“A time to give and a time to take” – the words of Cliff Richard’s Christmas carol have a slightly different meaning for the farming community.
The “giving” begins early on Christmas Day: every animal on the farm must be provided with silage, hay and/or feed. No day off for anyone involved in farming because animals need to be fed every day, no matter the day.
When all the outdoor jobs are done, the “getting” can begin – filling up with Christmas dinner and getting nice and rosy late in the evening with a few Christmas drinks.
However, think of the vet on duty, whose phone will ring almost like clockwork when the turkey is being butchered. Luckily I’m lucky enough not to be on call this Christmas Day and I have my stretchy pants ready to rock and roll for the big feed.
I’m not the only one who will be well taken care of over the Christmas period. On many farms across the country, calving cows are conditioned in the spring.
Too many farmers have a bad habit of pushing silage in when it gets sparse at the feed fence. I know of more than one farm where the younger generation in farm partnership ends the day only for the older farmer to sneak out later in the evening to give more to the ‘starving’ cows.
Unfortunately, what dry cows want and what they need are two completely different things. Silage seems to be getting better quality every year. Some silage is so good that beef cattle can almost only be fed with silage.
So when dry cows are fed ad lib this type of silage, they get very fat very quickly. But because you’re used to looking at your cows every day, it will come to you. Not until your vet, nutritionist, or other farmer stands on your farm and states, “You’re fine.”
At this point it may be too late. If a cow is overconditioned in January, the damage cannot be reversed until she calves in February.
And if a cow is overweight at calving, she is exponentially more likely to develop milk fever. A fat cow in the cubicles is every farmer’s nightmare.
It’s hard to believe that keeping the silage away from the feed barrier could go a long way towards preventing this.
Other conditions associated with obesity include ketosis, difficult calving, prolonged purging and mastitis.
Over Christmas, when the pressure is off, it could be a good time to assess your cows’ body condition. Any cows that become overweight at calving can be separated from the main herd and fed a more restricted diet.
A very important point is that if you don’t know what’s in your silage, you have no idea how much of it to feed to maintain/reduce body condition. A silage analysis is cheap and easy to get. Once you know what’s inside, you can feed accordingly.
About Christmas, we know that eating too much chocolate, cake, and rich foods will help us pack on a few pounds. For cows, silage is something like chocolates and candy. Too much is definitely bad. All in moderation, I suppose…easier said than done, in my case anyway.
Cows aren’t the only ones who can pile on the “holiday weight.” Ewes are equally at risk of becoming overconditioned. Similar to pregnant cows, ewes carrying lambs are at risk of milk fever and difficult lambing if they become overweight.
The most dangerous disease is twin lamb disease. When a ewe is overweight, its rumen capacity becomes restricted, meaning it may not be able to consume enough food to meet its energy needs.
A ewe with twin lamb disease will refuse her food completely and become faint. She becomes blind and can no longer stand.
To prevent this condition, nutritional management, especially in the last two months of pregnancy, is crucial. As with cow silage, knowing the energy and protein levels can help you make informed decisions about feeding your ewes properly over Christmas and just before lambing.
Don’t forget what is often the most important but least noticed animal on the farm – the dog.
As a teenager I remember the sad death of the old trusty cattle dog at home. Suddenly the cows realized that they didn’t have to move as soon as they saw a human. The dog was in charge. Now that he was gone they could go in the opposite direction I wanted them to go when I went to the field to take them to be milked.
A dog is invaluable on many farms, so it pays to treat it that way. Unfortunately for many veterinarians, the holiday season sees a huge increase in cases of sick dogs.
Many of these cases are food-related. There are many foods synonymous with Christmas that are toxic to dogs. Chocolate, raisins, grapes and fruitcake come to mind. If caught early, your vet can get the dog to vomit the offending food. If not, the poor animal will need intravenous fluids, with a high risk of heart or kidney failure.
Fatty foods can cause conditions like pancreatitis. Turkey is a big culprit as some farmers think giving the turkey carcass to their dog is a big treat. But on the contrary. The sharp bones can lodge in the mouth, stomach, or intestines, necessitating a visit to the vet and expensive surgery.
If you’re looking to spoil your dog over Christmas, it’s better to head down to your local veterinarian’s office and ask about safe treats, wholesome food, and maybe even a new comfy dog bed for the hardworking farm animal.
Don’t forget the cat either. The cat silently keeps the mouse and rat population in check in the yard, but is still often forgotten when it comes to species-appropriate nutrition.
And if you pick up a decent cat food from the vet, you might ask for a neuter as well. A cat or two is nice on the farm, but they can breed very quickly. Inexpensive surgery could save you from having 20 cats outside next Christmas.
Overall, a retreat from the table around Christmas is advisable for cows, ewes, and farmers (and vets) alike.
Eamon O’Connell is a Veterinarian at Summerhill Vet Clinic, Nenagh, Co. Tipperary
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/rural-life/eamon-oconnell-the-perils-of-festive-indulging-fat-cows-over-fed-ewes-and-sick-dogs-will-hit-you-in-the-pocket-42244426.html Eamon O’Connell: The Dangers of Festive Indulgence – Fat cows, overfed ewes and sick dogs will blow you in the pocket