I had to eat a big bite of humble pie this spring in regards to bovines, and specifically to dairy cow pneumonia. Normally, I wouldn’t post about such a topic – the hard lessons of livestock farming – except in this case I feel it could be instructive for someone else who might land on this post as a result of a search.

So, that said, the humble pie has to do with this: we have certified organic fields and I firmly believe that certified organic practices are the best way to farm land. The principle is that we’re not so much focusing on plant health as we are soil health. Healthy soil produces healthy plants and biodiversity. Weeds aren’t something to eradicate, but rather they are messengers of what is happening with the ecosystem.

It works, and it works well.

With that in mind, I had made the decision that it was only natural to want to certify as organic the cow herd, and thus the milk and other products. I have a mere 10 years of experience now with dairy cows, and I have solidly studied organic treatments and have had quite a bit of success. I have good books on the topic, by excellent organic DVM teachers, including guys like Dr. Paul Dettloff. We also use another doc in Wisconsin name Doc Tom Roskos. Both are fine fellows who provide great advice.

Our concepts and principles were put to the test in these recent weeks and I learned a hard lesson, and experience is a difficult teacher.

It started about 4 weeks ago, while were having fine spring weather. The days were sunny. We are in a bit of a drought. The grass was getting green, and the cows seemed “happy”. Production was starting to come up. Suddenly, our oldest and top cow presented in an afternoon not having much of an appetite. I noticed it because I was doing a Facebook live video and she was not present at the feeders and I even commented on it.

That night, she had low milk production and showed a fever of about 104. It was baffling because she otherwise looked good and lungs sounded clear (I own a stethoscope). We immediately began an organic protocol. She received numerous products including wellness tonics, garlic and other tinctures, etc.

That was a Monday. On Tuesday, her production was definitely down and, while she was eating, her eating was clearly not quite what it should be. She was still running a higher temp, despite our using tinctures to help lower that.

On Wednesday morning, another cow presented with exactly the same situation.

I won’t go into all the detail of the protocols we employed, or the exact timeline, but suffice to say that this second cow rapidly deteriorated and a scary pace. I was completely taken aback never having seen this before. We have had mildly sick calves way back, particularly when we had several shipped very young from back east, but we had never really had any major troubles in the adult population outside of calving difficulties, for which I am reasonably well-practiced.

By Saturday, it was clear cow 2 was going to die, and cow 1 was only getting by.

I’ll fast forward to the following Tuesday. I was doing a post-mortem on a dead cow and was flabbergasted at what I found and it led to numerous insights. Very fortunately, I summoned our local vet, who I really appreciate for his knowledge. He showed up after I had the whole body opened up. What shocked me was we had a thoroughly clean abdomen and digestive system and uterus (this was a 60 day pregnant cow). There was also a thoroughly clean mammary. All the trouble was in the thoracic cavity, and it was bad. We did not have a systemic issue. We had a classic dairy cow pneumonia, also known as shipping fever because often succumb during the stress of shipment.

There was endocarditis and there was serious pus and congestion within the lungs, but what was most shocking of all was the fibrin development that forms and fuses the lungs to the thoracic cavity including the diaphragm.

I had no idea that could happen so quickly.

Our local vet, Dr. Roland Hall of Bonners Ferry Veterinary Clinic, told me this type of degredation can happen in 24 hours or less. Post-mortem lab analysis revealed the primary bacteria to be Mannheimia haemolytica, with a lesser presence of Pasteurella multicida.

PCR assay for viruses found no viruses.

These bacteria are common in a cow environment and can even be found in the upper respiratory tract in a healthy cow. When a stress is put on the cow, suppressing her immune system, this is when the bacteria move to the lower respiratory tract and do their very fast and deadly work.

There are a number of good antibiotics on the market that work to deal with these bacteria while the cow’s immune system is busy trying to muster a response. Being certified organic in the U.S., or in organic transition as we were, one cannot use antibiotics in the cow, or shall I say one must use antibiotics to save the life of the cow, but once done, the cow must be removed from the organic herd never to be certified organic again.

The problem is this – the bacteria can do their deadly work so quickly that organic treatments don’t have time to function. Whereas, an immediate antibiotic application can do amazing things to save the cow. The difference in timing is this: if a cow presents now symptomatic, immediate application of a good antibiotic formulated for the likely pathogen, and a dose of flunixin meglumine to boot, will work wonders and probably will turn things around in the next 24 hours. Delaying antibiotic and flunixin meglumine even 12 hours (e.g. if she presents at night and you call the vet the next morning) can mean you are too late for the antibiotic to do its work and you end up losing the cow. In other words, early detection of the problem and application of the correct solution are critical to saving the cow and ensuring she has no permanent damage if she does live.

The reason we had Dr. Hall come assist with the post-mortem on dead cow was because we had victim number 3 present that morning. While I was cutting up dead cow, milking guy texted me and stated cow 3 low production, temp 105, didn’t eat all her grain. I immediately Dr. Hall, who, I am grateful to say, immediately left his busy small animal practice and headed to the farm call. Before examining victim 3, he wanted to see the post-mortem. He immediately exclaimed that it was a classic pneumonia and even had an idea that it was Mannheimia haemolytica because he had just post-mortemed 4 calves who had died of it on another farm. The lab results from them had just come back.

So, we prepped a bunch of lab samples, and then he went to see his new patient. The first thing he said when he saw her was that she didn’t even look sick. Our detection had been that early. She dropped milk production suddenly, and milking guy instantly took her temp. Her respirations and pulse were normal, and there was not much sound in the lungs yet to suggest a major problem was about to arise.

Dr. Hall immediately administered Banamine (actually the generic flunixin meglumine – which is given in the jugular vein), and gave Excede antibiotic, which is given in the subcutaneous space behind the ear where the ear attaches to the head.

Cow number 3 headed out to pasture that afternoon and ate and drank well. She had a very good appetite at the feeders, and over the next three milkings, was down around 20 percent. By the 3rd day, or when we were going to follow up with temp taking 48 hours after flunixin administration, she came back up to normal production and another vet, Dr. Gentle, who was there for TB testing, had a listen to her lungs and said that while they sounded a little rough, there was no wheezing or crackling. I concurred, having given them a listen myself.

So, here is where I had learned the big lesson. We have some nasty cow diseases in this world, and if you are going to be certified organic as a dairy, you better have antibiotics on hand, give them to the cow, and ship her next door immediately to the conventional dairy, where she can continue her career. In the U.S., once you’ve gotten an antibiotic, you’re done, but you don’t want to wait on the antibiotic either. It must be given quickly, for it to have a chance to do its quick work.

I had a chance, nearly two weeks later, to put this all into practice when victim #4 presented this past Saturday evening. Milking guy texted us after 11pm and told us Pippin had just shown up to milking with very low production compared to the morning, and had a temp of 104. He had released her to the pack bedding. I found her there laying down, and tried to get her up. She was weak and couldn’t even get up. It was working that quickly. I immediately went and got 20cc of flunixine, with a 1.5 inch 16 gage needle, and I got 19 cc of Excede, with a 1 inch 16 gage needle.

I watched a quick review video on where to give the Excede, and then headed out.

Pippin was laying there and made a good patient without me having to tie her off anywhere. First, I gave her the Excede, and then, once again without even having to tie her or have a second person pull her head around, I put the needle into the jugular vein and gave the flunixine meglumine.

Pippin stayed down the following morning, which was Sunday. She could not get up. However, we cleared out the pack, made it her hospital pen, and pumped 5 gallons of electrolyte water into her, and gave her lots of food and vitamin b plus probiotics. She did not have a high temperature and was ravenous with her appetite. This is why the Banamine is so important in this treatment protocol.

That afternoon, we put the sling on Pippin, after she had been down almost 15 hours and clearly was not going to be able to get herself up. Any time I lift a cow who has been down for any amount of time, getting them to take weight on the rear is a bit of work. With Pippin, it took 5 minutes, and I had to set her down at least two or three times, but she finally activated all of her legs, and took her own weight and tried to walk off while she is still attached to the tractor (I use a Gradall forklift to lift because I can extend out to the cow without even having to drive into the barn).

We did not milk her at all on Sunday, but we ensured she drank at least 10 more gallons of water on top of the 5 I had pumped into her, and we made sure she ate a lot and was on the comfortable pack. She spent 6 hours on her feet, and laid down. At 11:30 PM, I checked on her and saw her try to rise, but she wasn’t quite capable.

On Monday, I went to her at 0545 to raise her and saw her try to rise, but fail. As I was extending the forks to her, she decided she wasn’t going to be an invalid who needed tractor assistance and managed to get herself up. I was very glad to see that.

She stayed up for 4 hours, sling on, but joining the herd in the field. They came back and laid down before milking, and we held Pippin back from the parlor so she could rest more. I saw her get herself up and immediately took her to the parlor for milking. Our protocol is – if you can get yourself up multiple times in a row, we take the sling off. So, I did so.

As I write this, she is out with the herd grazing the green grass, and there is even rain falling. Hurray. I can see them all well from my office window.

The lesson here: dairy cow pneumonia is deadly serious. As such, it needs to be dealt with swiftly, and preferably with a conventional treatment specifically targeted to the bacteria that is going to do the real damage (even if initial onset is viral). Flunixine meglumine is also very important because it helps alleviate fever and inflammation (protecting the lungs from damage) and keeping the cow feeling better and eating.

Every dairy cow owner should have appropriate antibiotics on hand and know how to administer them. Having your cow present Saturday night, and calling the vet Sunday afternoon, or worse, Monday, is likely going to end up in a bovine fatality.

Final note: What was the stressor that caused all these cows to get sick? I had no idea pneumonia could be so common in a beautiful and even rain-less spring, but as it turns out, a rainless spring probably had a lot to do with it. The days have been sunny and warm – like 70 degrees warm. This led to the cows shedding their winter coats. The clear nights however, at our northern latitude, and being rural, have significant cooling. In the past weeks, we have had 70 degree days and 23 degree nights. That is a huge fluctuation for any being that lives outside to deal with, and that causes stress on the animal. Add to this the changing diet as they go back to grass and come up in production, and we had a real-life epidemic on our hand.

I am hoping nobody else presents in the coming weeks, and we are watching them closely. However, at least we are ready.

I recommend anyone who owns cows to not only have the appropriate medicines on hand and know how to administer them, but also have a thermometer, a stethoscope, and know some basic diagnostic skills. What would be really nice to have would also be the sling shown in the photo below on Pippin, a tractor to pick her up with, a soft bedding to put a down cow on, and a cattle pump system for giving fluids. The reason why we like having a sling is that when a big animal is down, they develop issues from the compression that occurs from their own weight compressing their muscles and nerves. Pretty soon, you may solve the issue that initially put them down, but then you aren’t able to get her back up because she is physically damaged from being down. This can lead to fatality. The cattle pump system is important because when cows are sick, they typically don’t drink enough. In warm weather, a dairy cow needs 10 percent of her body weight in water intake daily. For Pippin, that is slightly over 15 gallons. Being able to pump that in ensures she gets what she needs and doesn’t develop the myriad of problems that dehydration will cause. Of course, if you cow is drinking significant quantities, there is no need to pump, which is why we only pumped once in Pippin’s situation, and we mostly did this so we could give her electrolytes as well. Pippin will not voluntarily drink water with electrolytes in it.

Victim #4 – Pippin