How Fat is Too Fat

When I look out on my little herd, I see sleek, fat, and happy cows munching the late summer grass that is growing like crazy this year due to all the rain we’ve had over the summer.  Usually rain doesn’t grace our property at all during July and August, and by early September we’re desperate for moisture, not so this year – which leads me to the topic for this posting.

Like most animals, a little fat on their ribs looks really nice. They look healthy, and are happy to eat all day long regardless of their expanding girths.  But, is it possible for cattle to be too fat?  In the case of Mini Jersey cattle, the answer is a definitive “yes”! 

Miniature Jersey cows, like standard Jerseys, are designed to produce milk, and to do so requires large amounts of calories and other nutrients in their daily diet.  Since Jerseys are designed to be milked, they are predisposed to eat constantly regardless of the demand placed on their bodies which means that if they are not milked regularly, they can bulk up in excess fat very quickly.  This excess fat can cause numerous problems including difficulty breeding, fat necrosis that can accumulate in the abdomen, and arthritis problems.  The normal cycle for a dairy cow is to lose lots of weight, over 100 pounds in most cases, after the calf is born and during the 6-9 months that she is in milk; then she will gradually begin to gain weight as she enters breeding season, and continue the weight gain during pregnancy until calving at which point the cycle begins again.  As long as this cycle is not interrupted all is well.

What happens on many breeding farms such as ours, is that since we aren’t in the dairy business we really don’t have a use for all the milk our cows produce.   Milk we can’t use for food products goes to the garden as fertilizer, but one can only use so much.  So we, like many others, keep our cows in milk for as short a period as necessary.  In fact, since we bottle feed our calves anyway we will choose not to milk some of our cows at all, but allow them to dry up immediately.  This reduces our work load and the amount of milk we have to deal with.  But this is not a healthy practice for the cow because if she isn’t milked, she never loses her “baby fat” and the next breeding just adds more fat to her.  Pretty soon she’s obese with all the health issues associated with obesity. 

After much research and help from Texas A&M’s great veterinary services in College Station, we have made the commitment to milk every one of our cows for a minimum of 6 months in order to maximize their health and allow them to experience the purpose for which they are bred.  We look forward to leaner, healthier, and happier cows as we improve our herd management and practices.

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