Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Do cows get the "flu"?

As I type this I am dealing with the "crud" that's been going around thanks to our dramatic weather changes in MN.  It's been 70's for a week and now, today, it's 50's and rain...which means "crud" for my throat.  It got me thinking about a question that I was once asked...."Do cows get the flu?"

About 2 weeks ago, when Jon was gone for his grandfather's funeral, I was left home alone with the cows.  While doing morning chores, I noticed something was terribly wrong with my girls...most of them had the diarrhea!  I immediately went into detective mode.  What was causing my cows to be sick?!?!?!  After taking the temperatures of a couple of them I determined that they had contracted the "cow flu", known to dairy farmers as dysentery.  Dysentery is contagious, so once a couple cows get it, a few more will follow until the whole herd has had it...just like the flu in humans! I have never seen a cow with a vomitting flu, but just diarrhea.  

So does this affect milk quality?  Absolutely not, the milk is still safe for humans!  Unlike some other pathogens, when a cow gets dysentery, she lowers her milk production until she feels better, but she never produces milk of poorer quality, and humans definitely don't get dysentery from cows, otherwise Jon and I should have had it more than a couple of times.  Needless to say we have both experiences the messes of cows with diarrhea on our clothes and in our faces.  It's a virus known only in cows, carried by birds (which we have) or transfer by people moving from farm to farm.

Just like people, its been a couple of years since we had dysentery so the cows got it bad.  So what happens to cows when they have to flu? How do you treat it??? Cows lower their milk production so that their bodies can focus on getting better.  They work on lowering their fevers, feeling better, resting, eating, and increaing milk production back to previous levels.  Sometimes later lactation cows (cows that have been milking over 200 days) have a hard time gaining back lost milk production since they are also later gestation (only a couple months from having another calf).  These later lactation cows will focus on their calf instead of milk, and that's just fine with us.  We want them happy and healthy.  If we didn't treat the cows, they would actually get better all on their own.  It takes a couple of days, but most cows will recover without a problem and without intervention.  However, I care for my cows and decided that we were going to spend some money on a treatment.  Since this is a digestive infection, we opted for probiotics (bacteria which help to keep the cow's stomach healthy).  Probiotics are natural and readily available.  I chose  a combination of natural yeasts and lactobacillus bacteria.  These worked to keep my cows eating until they recovered.  I mixed them into their TMR (feed) making sure that each cows had a taste of the "good bugs".  Other than adding "good bugs" to the feed for 10 days, we just watched the cows making sure those that got sick were still eating and getting better. 

A couple of fresh cows got the "flu" worse than the other cows...just like how some people get the flu worse than others.  We treated these with electrolytes (just like Gatorade) to help replenish their fluids and IV fluids if we needed to act quickly.  Since these cows just had calves they were more susceptible to the symptoms of dysentery; their immune systems where not as active as the milking cows. 

When did the cows recover?  I can honesly say that our cows took exactly 2 weeks to recover completely.  It took 14 days for the dysentery to go through the entire herd, a couple cows each day.  But as of today the herd is milking at the same level that they were before they got sick, about 90 pounds per cow per day.  We lost on average, about 10 pounds of milk per cow during the worst of it.  This means each day we lost about $160 income, or $2240 total, in the past 14 days.  We don't focus on the lost income as much as the success of getting everyone through the "flu" with everyone still alive and kickin'!  We are hoping that the girls are exposed to it now and should have immune systems set up to handle the "flu" the next time it comes around.

Moral of the StoryFarmers care for their cows every day, their health is our number one priority!! 


  1. Great information! Thanks for sharing!

  2. No problem, every day is a teaching experience on a dairy farm ;)


I write this blog to share my passion for my cows and farming, please be respectful of that. I reserve the right to delete those comments which portray hate, call names, and are out right disrespectful. If you have an honest question, I will respond, to explain what we do on our farm, why we do it and how we do it. Please read with an open mind. My time to blog is short, as most of our days are spent caring for our beloved cows. Thank you!