D. E. Larsen, DVM
“What do you think, Doc,” Al asked as we stood at the fence watching a skinny cow in the corral.
“It doesn’t look like she has any diarrhea. When did you deworm last?”
“I gave her some pills I got at the feed store a couple of weeks ago,” Al said.
This was my first visit to Al’s place. Al in his 50s and dressed like he just stepped out of his office. My guess was he is a hobby farmer, probably a retired police officer out of California. I was a little surprised he had wormed the cow.
“Is she nursing a calf?” I asked.
“Yes, and the calf isn’t doing really well either,” Al said.
“Let’s get her in a chute, and I will get a look at her,” I said.
“A chute, what do you mean by a chute?” Al asked.
This was going to be a bigger problem than I expected. This guy doesn’t know anything.”
“I guess I better grab my rope,” I said. “Are these posts strong enough to hold her?”
“I think so. They were here when I bought the place last summer. I bought this cow then also. She looked good when I bought her. She calved with no problem. Now she is skin and bones.”
I threw the lasso over her horns and took a couple of wraps on the corner post. She wasn’t wild, and I quickly pulled her up the post and tied her close.
“What are you feeding her, Al,” I asked?
“My pasture is dry as a bone now, but she gets all the hay she can eat.”
I examined the old cow. She looked fine, except she was skin and bones. Her udder was mostly empty, but the milk I stripped out looked fine. I collected blood and fecal samples.
“Al, what you call hay, in the feed rack there, is straw,” I said as I turned the cow loose and crawled back across the fence. “I will look at these samples when I get back to the office. But her problem is Agroceryosis.”
“Agroceryosis, I have never heard of that. It sounds serious,” Al said.
“It is serious, Al. If it is not corrected, it will surely kill her,” I said. “What it means is there is a lack of groceries. That straw you are feeding doesn’t have much in it. We need to have a little discussion on basic nutrition.”
“That’s why I called you. I need to learn all I can,” Al said.
“How many cows do you have,” I asked?
“She is my whole herd, her and her calf,” Al said. “I figured I needed to learn with small numbers before getting a bunch.”
“That was probably the best decision you could have made. We have a couple of months to get her ready for winter. Otherwise, I would have been out here on an emergency call when she was down and dying at the first snowfall.”
“You sound pretty sure that is what would happen to her,” Al said.
“Every year that I have been here, the first snow brings a rash of calls. Usually, it is a horse and a couple of cows. They all look the same. And they have inadequate shelter, no fat on their bones, not a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving the night. The thing I have never been able to figure out is how the owners can figure out they are going to die tonight but can’t figure out they need to feed them a little.”
“Well, I could at least recognize that she needs something,” Al said.
“Without getting out the nutrition books, you can probably understand that the cow has basic needs that need to be met. She needs protein, and she needs an energy source. Sometimes you can meet all those needs in good grass hay. That hay might contain 8% protein. This straw probably has less than 2% protein. She can’t eat enough to meet her protein requirement. They say she is bulk limited. It is sort of like you would be trying to live on lettuce.”
“So I need to go shopping for hay,” Al said.
“This cow is going to need more than just grass hay. She has to make up some ground before winter. And her milk production requires a lot of energy. That is one reason she is so thin. She has put all of her fat reserves into producing milk for her calf.”
“So I need some grain also,” Al said.
“Yes, you probably need some good grass hay, maybe a bale or two of alfalfa and a couple of bags of grain,” I said.
“You think that will do it,” Al asked?
“That and a mineral block. Then you have to change her ration slowly. You can change to the grass hay with no problem. But you need to get her on that first, then add a small amount of alfalfa and a little grain.”
What do you mean by a small amount and a little grain,” Al asked?
“You get her on good grass hay for a week, then start giving her a couple of cups of grain once a day. The third week, give her half of a flake of alfalfa on top of her grass hay. I will drop by sometime during that third week and just eyeball her. We should be able to see a change by then.”
“What about those samples,” Al asked?
“I will give you a call tomorrow. If you wormed her, I don’t think we will see much in the samples.”
“Okay, I will expect to see you in a few weeks,” Al said.
“Does she have access to the barn,” I asked?
“Yes, but she doesn’t seem to want to use it much.”
“She will when winter gets here. You can take this straw and use it to bed down a stall space for her and her calf. You might be surprised at how she reacts when she has a bedded stall.”
Several weeks later, I pulled onto Al’s place as I was returning from a call out at Crawfordsville. I waved at Al as he was pulling on his boots on the porch. I stopped out by the barn.
“Doc, she is a completely different cow,” Al said. “I am embarrassed now that I almost starved her to death.”
The cow and her calf were bedded down in the straw in the barn. They were both chewing their cuds and paid no attention to us.
“The calf never used to eat when I was feeding them straw, but now he bellies up to the feed rack and fights for position with his mother,” Al said.
I could still see ribs on the cow, but they were covered with a layer of fat already. Her hip bones looked smoother now also.
“It looks to me like she will be fine. I would start giving her a full flake of alfalfa and give her some gain twice a day. When she starts to look like your neighbor’s cows, you can slow down on the alfalfa and grain.”
“You think she will be okay for this winter,” Al asked?
“I think she is going to be okay. Before you go out and buy the rest of the herd, you need to drop by the office, and we can go over nutrition in a little more detail. And we can discuss a vaccination and parasite control program that will work well for a small herd.”
“Isn’t it funny, I remember cows on my Grandfather’s farm, and I had no idea what kind of work and knowledge went into raising them.”
“Those grandfathers didn’t need a book. They just knew the cows. They made it look easy,” I said.
“Thanks again, Doc. And I will remember to drop by the clinic before I get the rest of my herd.”
Photo by Mohau Mannathoko on Unsplash