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House Cows, Golden Eggs, and the True Cost of Cheap Supermarket Food – Part 2

What happens when an animal is bred to specialize so heavily in one particular function (in this case, milk production) that other basic functions are compromised, and the animal can no longer stay healthy without lots of help?

In Part 1 of this Series, I introduced Pixie and described the challenges that came along with her very high levels of milk production after her first two calves were born. 

Here, in Part 2, I’ll share what happened after her third calf was born, and why I decided to retire her as a house cow. 

Pixie’s third lactation – no more successful than the first two

When I bred Pixie for the third time, I did a few things differently than I had the first two times. 

First, I timed it so that her calf would be born at the end of winter, when the pasture is low in quantity and quality. 

My thinking was that Pixie would not be as fat and prosperous at the end of her pregnancy as she had been with her previous two pregnancies and would not produce as much milk. (It turned out to make no difference to her milk production at all.)

Second, I made sure she had no access to mineral supplements in the last trimester of pregnancy. With a lower level of minerals available in her diet prior to calving, the cow’s metabolism is better primed to be able to rapidly mobilize calcium from her bones when she calves, and she is less likely to develop milk fever. (After calving, minerals are added back into the diet and the cow’s bones are able to re-mineralize appropriately.) 

Third, I organized a foster calf ahead of time, and I asked our dairy farmer friend for a vigorous, healthy calf that had had its mother’s colostrum and was hungry and ready to suck. I said I didn’t care if it was a bull calf (male) or a heifer calf (female), and he gave us the strongest, hungriest calf he could find at the time, which happened to be a heifer – Coco. 

Pixie calved, Coco arrived, and all seemed to go well. Coco was a vigorous nurser (much stronger than Tinaroo, Pixie’s own calf). Coco could be directed to nurse on the mastitis-prone back teats that were hard for me to milk by hand, and between the two calves and me hand milking, Pixie’s udder stayed healthy as the critical first weeks crept by. 

Pixie’s calf, Tinaroo, on the left and Coco the foster calf on the right

Almost in the clear

At this early stage I was keeping both calves separated from Pixie around the clock so that they’d be hungry when I got there to feed them, and ready to enthusiastically strip away all that milk from the back quarters first. 

I also had to be there for every feeding because otherwise Pixie would not have allowed Coco to nurse. 

With me there to oversee things, Pixie would stand contentedly and let down her milk for Tinaroo, and Coco could nurse too. Had Coco tried to nurse without me there and without hungry Tinaroo wanting to nurse at the same time, Pixie would just have chased Coco away. 

So, the arrangement was time consuming, but less so than trying to get all that milk out by hand. And as the end of the third week approached with no milk fever and no mastitis, I began to think we were in the clear. 

I had made the decision this time to keep the foster calf, which meant (now that I thought the threat of mastitis was behind us) that I had to find an arrangement that would work to keep all three animals happy and healthy without my continuing to spend every spare moment (and many that were not spare) at the cow shed. 

But it turns out that the threat of mastitis was not behind us. 

Juggling the needs of cow and calves

Keeping the calves separate from Pixie worked for managing Pixie’s udder and keeping Coco fed, but it meant the calves had to be kept inside. 

For good health, calves need to be outdoors at least some of the time. So, when they reached about 3 weeks of age I wanted to start experimenting with turning them out with Pixie during the day. 

Following Pixie out to pasture for the day

The tricky part with that is that calves, when they’ve fed and played and are tired, do what all little babies do: they go to sleep. In the long grass, where they are then almost impossible to find. 

So now, instead of spending all my time hand milking, I was spending all my time looking for calves in the long grass. And of course, one day I couldn’t find them. 

On that day Tinaroo nursed on just a front quarter and then was too full to help empty the back quarters 

later in the day. And because Tinaroo wasn’t interested in nursing when I tried to feed Coco that afternoon, Pixie wasn’t interested either and didn’t let her milk down. 

By evening of that day, Pixie had an anxious, rigid facial expression and was not chewing her cud[i]. Mastitis. 

Three strikes and you’re out

I still hoped I could avoid another vet bill and another whack of antibiotics. I got up throughout the night to hand milk (full calves are so utterly useless for stripping an udder – they slept peacefully while I beavered away).

But by morning Pixie had deteriorated and with resignation, I called the vet. 

The first day, we could inject Pixie without restraint. She was in so much pain, and so dazed and debilitated by the rapidly multiplying bacteria in her udder and their toxins in her blood stream, that she barely noticed the injection. 

Antibiotics truly are a wonder drug. By the time of the second injection, Pixie was already feeling a bit better and we had to tie her up to inject her. For all the rest of the injections we had to restrain her in the crush. They are painful injections, and Pixie’s objection to them increased as she felt stronger. 

And now there we were, back at square one, with a cow full of antibiotics that she passed on to the two calves, and that I stripped out onto the ground in her milk.

Worse, Tinaroo proved unable to cope with the disruption to his gut flora from the antibiotics and developed foul-smelling, bloody diarrhea. 

This is often fatal in dairy calves being raised away from their mothers on concrete floors, but Tinaroo still had his mother, it wasn’t raining so I could keep him almost entirely outdoors in a much cleaner environment, and I thought he had a chance. 

I embarked on days and nights of careful management so that Tinaroo could nurse as often as he needed to, while I still had to arrange things so that Coco could also be fed, and Pixie’s udder could be adequately emptied. 

It was a complicated and exhausting time, and it brought me to the conclusion that three such experiences of milking Pixie was enough. 

Coming up next 

Part 3, coming soon, will share what Pixie’s future holds and will go on to explore the cost—to cows, calves, farmers, and the environment—of specialization and industrialization.


[i] Cattlespend about a third of their day ruminating – chewing a portion of foodthat returns from their stomach to the mouth to be chewed for a second time before moving onto the next stage in the digestive process. Absence of cud chewing when a cow is at rest is a reliable indicator that something is not right.

Byline

“Kate’s writing at ARealGreenLife.comexposes the dysfunctional thinking in modern culture and proposes more natural, connected, and sustainable ways of living. Download a free copy of her eGuide, Ditching the Supermarket.”

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