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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!


Locks Park Farm

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I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.



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