A Short Course in Cow Management

By Gary Zimmer & Rebecca Brown

Do everything you can to get the livestock healthy and comfortable. Whether she harvests her own forages or you harvest and store the feed for her, quality forages and cow comfort are the key to healthy, productive cows and profitable, successful dairying.

Cow science is cow science, whether you graze or store feeds, are organic or not. You cannot violate the principles of the cow. If the parameters are violated—which in most circumstances means the dry cow is getting an excess of  potassium, nitrogen, or protein and a lactating cow is deficient in some nutrient—train wrecks occur. The challenges are balancing nitrogen, digestibility and energy for the cow’s diet, and getting her comfortable and stress free.

Ration balancing is difficult with grazing. Common sense and “eye” of the master are essential.

Grazing is a less expensive way to harvest, plus it eliminates molds and provides fresh vitamins and exercise. Cows are designed to eat forages. Have a minimum of 65 percent of the diet as forages.

Grass-based cow genetics are key to efficiently producing milk in a pasture-based operation.

Quality protein, energy, minerals, vitamins, and effective fiber are essential in forages but whatever is missing from your forages is what needs to be supplemented to the cows. Starting nutrition in the soils can improve forage quality over time, but you have to earn the right to not supplement the cows.

Free-choicing minerals is another good idea. This is not in place of trying to add minerals known to be short in the soil and feed, like calcium, magnesium and trace minerals. The minimum free-choice mineral program starts with a good, natural salt (we also like to free-choice kelp alone or mixed 50/50 with salt), a 1:1 mineral, a high calcium mineral like CharCal® and finally, a buffer. We also use a montmorillonite clay called Dynamin.

Adding carbon to the cow diet (dried molasses, some grain, plant charcoals, CharCal®) helps absorb extra free rumen nitrogen. Also make sure sulfur is used in soil fertility programs for quality proteins.

Corn silage and good “dry” hay help match high-protein, low-fiber, high-moisture, out-of-balance forages and early spring pasture growth. Place a bale or two of hay in the fields during the period of lush green grass.

Milk cow feed and dry cow feed are not the same. Grow special forages for each group. Get an excellent dry cow program in place in order to rebuild the cow. If you don’t have low-potassium, “good” grassy hay, buy it. It’s your cheapest investment of the year.

Feeding the extras—vitamins, selenium (in many areas), yeast, kelp, direct-fed microbials—is certainly beneficial for many farms. Your job is to do everything you can to get that cow healthy and comfortable. Some additions don’t have immediate visible paybacks, but health and breeding improve when the whole program is implemented.

Water is essential: clean, fresh and available in adequate amounts.

Our ration: We have one total mixed ration (TMR) for the whole herd, and in addition offer free choice minerals. Due to our forages’ higher protein content, we haven’t used much supplemented protein for many years. Corn silage does fit our program to help lower total protein and some of the minerals. Our ration this winter was about twenty-five pounds corn silage as is, fifteen pounds high moisture shell corn, a couple pounds of dry hay and the rest a mix of the haylage bales. Free choice the cows get a mineral balance mix, some charcoal, yeast, kelp, direct fed microbials, enzymes and vitamins. Our summer ration keeps the corn silage and grain levels similar but we may supplement oats and other small grains for some of the corn. We graze as much as possible starting with cereal ryes in the spring then move on to established pasture, summer annuals, and new seedings and ending in the fall with oats, peas and brassicas. We do use some straw, dry hay or dry baleage in the TMR for effective fiber.

This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2010.

Gary Zimmer heads Midwestern Bio-Ag Products & Services, a manufacturing and consulting company that operates on over 5,000 farms, in 15 states with 80 consultants. He runs Otter Creek Organic Dairy Farm with his son and daughter in Wisconsin. He taught agriculture for many years, holds a graduate degree in dairy nutrition and lectures widely on the subject. He is the author of The Biological Farmer, and Advancing Biological Farming.

Rebecca Brown is a consultant in the Mid-Atlantic Region for Midwestern Bio-Ag. She grew up on a farm, studied agriculture in college, and has managed several grass-based livestock direct-marketing farms. While working on dairy farms for a year in New Zealand, she realized she enjoyed sharing information with farmers. She then spent nearly a year working and studying at Zimmer’s Otter Creek Farm before returning to the East to become a consultant. She can be reached at (774) 521-6100 or brownsuffolk (at) hotmail (dot) com.


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