Meg’s Musings: Reducing Stress at Weaning; a Holistic Approach

Calf with plate in

Reducing Stress at Weaning- A Holistic Approach

There are few events in the farming calendar that we dread; most of the year care of livestock is a pleasure. Ok, the odd difficult calving and lambing spices things up a bit, and the air goes blue when fences are broken, and escapees need to be reunited with their comrades but, more or less, it’s hard work but stress free.

There are two weeks of the year, however, that we find somewhat distressing, and that is weaning time.

We calve in blocks, so six weeks in winter and six weeks in spring we calve our cows. As that time comes around, we separate last year’s calves from their mothers. The calves are huge, 10 months old and more than capable of coping on their own. In some smaller production systems calves are left with their mothers until the next calf arrives, but in our experience this means little or no colostrum available for the new calf, reduced fertility in the mother, and slower growth rates for the infant as the teenage offspring drinks most of her supply. Some cows will push away the older calf when the younger one arrives, but our docile Herefords will let anything drink, whenever they like- which is not ideal with mixed age offspring.

So, two months before our cows are due to start calving, we wean the calves. It allows the cow to ‘dry up’ and stop her milk production, and those two months allow her to rest and put on condition prior to calving. In our experience it also gives her adequate time to start producing very high-quality colostrum, the first milk, the elixir of life for a newborn.

A necessary evil

Despite this being a sensible management decision, the cows and calves do not see it like that, and the separation causes distress to both- even if the calf has all but self-weaned off milk anyway.

Like any compassionate farmer I find the bellowing distressing, although it is suspected that the vocalisation is likely caused by the loss of the milk for the calf and uncomfortable full udder on the cow.

We always try a ‘soft wean’ approach, using a creep gate (a gate that calves can fit through but cows cannot) to get the two used to being separated. The cows that are being ‘dried off’ are fed hay on their side of the shed to reduce the protein available for milk production, and the calves are given a richer silage to plug the protein gap left by the milk.

We used to feed cattle nuts to the calves to tempt them into the creep section but we are now confident in our forage quality (we have it analysed) and so have stopped using concentrates completely.

The lure of the sweet-smelling silage is usually enough to get the calves through, and we then use a secondary gate to stop them getting back to their mothers. We increase the time apart gradually over the course of a week until the gate is shut for the final time and the calves are fully weaned.

Although this approach is much more subtle than a straight separation, we still have a few vocalising cows and calves, and the odd calf gets a touch of scours for gorging on milk when they are reunited, so this system clearly needed work.

Homeopathic helping hand

Because both my husband and I both recently completed the Homeopathy at Wellie Level course, we realised this would be a perfect opportunity to test out our newly acquired knowledge and started adding ignatia to the water troughs. This remedy helps with separation anxiety and when we started using it there was a marked reduction in vocalisation- although not completely resolved. The addition of pulsatilla (a remedy for ‘feeling of abandonment’) to the calf’s troughs also helped further but we still had some calves and cows standing by the gate all day, trying to get to each other.

Interestingly we use an abrupt weaning method on the sheep because of the impracticalities of ‘soft weaning’ outdoors. So, we can only use homeopathy to help them. The weaning was completely silent this time around, with no issues with vocalisation, loss of appetite or mastitis. This has completely convinced us of the power of this holistic method in our sheep flock.

The differences could be down to the susceptibility or sensitivity of the sheep vs cows to these particular remedies, and also the fact that they have much less milk to dry up as day length has a huge effect upon sheep hormone production, and we wean in early autumn as the breeding season is kicking into action.

Always looking for a better way

The cows, by contrast, breed all year around and are in such rude health that they have milk production worthy of a dairy cow. The discomfort of an abrupt wean on those engorged udders would make any of us shout!

So soft weaning helped but was not perfect. The homeopathy helped further but was also not perfect, so I did a bit of research, spurred on by a beef farmer on Instagram who urged me to try a process known as Quietwean.

Without sounding like an advert, Quietwean is a process of fitting a nose plate to the calves. This plastic clip fits in the nose (not through like a bull ring) and stops the calf being able to suckle. Whichever way they move their heads to drink milk, the plate gets in the way and prevents it.

The theory being that the calf gets over the loss of the milk bar quickly, but they still have the emotional support and companionship of their mothers. Then, after 4-7 days, you separate cow and calf and remove the nose plate. Instead of being a double whammy of losing access to milk and their mothers in one hit, you stagger the process which reduces the stress.

An interesting experiment

So we gave it a go.

The calves were cross.

(I’m not one for anthropomorphising – I think it has led to a dreadful disconnect between food production and reality – but I digress.)

They were cross that they couldn’t get to the milk. Cue head thumping their mothers’ udders and being generally bolshy teenagers. But after an hour or so, all cows and calves were eating hay and silage, drinking water, cudding and curled up together in the straw.

Silence.

I was a little sceptical, early days, as the cows udders began to fill, surely we’d hear some bellowing?

Nothing.

By the fourth day, the cow’s udders had all but disappeared. Returned to their normal shape and every animal completely contented.

Except number 6.

As if he’d overheard my cynical thought processes, number 6 and his mother decided to provide a control to my experiment.

Number 6’s mother is an 8 year old, middle ranking cow who always produces an excellent calf who is often much larger than its cohort. She is very milky, but unfortunately gravity has not been kind to her generous bosoms, and they have pendulous tendencies.

Because of this, her calf- a bullock- so therefore greedy anyway, worked out that he could contort his neck and push his nose clip into his mother’s udder and still access the good stuff.

Putting theory into practice

We duly separated all the cows and calves and removed the clips 7 days after we started the process.

Silence.

No fuss, no bother, no noise. Visibly and audibly relaxed cows and calves.

What a triumph.

No drop in calf body condition, no mastitis in the cows. Perfect.

Except number 6.

Who shouted and bawled and bellowed, matched only by his mother’s calls from the other side of the gate. We moved him to the bull shed to be out of sight and smell to help his mother to ‘bag down’, as his calls were making her stream milk all over the floor. Her discomfort and his greed I think were the root cause of the noise, but it was a very interesting reminder of why we try to avoid this stress for all our sakes.

The shouting continued for three days by the number 6 duo, but now peace is restored again. She is settled and eating with her herd mates. He is playing and eating with his bull friends and enjoying a shoulder and back scratch whenever I pass.

So there you have it. A piece of plastic and a trough full of homeopathic remedies were all it took to ease the most stressful time of the year.

I think that’s a win.

Martin Talks About Global Humility for Our Health

sheep and 2 lambs in field

I have been a small upland organic farmer for more than 30 years, previously raising beef and currently farming sheep.

I can’t remember when I first encountered the use of homeopathic thuja for treating Orf in sheep, but when many years ago my own sheep developed Orf I turned to thuja almost automatically. The more conventional veterinary world couldn’t offer any treatment except, of course, antibiotics if secondary infection resulted. I did think critically about what I was doing, but – whilst being a ruthlessly sceptical person – I was open minded enough to recognise there was lot I did not understand, – and, – if something works there must be reason for it – even if I could not see how it was possible.

When I suffered prolapsed discs in my lower spine, the conventional medical world declared that the severity did not warrant an operation and so there was nothing else they could do. If I was to continue farming I needed to get better and so it was up to my body to heal itself. I went to see a homeopath. Of course I can’t be absolutely sure, but I think she helped – possibly a lot.

This only happened to me once whereas with my sheep, Orf happened sufficiently often over the years to reinforce the – shall I call it ‘suspicion’ – that the homeopathic remedy really did seem to be clearing up the Orf, partly because it usually happened very soon after treatment. One thing I was very fortunate to realise at an early age is that nature is clever, – very clever – I know people get things wrong but nature does not.

I have a friend who is veterinary surgeon, and my attention in recent months has been drawn to the unwarranted and pointless challenge to veterinary homeopathy from certain quarters. One of the major challenges to homeopathy is a claim that it is not science based. This is a fascinating nonsensical claim and one quite inadvertently mocked recently by Will Self on Radio 4 airing his ‘point of view’ on the recent history of mental health treatment within the health service. Not a lot of hard evidence to the science there! Medical treatments continually change, opinions change, and scientific understanding evolves and interpretation develops. Nowadays there are the vested interests of drug companies to consider, the inherent problem being that, as companies with shareholders, they are legally bound NOT to allow anything to impede profit. The way scientific research is conducted would also benefit from much more open scrutiny as much of it is conducted by drug companies.

It is also very easy to cherry pick studies and draw erroneous conclusions in order to support an ulterior motive or a personal or popular belief. The way we accept or reject what is plausible or not is probably affected by much that is irrational. As I write, an urgent global day of action by citizens from 90 countries is taking place calling on governments of the world to act on climate change. Something that is, or should be, relevant to everything we do now is climate change. But my point is that despite the urgency and the science that points overwhelmingly to the folly of proceeding with fossil fuels such as fracking, our government is unable, it seems, to accept the science in some strange belief that economic growth is more important than a habitable planet.

I could add that science is also telling us that 1 tonne of artificial nitrogen fertiliser puts about 6 or so tonnes of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere in its manufacture, that it also harms soil organisms paradoxically making the soil less fertile, which in turn releases MORE greenhouse gases.

But if agriculture moves in the right direction – I mean globally and holistically – it will be that which saves the planet. Our soil has the potential to sequester a lot of carbon when the vegetation and crops are managed well to photosynthesise to best advantage – ie as nature would, without our intervention. Then the soil we could have, after enabling nature to restore or regenerate what we have destroyed over millennia, will sequester even more carbon. It will mean a lot of change and a lot of learning, and pretty much complete global humility from all those producing food.

… And where does the homeopathy come in? Homeopathy is an holistic approach to health – it encourages looking at the whole picture with a view to enable self healing and for the good of the whole. It may seem just a bit far fetched, but as the climate situation – which is all our own making – is actually very urgent – those taking decisions on behalf of humanity and the planet, might be well served by adopting a similar approach and therefore make decisions that really are in the best interests of everyone.

Martin head shot

About the author: I’m Martin and have been a small upland organic farmer for more than 30 years, previously raising beef and currently I farm sheep.

Martin

Joining the Dots to Reveal the Whole Picture

Sally wood with homeopathy

I farm a dairy herd of 200 crossbreeds (previously 300) in SW Wales, with my partner Garry, and we are currently converting the farm to organic standards. In 2008 I took the Homeopathy at Wellie Level basic course in farm homeopathy which inspired me to train as a homeopath.

We had always been bent towards organic farming, particularly since discovering homeopathy, but we believed that our land hadn’t enough depth of soil or quality to it to make conversion possible. However, seeing a nearby farm on similar land convert, we felt we had no excuse.

We were already being forced to downsize due to the loss of some land and a member of staff – so why not downsize a little more and convert to Organic?

So the decision was made to convert. All non organic commodities were sold; it was an exciting but terrifying decision –all at the same time!

We quickly realised that converting was a much bigger step than just not using artificial fertiliser and chemical sprays. My brain went into overdrive when our crop was attacked by cabbage white butterfly caterpillars, and panic bells rang. As a student of homeopathy I had witnessed the improvement in the stock’s health over several years of using remedies. Now I considered the radical concept of using homeopathy on plants and crops.

Our spraying contractor thought I’d lost the plot, “There’s no smell- no colour –there’s nothing in it!” But I saved my crop by spraying them with homeopathic remedies! This was a ‘light bulb’ moment for me – and then I got to thinking, what else is there we can use?

We’d so much to learn.

So, we organised on-farm workshops; workshops on Dung beetles and how cattle wormers affected them and the soil; workshops on herbal leys, so our stock could self -medicate, and more.

We visited a farmer homeopath in Ireland and she introduced us to Radionics; sending ‘messages’ out to the fields and stock all sounded a little far-fetched –but we believed in and used Homeopathy –so we had to take this on board!

I suddenly remembered that I’d been taught at The Welsh School of Homeopathy, that things happen for a reason, at the correct time – was this what was happening? My mind was open, no longer in its bubble concentrating on just milking cows.

Radionics then took us a step further; we were introduced to a book by Alanna Moore, author of -‘Stone Age Farming’. Inspired, we booked her for a two day workshop on our farm – and so off we went again -para-magnetic rock dust and Towers of Power are now part of our toolkit.

I’ve also engaged a Permaculture student to mentor us and monitor our land and to tutor us in composting and making bio-fertilisers.

Dowsers have visited the farm to try and train me in their art; we’re thinking outside the box!

We’re spraying good bacteria on to the cow’s teats, pre and post milking in place of chemicals.

And the one thing I’ve realised from all this information and experience is:

  • There isn’t one single answer,
  • There isn’t one way to do things,
  • Nothing is just black or white,
  • You must come at things from all angles,

And no one knows it all!

For me, I feel I’m beginning to join up a few dots to make a little sense out of it all. I realise everything is linked. And we have to start from the soil and work up – soil health is paramount:

healthy soils = healthy plants = healthy stock = need for fewer drugs = healthier humans

When I first discovered Homeopathy, ten years ago, and realised its potential I felt I had to make more farmers aware of its capabilities. But that was just the beginning, and now, having travelled the path I’ve been led to follow, I’ve found there is a much bigger picture.

We have to look at the whole picture to sustain a healthy planet.

Sally Wood

About the author: I’m Sally, a lifelong conventional dairy farmer who, back in 2004 began to question the amount of artificial chemicals, vaccines, wormers, and drugs I was using on my stock and land.

Sally