WISCONSIN DELLS — Dr. Hubert Karreman, organic dairy veterinarian and co-owner of Reverence Farm in Pennsylvania, pointed to a photograph of a several cows grazing in a pasture.
“What do you see?” he asked those attending his session at the GrassWorks Grazing Conference Jan. 31. “What are you missing?
“It’s like those old ‘Highlights’ — find the hidden items in the picture. And everyone finds something different first.”
Many farmers are too immersed in the numbers on their computer that they do not realize their cows are talking to them every day — without saying a single word. Study your animals and make observations, Karreman said, and you’ll be able to diagnose possible problems and ways to make the animal more efficient.
If you notice something odd with your cows, think about what the causes could be, he said, remembering that a cow’s health centers around six variables: feed, water, light, air, rest and space.
Cows are biologically wired to do activities in cycles of about two hours for a total of 10 times a day. They sleep for 20 minutes on and off during the day; they eat eight to 12 meals each day for about 30 to 45 minutes each time.
In total, cows spent four to nine hours each day eating and four to 10 hours each day ruminating or chewing cud. On average, they’ll spend 16 hours total a day “chewing.”
“This is why you never feed enough dry hay to a cow,” Karreman said.
There are six points of control when it comes to feed, he continued. Every animal should be fed and have access to the food 24 hours a day. The food must be easily accessible and sufficient — which means you may have to push the feed up to them so they don’t hurt themselves reaching. The food must be tasty (to a cow) and have the right content of nutrients.
For cows in the pasture, optimal length for grass for grazing should be between a foot to 18 inches, he added.
Farmers can check their cows’ health by looking at their rumen fill daily. Located on the cows left side when standing behind the cow, checking this spot is an easy and important way to see how your cow has been eating. You can also note their belly profile — whether it’s expanded or skinnier — with that observation alerting farmers to how the cow has been fed in the last week.
A body condition score is also a good way to determine how well the cow has been eating in the past one to two months.
To tell how well the cow has been eating in the past six hours, Karreman said to check the animal’s “danger triangle,” located near the rear of the animal. If the triangle is very present, the cow likely hasn’t eaten enough in the past six hours.
If your observations have alerted you to some issues with your cows, there is always something you can do, he said. Perhaps you may need to move a fence line if you notice your cows aren’t eating well in the pasture; maybe you need to add another bale if one bale isn’t enough for all your cows to eat at one time.
Karreman recommended pushing feed up to the cows in a free-stall barn five times a day to avoid possible problems with bumps and scrapes along the backs of their necks.
Cows, on average, need 10 to 50 gallons of water daily — another variable to keep in mind when it comes to cow health.
Cows also need light and fresh air. Karreman recommended 16 to 18 hours of light for cows, making it important to have them exposed to light outside and inside the buildings where they are housed.
Keeping an eye on your cows is something any farmer can do, regardless of the type of farm, size of farm or how many animals there are on the farm.
“These can all be applied across the board,” he said. “It’s all about looking at familiar things from a different perspective.”
Karreman suggested picking up “CowSignals: A Practical Guide for Dairy Farm Management,” by Dutch veterinarian Jan Hulsen or visiting cowsignals.com for more information.