The Udder Side of the Story
When I first arrived in northwest Arkansas, I was amazed at how much grass there is here. I quickly found out that everyone was running one cow to one to two acres. I thought that was amazing compared to western Kansas where we run one cow to 8-10 acres or west Texas where it was one to two cows to the section. I remember my ex-partner telling me if I didn’t know what was going on with a cow, just blame it on fescue. I thought that was a cheap way out. So, I did a little investigation.
After a little investigation I figured out that most of this came from the poultry industry. This area started with chickens. As they grew as an industry, we had to have somewhere to go with the litter. So, it was used as fertilizer. Then we needed a grass to grow and here came fescue. For a little bit I fell into the trap and blamed the poultry industry for the problems I saw in cattle. Well, that isn’t fair. So, I did more investigation and found that without the poultry industry we would not have cattle in this area. Also, without fescue we would not have cattle in this area. Quickly I came to the realization that it is just this area and we need to supplement more and manage better than other areas of the country.
Fescue and chicken litter caused some problems in cattle. First the litter is high in potash, which is the ion potassium. Potassium is a super positively charged cat-ion. By having this charge it will pull other weaker ions towards it and tie them up. This will make the other ions unavailable to the cow. Mostly I found this to be true with copper. The dirt boys argued with me that we had lots of copper in the dirt. That is true, but if it is tied up and unavailable to the cow, what good is it doing. They also forget that the fescue plant itself will tie up copper and make it unavailable to the cow.
The other problem from fescue is the ergot toxin in it. This will cause a shut down of blood supply to an area of the body, i.e. foot, tail or internal fat. We have all seen old fescue Suzy trying to slough a foot or loose their switch on their tail. The internal fat will also have this happen. The fat will loose its blood supply and die. But, the body cannot slough it, so it calcifies the fat. This calcified fat will impede on the function of internal organs, i.e. kidney, stomach, liver, or get in the way of calving. A lot of times this can be felt at pregnancy examination. I find this quit frequently at the sale barn and for lack a long explanation I just call it cancer. It is a benign cancer like problem and everybody understands the word cancer and will cull these cows. Normally, cows with this will end up looking like a whiskey barrel hanging from their backbone, then they go down and there is nothing anybody can do. I would rather sell these cows and replace with others.
There is a way to prevent most of these problems. If you read the second paragraph over I mentioned that we had to supplement more and have better management. This would be using a fescue balancer mineral and keeping it out year round. This mineral must have the copper, selenium, vitamin E and vitamin A in it. I recommend it year round. I also recommend using loose mineral. If you are feeding block mineral the cow will wear out her tongue before she gets her daily requirement.
Let’s go build fence this afternoon or haul hay. At four or five o’clock we come in to get a drink. I get a big glass of water and throw you an ice cube, which quenches their thirst first? Now you see my point. I also recommend putting out what the cows will eat in three days only. This allows us to keep track of mineral consumption and always supplies the cows with fresh mineral.
Dr. Tim O'Neill owns Country Veterinary Clinic in Farmington, Ark.