Learning curve

Is it paradoxical to say that raising livestock has taught us most everything we know about raising livestock? If so, no matter. It is true.

We believe in the value of education. We believe this so strongly that it is fair to say we are convinced that our future depends upon the strength of our academic institutions, and their ability to instruct and to empower us all. At a time when, for many, a facility with Wikipedia and the internet not only symbolizes but embodies what it is to be learned and knowledgeable, the two of us live at the margin in our belief that there is much to be learned from books, libraries, and from groups of very learned people. Having said all of this however, we would also be the first to recognize that there is absolutely nothing quite like experience when it comes to a certain kind of learning. Coming to know about livestock husbandry has, for us, been a mix of learning from books, talking to people who know more than we do, and from taking false steps and making mistakes. Overall, it is the animals themselves which have taught us the most. Over the years this recipe has allowed us to develop lots and lots of skills that Napoleon Dynamite might envy.


Take for example this image of Winifred. It looks as though she’s swallowed a beach ball. Would it surprise you to know that she was neither pregnant nor fat when the photo was taken? Winifred recently kidded twins and has also been nursing an orphaned kid. Winifred is milk machine and, as such, is eating like a horse (if that’s possible for a goat). What you see in the picture is her distended rumen packed full of fodder … like yourself, perhaps, after a Thanksgiving dinner. [If you’re interested in the structure and function of the rumen check out this link.] And that is all. I do not mean to suggest that the real possibility of bloat is something to be ignored, because it most definitely is not, and we recognize that. What we have learned, however, is to distinguish a happy goat that happens to be eating like a horse  from one which is suffering from bloat and risks death from suffocation. When we first observed this condition (that of a full-to-bursting rumen) we assumed the worst and dosed the poor doe with vegetable oil, repeatedly. Live and learn. Watch your animals carefully; if you do, you will soon know to differentiate the animals that are feeling fine from those that are ill.

The following story of another time when we learned by mistake is perhaps one that more sensitive readers should skip. It concerns the manure of ruminants and, in particular, the consistency of cow manure (or the manure of any ruminant for that matter) and what it can tell you about the health status of the individual. I think most folks know (or can, perhaps, imagine) what a well formed cow pie looks like when neatly piled upon the ground. Furthermore most folks can push the process of pie production back, in time, to imagine the consistency of said material at the moment it was being presented by the cow; normally something with a consistency ranging between mashed potatoes and loose bread dough. Shortly after obtaining our first Jersey cow, Bonnie, we thought she had taken a dramatic and perhaps deadly turn for the worse. Her manure was liquid. Let me be plain, there was absolutely nothing solid about it. It comprised a nearly perfect stream of flourescent green liquid with the consistency of motor oil. We called our veterinarian only to be asked whether we were aware it was early spring. The dry grass hay Bonnie had been consuming all winter was perhaps 7-8% protein, while the fresh, green, grasses of early spring might have ranged as high as nearly 25% protein. Imagine what a similarly precipitous sort of change would do to your gut. As in the case of bloat, we are well aware of the risk of grass tetany; but equal to the importance of being knowledgeable about grass tetany is knowing when your cow is simply eating well.

And then there was the time I observed green rivulets streaming from the nostrils of a Devon steer. My immediate response was  to give oxytetracycline (it is a significant challenge to administer anything to a full-grown steer in an open pasture) to treat an upper respiratory infection this steer probably did not have. Nasal discharges of this sort are fairly common and may be due to a number of causes, only one of which is an upper respiratory infection.

The lesson I’m working around to is that many aspects of livestock husbandry just have to be learned by raising livestock. Reading books is good, it’s very good – seek them out and read many of them. Talking to folks who can say Been there, done that, and mean it, is good – seek them out and talk to many of them. Once that’s done however you have to jump in … all the way (no wading up to your knees). There really is nothing like experience when it comes to learning the ropes. You have try your hand at it all. You’ll make lots of mistakes – guaranteed. Over the years however you will find that you make fewer and fewer. At some point you will realize that you know a whole lot about things that you didn’t before – and that’s quite an accomplishment.

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