Monday, June 9, 2014
Copper and Cattle
I've had this amazing moment in farming recently where something really clicked. When we got Matilda, she was obviously a very pampered cow. The man who owned her was very kind, but she had stayed in the same small paddock her whole life, and was fed a GMO soybean and corn ration. It was hard to wean her off of it, but she really liked the grass on our farm. In fact, the issues she'd had with mastitis completely resolved just by being on our farm.
When we bought her, her face was a dark gray color, and she had a few spots of dark on her shoulders and hips. That winter, she got a common virus that dairy cows get and lost a lot of condition very quickly because she didn't eat for several days. We were very worried about her, and she never seemed to bounce back from that illness. When the grass came in, she gained some of the weight back, but she always looked scraggly and unhealthy. I gave her all sorts of special high-energy foods and ferments for her rumen, a special wormer, and they always had free choice kelp, mineral-rich rock salt, and the "horse, goat, and cattle" lick from Countryside Organics. I couldn't understand why she was doing so poorly.
After we stopped buying from Countryside Organics because they were so horrible to us, we had to find an alternative to their mineral lick. I'm a big fan of Pat Coleby's books, and I had always thought the C. O lick was the same thing, but just before we stopped ordering from them, I learned it had far less copper than her recommendations.
Honestly, I was afraid of making the lick myself because none of the feed stores here carry the copper sulfate, and also the shocking blueness of it kind of freaked me out. It's a trace mineral, and all the trace minerals are extremely toxic in excess, but of course are fatal to not have enough. On the rare occasions when I would try to look up how to obtain it on goat and cow forums, I would always see people saying things like,
"I know someone who feeds her goats copper sulfate and listens to Pat Coleby, and her animals always dying. I feed my animals GMO 12% sweet feed and TMR pellets, worm them with chemicals, use antibiotics for the least little thing, and they're always perfectly healthy."
It made me doubt what I had chosen for our farm, our animals, and our family. Then, my friend Brittney totally inspired me when she had a goat get suddenly ill from parasites. I thought for sure it would die, but she gave it vitamin C and the Coleby lick with dolomite, kelp, sulfur and copper sulfate and when I saw it again, the goat looked amazingly healthy. I realized that surely it couldn't be so toxic with the dolomite. After all, Matilda looked like she was going to die any day anyway. It inspired me, and when I learned she had easily gotten the copper sulfate on Amazon, I ordered some and made up the Coleby lick myself.
Another assumption I had that was wrong was that Matilda would eat what she needed free-choice. I could see by her rangy, pale coat and parasite issues that she desperately needed copper, but she would always turn her nose up at the lick. So last fall I began mixing it into her rolled barley while I was milking her. That completely turned her health around.
Changes began to be visible a few weeks later. I wish I had documented it. All along her back was completely white the width of my hand on either side of her spine. The white patches became slowly smaller and smaller as they were filled in with brown hairs. A stripe developed in patches, and slowly joined together. This spring, the white patch was only as wide as one of my fingers, and has completely disappeared at this point. The stripe along her back even has black hairs beginning to come in. I can't believe how much black she has on her. She looks like a completely different cow! Not only that, but her parasite issues are gone, her coat is silky and smooth and even has a glossy shine to it.
This realization feels like such a key to farming here in Florida where parasites are a real problem, our soils are very acidic, and minerals are scarce.
I think that modern animal feeding practices hide the need for copper by feeding high protein, which also stresses the kidneys. The reason that copper improves the coat is because it is necessary for creating the proteins that make the coat look healthy. Incidentally, parasites are indicated by a rough-looking coat. Pat Coleby is emphatic in her books that enough copper makes the animal immune to parasites. It's a "chicken or the egg" situation.