We need to think about feeds, housing, contented cows and their immune systems. It is good to keep in mind that grazing fresh grass simply has an enormous amount of living vitality that stored feeds simply do not. This living vitality of fresh grazed pastures has positive effects on the immune system of animals, if only from the dynamic characteristics of actively growing plants rooted directly to the soil.
As we all know, cows out on pasture tend to be healthy – this is a direct consequence of the fresh feed itself as well as the exercise cows get walking the landscape. Once cows are taken off pasture, fed ensiled feeds and stored hay while staying in one place in the barn, problems can and do happen with more frequency. While every farmer feeds their cows differently, those feeding a higher grain diet tend to make more milk but have more health problems with the cows than those farmers feeding higher forage diets with also higher effective fiber intake.
Sometimes molds are in the feeds as well, whether or not you can see them. Certainly the normal smell of different kinds of ensiled feeds is pleasant while those that were put up too wet can be unpleasant. However, too dry a silage tends to have a higher mold possibility. The safest way to feed cows in the winter is maximal feeding of top quality hay (that has good protein content as well as energy – always check the relative feed value of hay, RFV).
Regardless of how you feed your cows, the change to stored feeds and less exercise will impact their immune systems. In organics, there is always talk of maintaining a healthy immune system in order to fight off potential germs that the animals may have to deal with. And, even if you can use antibiotics without restriction, an antibiotic is effective only if the animal’s immune system is functional.
This is because the antibiotic is simply knocking back the bacterial insult allowing more time for the animal to overcome the problem – but the animal still needs to rely on her own system to ultimately restore itself to health. Constant, repetitive use of antibiotics and hormones for any problem will slowly weaken the animals over time – as well as give rise to possible antibiotic resistance in the case of abusing antibiotics.
This is where one difference in cow health is evident on conventional versus organic farms – the need to keep an organic animal’s immune system at its highest possible level at all times. But even then, there could be an overwhelming germ that for whatever reason slips into the system and causes problems.
So how do we keep the immune system healthiest? First, by low stress upon the cows. That is why there is so much emphasis in the entire dairy industry for cow comfort. This includes mattresses or bedded packs to lay on whenever they want (I can’t stand the idea of over-crowding free stalls where not all the cows can lay down at once if they all want to).
This also means good ventilation – fresh air is so critical to the health of any animal. Tunnel ventilation is ideal (and is the best fly control I have ever seen work within barns during the summer). Dry bedding is also critical, especially for those cows that may leak milk. Feed, with high amounts of effective fiber (i.e. dry hay) will encourage the cow to chew cud, which will keep the rumen the healthiest.
Basically, a cow without a functional, healthy rumen is simply not a “cow”, just as a horse with bad feet is not a “horse”. But perhaps most importantly, for good low stress, is the person who takes care of the cows. There should be no shouting or hitting the cows with whatever implement. This makes the cows nervous and they won’t let their milk down appropriately, which may be reflected in the somatic cell count of the herd.
They also may become kicky. Wise herdsmen learn that a quiet flick of the hand or hat will get cows to move the direction you want them to very easily. Quietly talking to the cow(s) as you move them along is a sign of an excellent herdsman. Many a cow person will agree. Hired people that hit and yell at the cows are usually fired, and appropriately so.
Owners that hit and yell at the cows tend to have touchy cows that do not like being handled by anyone, for obvious reasons. Lastly, to keep low stress levels, it must be emphasized that keeping a routine is critical. Most farmers realize this as cows are the ultimate creatures of habit and any kind of upset in their routines will probably show as an increase in somatic cell counts as their immune systems respond negatively. Simply put, variously changing the persons who milk the herd can affect cows’ routines significantly, which also negatively impacts their immune systems.
Even when keeping the cows’ environment, feed and care givers in mind, the non-grazing season itself will affect their immune systems as noted earlier. To boost their immune system in general, always try to feed (or buy in) the greenest type of hays as they will have the most vitamins preserved. (You will need to buy less vitamin packs, which are generally expensive.) Hay with poor color usually has poor vitamin content. Try to feed a mixture of grains and not only straight shelled corn as an energy source.
As they say, variety is the spice of life and that spice is what can stimulate the immune system. Selenium is of critical importance, especially in areas of deficient soil selenium (most major dairy areas in the US ). Feeding Sel-plex® by Alltech (OK for organics) is an easy way to feed a readily bio-available source of selenium to your herd. However, MuSe® and BoSe® actually deliver the type of selenium that the cells taking up selenium need.
Therefore, what I usually recommend is that for general immune support, feed Sel-plex® and for specific immediate needs, give the injectable MuSe® or BoSe®. Another angle to stimulate the immune system (and scientifically proven), is to use Immunoboost® (by Bioniche Life Science), 1cc per 200 lbs under the skin, in the muscle of IV. It is labeled for calf scours and when given for it, along with BoSe®, can stop scours quickly if given on the first day of symptoms.
Use of EPIC calf scour formula® (also by Bioniche) has electrolytes with egg protein immune complexes which supplement a calf’s immune system when stressed. Animals with severe wart problems clear up dramatically using the Immunoboost® given 2 doses one month apart. This is because the animal’s immune system becomes alert to the virus that gives rise to the warts and the animal overcomes the infection on its own. Ringworm is another condition which would respond to an immune system stimulant like Immunoboost®.
So whether it is by feeding a variety of high quality stored feeds, exercise, the animals’ environment, the people who care for the cows or specific immune stimulation, there are many factors which can either negatively or positively affect the immune system and general health of your animals.