No! Not Buttercup!
Ever since we came to this land six and a half years ago, we have occasionally had dairy cows bloat and die spontaneously. We lost a favorite cow, Nora, who was born here on the farm, a couple weeks ago. A few days later, I found Anna bloated and was able to right her and correct the problem. Then, last Monday, we found Buttercup dead in the morning.
We are intentionally attached to our dairy cows. We work at recognizing and honoring the unique qualities of each cow. We write their names on each bottle of milk that they produce for their herd share owners. We take pictures of them and share the beauty. We know their milk. We elevate what can easily be considered habitual and instinctual animal behavior into high-level dedication to their service as food providers, food you can raise a child on. We cuddle them. We anthropomorphize their interactions with us and the herd, assigning emotions and feelings to them that they likely never experience, or maybe they do. We hold them in reverence and we sometimes establish love hate relationships with them. We have good memories of them and stories to tell. They are our friends. We take seriously our dominion over them and the garden they live in. It is part of what we do, forming attachments that honor the animals here and enhance their lives. It is our way to love back the animals that give us their milk, which dairyman Michael Schmidt in Canada calls "love." So when one of our cows dies, it is a somber day. Buttercup was very, VERY special, at the top of everyone's scale of special. To find her bloated and dead tripped the emotion breaker in my feelings panel. That is an overload situation, so the breaker has to shut off on that circuit or wires will fry, and the farm doesn't work well when farmers have fried wires.
What is Bloat?
Cow's digestive systems have to be able to let out the fermentation gasses (continual burps and farts). If they get positioned incorrectly or the gas is produced too quickly or an obstruction forms, the gas is trapped, their rumen expands, and gas begins to flow into their abdomen. If they can't get upright or stand or otherwise work it out, their lungs can collapse and they die. This can happen in a manner of minutes, and I had one cow that went from normal to essentially dead in under 30 minutes, while standing. Often if we find them conscious, we can fix it. Other times, we can not. I have researched how to prevent bloat from happening. Feeding dry hay before anything else is the bomb-proof prevention according to the experts. But we are feeding dry hay. That is supposed to prevent it. We also are not doing anything that is known to cause bloat: we don't have rich fresh pasture this time of year, in fact Buttercup had been in the same paddock, eating only dry hay and alfalfa, for several weeks. Alfalfa and clover can create a risk for bloat, but that's usually fresh alfalfa pasture, not dry alfalfa, and Anna bloated with no access to our alfalfa hay (she's in with the nurse cows on dry hay only).
There seems to be a seasonality here to the risk, with June and July being risky months. We are implementing two additional practices for bloat prevention. First, the cows will have continual access to diatomaceous earth in their minerals, dairy feeder, and sprinkled on their coats. The research I did indicates that the small particles may discourage bloat. Second, we are implementing more frequent checks on the cows, including a 2am check.
We also are back to moving the cows more frequently on the land, which was mentioned in one article as a way to prevent bloat.
The sudden loss of two of our best cows in the milking line reduces our production significantly at a time when production was already dropping due to the spring rains stopping. Fortunately, we have nurse cows taking care of calves that were born in March. The calves can be weaned now. So we can transition the nurse cows back into the milking line to bring up production.
We also have several cows that we think will be calving in the next month or two or three (good farmers can always accurately predict cow due dates to the day, plus or minus a month or two), so we anticipate increasing production to exceed our demand soon. Our goal is to be milking 30 cows within the next year or two, so we anticipate growing right through this difficulty in the same way we have grown through every difficulty we have encountered.
The consolation to losing Nora and Buttercup comes from our on-farm butchery and the effort we put into equipping ourselves to be able to quickly process a cow that just died and put their meat into the cooler. This is an important part of our vision for Helios Farms, to turn "things that happen" on the farm into something other than a complete loss. The attachment is shattered and the tears flow heavily as we process certain cows, but with the emotional circuit breakers tripped, we can put their meat away skillfully, and farm share owners can benefit with more nutrient-dense meat than we expected.
And, for what it's worth, Jersey cow meat is the best meat. Not that she was one to brag, but Buttercup wouldn't have it any other way. As we move forward, we reset the emotional breakers and high-five our cows as they come in for milking. It is a new day on the farm with all new blessings, new cows to become attached to, and all new challenges.
Deliveries As We Adjust
Weaning calves and bringing nurse cows into the milk line will take a bit of effort and time. As we adjust and get production back up, we will have to skip some deliveries. We skipped Eugene area deliveries today (July 4th) and will likely skip Portland next week. We will keep you updated with delivery texts in the coming weeks. You CSA Farmers. Yes you. As the key part of community-supported-agriculture, our farm share owners, we know you benefit from understanding the sadness that sometimes unfolds on your farm alongside the joy experienced from the blessed foods and community health you are instrumental in creating. Thank you for your participation in Helios Farms.