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Yesterday we brought the cattle in…again. For good this time. By that I mean until May, when hopefully it’ll be dry enough, and grass-growing enough, for them to go out again. Poor old beasts, it really hasn’t been much of a year for them.
It’s a busy day. First the cow palace has to be made ready; fresh bedding put out, haylage bales fetched, gates and yard arranged. Then the young stock are collected up and boxed home in several journeys. Once back they’re sorted into steers and heifers, and run through the crush to be weighed and drenched (given a dose of medicine orally) for fluke; a parasite prevalent on our wet land. The Soil Association has given us a derogation to do this. However, the withdrawal period for all drugs has to be doubled in organic systems. In the case of a flukicide, this means I can’t treat any animals I intend to sell for meat within as much as 108 days. This concerns me as fluke is very damaging and can cause an animal to become ill and die. It’s one of those rules that are made with good intentions but really ought to be applied flexibly. Still, I keep an eagle eye on untreated stock and if I suspect an infestation the animal is treated right away.
Once the youngsters are settled it’s time to fetch the main herd. Having been in and out so much this year the cows, and us, are beginning to get used to the routine. The cows and calves are again sorted into batches and run through the crush for weighing and drenching. There’s always a cacophony of noise and excitement as the different groups come into contact with one another after a summer of separation. Princess, a young cow due to calve soon, and who I’d kept back with the new bull as a companion, became hysterical in her excitement at the returning herd. She, Princess, is the daughter of Severn, one of the herd matriarchs, and has recently become a strong dominant cow in the herd pecking order, taking the place of her mother who’s beginning to show her age: she was desperate to get back with them and reinstate herself!
Soon peace descends on the cow palace as everyone settles to contentedly feed on the evening meal of aromatic haylage. I must say there’s something extraordinarily satisfying looking at fifty odd deep chestnut red bodies along the barriers as they mumble and munch. I walk along them listening to their strangely comforting rhythmic chomp, punctuated by burps, gurgles and rumbles with an occasional soft low of greeting as I pass on my way to the farmhouse at the end of a long day.
p.s. I thought you might be interested in the weight gain of the calves and young stock over a 52 day period (they were last weighed at TB testing). The calves have gained 35-45kg and the yearlings 25-35kg. Not bad on a pure organic grass diet and our unimproved pastures at that!
A few weeks ago Jennifer developed an oedema on her lower jaw known as ‘bottle jaw’. Bottle jaw or intermandibular oedema is due to protein loss from the bloodstream into the intestinal tract. The most likely cause of this is either Johne’s disease (pronounced “yo-knees”), a disease you really don’t want in your herd, or parasitism, most likely fluke, both of which damage the liver. However it could be the result of a heart condition in which case an oedema could subsequently appear on the chest.
As you can imagine, I was worried. Jennifer, if you remember, is the herd’s number one cow, the matriarch. She is also the cow, back in February, I photographed throughout the labour and birth of her massive calf. After calving I decided to supplement her feed with cereal to help her cope with the demands of a large calf and to make up for the lack of nutrients in last summer’s inferior forage. Despite this additional feeding she continued to look rather emaciated, though her character, disposition and appetite remained much as usual.
I consulted my vet when the oedema first appeared and we decided to wait twenty-four hours to see if any materialized on her chest which would indicate a heart condition. Thank heavens none did. The next stage was to try and find out what the cause was and if possible to treat it. I took a faecal sample which was sent to Starcross Laboratories to test for Johne’s disease and parasites. She was given a dose of flukicide in case the herd’s routine autumn drench for fluke had not been effective. I injected her with a multi-vitamin to boost the liver and a steroid to control the oedema.
Unfortunately Johne’s disease is incurable. Briefly it’s a serious wasting disease that affects a wide range of animals. It causes a thickening of the intestinal wall which blocks the normal absorption of food. The animal is hungry and eats but cannot absorb any nutrients. This results in wasting and finally death. Diarrhoea and bottle jaw are common signs of its presence in cattle. It’s very difficult to diagnose and often by the time any symptoms come to light the disease is well established in the herd and difficult to eradicate.
I waited nervously for the test results to come back. In the meantime Jennifer’s oedema continued to increase in size. I knew that sweet fresh grass would be the best medicine for her, indeed she was craving it, but unfortunately that wasn’t an option. One evening I found Olly in the cow palace scratching her back “I’ve a bad feeling about Jen, mum”. This was after doing some searches on the net which gleefully informed us that once the oedema appeared the animal had approximately two weeks to live!
“Well I don’t think she’s that ready to give up just yet” I replied “after all she has this year’s intake of maiden heifers to sort out and one of them’s her daughter little Jen” (her real name is Kate but she looks so like her mum that we nicknamed her little Jen). “I’m sure she’ll want to make sure that she’s putting her connections to good use and is groomed for future matriarchal succession.”
My vet phoned with the results – and joy of joy they were negative both for parasites and Johne’s! But, he warned this can sometimes be a false negative in the case of Johne’s and we should continue to monitor her. She has now been out to grass for almost a week and I think the oedema is lessening; she certainly looks to be carrying a little more weight. So hopefully this incident is due to a combination of age, her years of exceptional fertility, mothering and milk production…and the very poor quality of last summer’s haylage. Neither the herd nor I are ready to see the end of her reign. Long live Jen!