (1 quart of milk weighs 2.15 lb.).

Feeding cows during mid- to late lactation

During mid-lactation, the cow’s feed intake peaks. Energy intake through feed is equivalent to output (as milk). Mature cows are bred within 1-3 months after calving. Milk production drops, but the cows still need adequate feed to build up their energy reserves for the next lactation. Throughout mid-late lactation, dairy ration (16% protein) is fed at the same rate as during early lactation.

Feeding bulls

Feed bull calves using the same recommendations as for heifers. In addition to forage, mature bulls need a low protein feed such as ewe ration at a rate of about 0.5 kg per 100 kg (0.5 lb. per 100 lb.) of body weight.

Avoiding and treating health problems

Many health problems can be avoided through good management and nutrition. Clean housing, low densities and good pasture management all lead to healthy herds. Healthy diets are essential for healthy animals; well-balanced nutritious feed strengthens the immune system and improves an animal’s ability to resist disease and parasitic infections.

The suggestions given here are for general purposes only. For specific advice, please contact your veterinarian.

Worms(internal parasites) are a major challenge for organic livestock producers. Worm problems can be reduced by rotating pastures, good manger design and using feed supplements such as diatomaceous earth and herbal dewormer. Both of these products are allowed to be used on certified organic farms, and there is no withdrawal period needed for either milk or meat. Hoegger’s Worm Compound for Goats is a mix of medicinal herbs which discourage worms in goats, sheep, cows and horses. The dose is 5 ml (1 tsp.) per 45 kg (100 lb.) of body weight. To help eradicate worms, give the dose twice a day for three consecutive days. To maintain worm control, provide one dose per week.

Scours(diarrhea) can indicate disease, poisoning, worms or an upset in the microbial community of the rumen. Bottlefed animals can develop scours if the milk is fed at the wrong temperature. To treat scours, try to identify the underlying cause of the problem. To treat the symptoms, provide the animal with dry hay, clean water and no grain. The animal can be drenched with charcoal mixed in water. Some organic farmers treat cows with 15 ml (1 Tbsp.) of vitamin C and 15 ml (1 Tbsp.) of dolomite. Use half this rate for calves. Electrolytes can be given twice a day; follow the instructions on the package. Probiotics are often used to prevent scours, or used during and after an episode in order to help restore the microbial balance.

Ticks, lice and fleas can be controlled using sulphur (internally or externally) and/or diatomaceous earth (DE).The sulphur and/or DE can be rubbed into the skin of the animal to control the pests. Adding sulphur to the feed at a rate of less than 2% of feed can improve the animal’s resistance to external parasites.

Mastitis can often be prevented by good management and good nutrition. Good milking procedures are essential. Mastitis is much less common in animals that are given feed with moderately low protein levels (such as organic feed). If an animal develops mastitis, the grain ration should be cut to 1/3 of the previous level and the animal milked gently several times a day. A clay poultice can be made by mixing bentonite clay with warm oil, water or a mixture of the two; this can be applied to the udder after milking and left on for 3-4 hours.

Bloat is almost always caused by overeating grain or lush pasture, particularly legume pastures. Bloated animals should be kept on their feet and exercising. A common remedy is to drench with vegetable oil, 60 ml (¼ cup) for calves and as much as 1 litre (1 qt.) for cows and bulls. Before putting the animal out on new pasture, give the animals dry hay. Some farmers drench animals with dolomite mixed with water at a rate of 15 ml (1 Tbsp.) per cow. Baking soda can also be used. Some animals will eat it dry; others will need to be drenched with just small amounts, such as 10 ml (2 teaspoons) for calves.

Poisoning can occur from livestock eating poisonous plants, mouldy hay or other toxic substances. Activated charcoal can bind to the toxins and can also be used to treat frothy bloat. Mix the charcoal with water and drench the animal. Several hours later, drench the animal with vegetable oil to coat the gut. There must be an interval of a few hours between the charcoal and oil drenches because if the oil drench immediately follows the charcoal drench, the oil will prevent the charcoal from working.


Copyright © 2003 by Homestead Organics Ltd

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